We’ve all been there; out for a walk when the weather suddenly changes, caught in a sudden downpour in the wrong clothes. We did our best to find shelter, but the rain continued, so we decided to carry on walking. As we walked, the cold and uncomfortable wetness of the rain started to feel unpleasant. We entertained some self-critical thoughts about not taking an umbrella or looking at the weather forecast before setting off. After all, we reacted in the same way as most other people would, and felt uncomfortable and annoyed, “Why does it have to rain on me?”
We lead busy and demanding lives and can easily accumulate mental and emotional agitation and stress. This is often unacknowledged and carried over into the next moment, the next activity, and the rest of the day. Difficult situations can cause stress as well as unpleasant emotions like anger, anxiety, or sadness. Sometimes we push back on and resist difficulty. At other times, our impulse is to defend ourselves from these unwanted feelings, by ignoring and avoiding them altogether. Unnoticed and unacknowledged, the feelings remain in the background, triggering negative automatic thoughts, which end up amplifying and re-activating the emotion in a potentially endless loop, which increases and extends our suffering.
So, why do we do this, and is there a better way of working with difficulty?
Over hundreds of millions of years, the brain evolved to spot threats in the environment and take evasive action to survive. As humans, we have two systems for noticing and reacting to threats: the powerful and deliberate thinking of the neo-cortex that works from the top-down, and the much faster emotional system, which works from the bottom-up, from the brain stem and amygdala. Most of our senses are wired through the brain stem, which sits below the amygdala. The amygdala is like a central processor that reacts to perceived threats in our environment by triggering the fight-or-flight response to get the body ready for action. While this is very useful if you suddenly come across a lion, going into a stress response as you open an ominous-looking email, is not so helpful. Our body contracts, muscles tighten and the stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released.
Although emotions evolved before language and thoughts, they are useful and vital in at least three ways: they tell us that something needs attention, they drive us to act and they communicate how we feel to others. As humans, although we may acknowledge the power of emotions, we tend to be dominated by thoughts, so process things from the top-down. With mindfulness, we take a different approach. This is to notice thoughts, but also become more aware of what happens from the bottom-up, through the body. So, when that challenging email arrives, before running off in worrying thoughts about losing our job, we can try tuning into our body, where we may notice the body contracting and stress and anger starting to rise. We can then respond more skilfully by being open and accepting of what the email contains; allowing the experience to simply be as it is, without immediately wanting to change things, or for things to be different.
Acknowledging and allowing emotions to be “just as they are” involves breaking free of old reactive habits and takes a bit of trust and courage. Turning towards emotions like fear can seem like a huge unsurmountable wall, yet from the other side, we find that it’s just a single brick that we can easily step over. Just like the mighty Wizard of Oz, who turned out to be a harmless old man speaking into a machine behind a curtain.
- Being present to what’s going on in our body
- Coming out of the “virtual reality” of thoughts and directly connecting with our body
- Bringing kindness, openness, and curiosity to our experience
- Taking time to befriend painful and unpleasant emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety
- Applying less friction, for instance through resistance, and flowing with our experience
Life does not always go our way. Allowing is about turning towards and befriending our difficult feelings and emotions with openness and kindness and being aware of reactive impulses that arise. This allows feelings and negative thoughts to flow through us, rather than us holding onto them. Standing in the sea, facing the waves is a useful analogy. We can either brace ourselves against the wave as it crashes against us or bob up and down as it passes. With an attitude of acceptance and allowing, the sensations of the rain are not really that bad and when we get home, we can change our clothes and dry out and enjoy the rest of the day.
Suggested weekly practice
- Try asking, “what feelings am I not allowing?” and see what arises.
- Notice your impulse to want to change your experience. Instead, when you notice an unconformable emotion, try turning towards what you feel, including where the feeling resonates in the body, and explore what happens with curiosity.
- Bring kindness, openness, and self-compassion to what you feel and experience.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore allowing with your physical sensations, feelings, and emotions.
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