Navigating difficult emotions via the senses and not the mind….is that mindfulness or mind over what matters?
A friend of mine is beset by troubles: new pain atop old wounds and so forth. I am on my cell phone, in a parked car, and giving her my undivided attention. There’s a crisis and I’m all ears.
“If only I could process it all and just think it through clearly, I could ‘get rid’ of these yucky feelings’.
I know how she feels. And I’m just about to leap into the fray, her fray, with her, and attack the villain in the story. I’m almost salivating — who doesn’t like the invigorating feeling of a good fight?
But one day I stopped.
“You realize, I tell her, that Einstein’s famous line is: You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it. “You’ll just go round and round’
“Einstein said that?”
“Yes. And if that brilliant mind recognized the futility of his own great mind in solving certain things (without benefit of rest, new perspective, simple shifting of things), ‘How do you think the rest of us can do?
I’m not just talking to this friend — I am this friend. Like many of us, I’ve been caught in the clutches of a slew of thoughts that I believe are actually based on a situation I have to ‘solve’.
Worse, I get stuck in the mood of those thoughts. If I think something or someone has hurt me or is unfair, then I have to feel bad, victimized, and angry and so forth. It then reminds me of other situations that were similar and once I do that, the emotions magnify, the lousy chemicals (who doesn’t love that sluice of the stress cocktail: cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine) that come with these emotions as certain as a Chinese meal for two comes with 4 egg rolls, intensify.
I paw at a way to get over and outside these thoughts and mood but as long as I am thinking, thinking, thinking — I’ll never outrun it but I never stop trying. The habit of intellectual rationalizing emotions is the default activity for many of us.
Thing is, I can hang onto a problem longer and tighter than a puppy can latch onto a beef-and-bacon marinated chew toy. Emotions are tricky things. Unlike math equations or choosing the right size font for your Vista business card, there is not always an empirical pathway to ‘solving’ them. And in my heated angst of the moment, I don’t want to: forgive, let it go, surrender or be distracted. Despite my discomfort, I want to also ‘be right’. So until recently, I put my mind to work and made it work real hard in service to exhausting it and me.
Why and how did I stop?
Because — I have another friend who I’ll call Tina Romano because that is in fact her name. She’s a regression therapist and simply, a great therapist. She doesn’t believe in talking things out infinitum. I mean, clearly she does to some extent; after all, she’s a therapist but she has training in mindfulness for one thing. So if I call her (and impose on her as a friend) with some pique, cornered by the hot or dark emotions that are a by-product of some situation or event, she stops my rant. She simply asks: Where do you feel it?
“What? I feel it in my head! I’m angry, I was poorly treated and if I can see this in some other way, I can solve it’. What do you mean, where do I feel it? (Indignant, annoyed and wanting validation and solace)
“Maybe sooner or later you’ll have to do something or take practical action, but for now, she says, where do you feel it?
So I think. And then I stop thinking.
Where do I feel it?
I feel it in my tense solar plexus. I feel it in the tension in my neck and notice my hands are clenched.
Where do I feel it?
I notice I am breathing shallowly. I slow down. I breathe in slowly, exaggeratedly, and then breathe out.
I notice the sun in the room as I am on the phone with Tina. I feel tears, like rust, in my throat.
I hear birds, a touch of the wind at my windows and maybe the tick-tock of my LL Bean clock on my desk. These gentle sounds seem to re-emerge into the soundtrack of my life as I stop thinking quite so hard and just: be — just physically feel sensations instead of chasing them away by reason.
Thoughts give way to sensations and moods and as long as you try to think your way through sensations, you’ll never really get rid of it. It’s a light bulb moment.
“Keep breathing”, she says. “And now breathe into it’.
Breathe into it?
I breathe into my solar plexus, allowing things to relax a bit, to dissolve. I stop thinking for about 11 seconds. Everything feels softened. The intensity is lowered; I’m a bit limp and less vigilant. Somehow I’ve shifted.
When I get off the phone with Tina, I apologize to my heart for stressing it so much. I say ‘sorry’ to my mind which is so creative but I’ve hijacked with self-righteous pain and the hubris of outwitting legitimate hurt with intellect. I nod to my neural pathways and send them a mea culpa for hammering them unnecessarily into finite mouse mazes. All that good old neural wiring is so plastic; in fact, all this fascinating network wants is a chance to build some new and upbeat routes — if only I’d let it. It loathes the laziness habit of same old, same old; it and craves being asked to build new connections and responses. My mind and body really want what’s best for me which is what’s best for them. At the least, both mind and body want homeostatis; at the most we want to bounce upright again, like a cork bounces in the water that invariably right-side ups itself to get back to happy.
Maybe I do have a situation on my hands and I’ll have to deal. But if I do, and when I do, I’ll be clear-headed and not contracted in resistance which padlocks my finest thoughts and solutions.
Next time you’re pissed off or sad and stuck in an emotional loop that actually feels like reality, just try to remember if there’s something to solve in all that, you will. But first?
Where do you feel it?