Tag: difficult emotions

Impermanence in the Park

I felt the weight pressing down on me, the burden of everything that I hadn’t fully processed beginning to hit me. There was no one thing that I could point to that could explain why I was feeling this way. “I’m so sad,” I kept silently repeating to myself. The little stresses that arose at work only made me feel worse. Periodically checking Twitter, only to see another heartbreaking piece of news in my feed, was certainly not helping the mood. “I’m so sad, and I’m lonely.”

I closed my eyes and tried to focus on what I was feeling. My heart felt like someone had tethered a stone to it. My eyes had that not-quite-crying feeling, the pre-cursor of the breakdown that was just waiting for the right shoe to drop before the floodgates rushed open. I sat for a few minutes, telling myself I was just being with my emotions, but really I just wanted the feelings to go away. I decided that I needed to go for a walk.

I locked the door of the shop and walked out onto the trail that winds through the park and into downtown. As I walked, the voice inside continued it’s repetitive mantra, “I’m so sad.” I knew that this wasn’t useful. I turned my attention to my thoughts, observing them as they arose. The phrase came to my mind again, but this time I remembered something that I had heard recently about the fact that we will say, “I AM sad,” when what we really mean is, “I am FEELING sad.” I thought about this for a moment, and realized that I had spent all morning creating this sad and lonely me in my head. “What I feel in this moment is not who I am,” I told myself, “and it doesn’t mean I will feel this way in the next moment, let alone the next day, or week.”

park bench
Photo freely given by Will Paterson on Unsplash

I continued my walk, making my way into the park. I continued to observe my thoughts and feelings as I walked. My realization had not caused my sadness to disappear, but I did notice that what I had viewed as being a steady sadness was actually a fluctuating field of emotions. True, the overall color of my mood had been melancholy, but it changed with the various conditions of the day. I listened to the sound of children playing in the fountain and felt a slight warmth at their enjoyment. There was a group of young musicians, sitting along a brick wall, a makeshift band with two guitarists and a percussionist beating an upside down bucket. I listened for a moment, and smiled. I continued walking and saw an elderly couple, walking hand-in-hand, and felt a bittersweetness at the thought of enduring love contrasted against the ending of my marriage.

I observed each of these internal changes as I walked, recognizing the impermanence of each as they shifted. I thought about the effects of the various causes and conditions that held sway over my mind and heart. I felt a tinge of joy briefly emerge at this moment of understanding, then disappear just as quickly.

Today I met some friends for lunch, and one of them asked me how I was doing. “I’m doing okay today,” I told him. “It just depends on when you ask me. Some days are better than others.” This is true, but it’s not the whole truth. Each moment dies and gives birth to a new one. There are moments of feeling sadness, and there are moments of feeling joy. There are moments of feeling lonely, and there are moments of feeling connected to everything. The important thing is to be in each moment.

Using Meditation as a Drug

I’ve talked a little in a previous post about how difficulty in my personal life originally brought me to meditation. Discovering these practices helped pull me out of a dark period of my life, and have continued to be useful to me as a means of confronting difficult emotions and the events that lead to them. As I continue to work through some of these issues, I have seen that there is a difference between using my practice to skillfully face the things that arise in my life, and in turning to my practice as a means to numb myself to them.

As a culmination of a two year process, my wife and I recently came to an agreement that we would be separating. Although the events of the last couple of years have already caused me to deal with many of the most painful parts of this experience, this has still been a difficult development for me. I have been determined to be present with my sadness, anger, and the plethora of other emotions that I have been feeling this time around. In talking to my meditation and Dharma teacher this week, she brought up the fact that I needed to remain mindful not to use my practice as a means to numb what I’m feeling. I can honestly say that I haven’t been doing that to this point, but the reminder that this can be a seductive choice is a valuable one.

meditating by a lake
Photo freely given by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Looking back at my practice over the last couple of years, I can definitely see times when I used meditation as a means of getting over some difficult emotion or another. Joseph Goldstein often refers to this type of behavior as being an example of “in-order-to mind.” I am focusing on my breath in-order-to calm down my feelings of anger, or running to my cushion in-order-to get past my depressed feeling. In fact, my initial foray into meditation was all predicated on the idea that it could help me get over my depression and anxiety. While this kind of practice did sometimes give me temporary relief, it didn’t really treat the actual diseases of greed, hatred, and delusion, which manifested themselves in my sadness and fear.

In working with the Fifth Precept, I’ve discovered that my practice can become an unexpected intoxicant that can cloud my mind. True mindfulness requires that I be aware of my difficult emotions, engaging with them fully. While relief from suffering can thankfully be a side effect of this practice, the real benefit is in growing in liberation from the root causes of my suffering. When we use our practice to avoid our feelings, we are basically just putting them on layaway, where we will eventually have to pick them up, and often the payment will have interest applied.

Every morning as I say the words, “I undertake to abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind,” I have been examining my intentions to watch for the desire to escape my feelings in my practice. I don’t want to avoid these feelings. I want to be present with them, and learn what they have to teach me. This is all part of my path.

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