Photo by Nicolas Picard

Being present for our emotions

What is our relationship with our emotions? Emotions can be beautiful and enjoyable when they are positive. But the negative ones can make us feel very vulnerable. Most of us push them away and hide them in a dark corner of our mind. Can we escape them forever? And if not, how do we deal with them?

This time on planet Earth feels very heavy. It is frightening to many of us. Threat of war, of climate disasters. People are feeling disconnected from themselves and from each other.

Many of us have retreated into our heads. Our mind gives us a feeling of being in control. We analyze the outside world and try to make sense of it. We judge in order to define for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, so we know where we stand and what we are supposed to do. To most of us life feels safe when we can make sense of it. Even if it is the wrong sense. As long as we have some kind of clarity, it feels like we can deal with it.

But is the mind going to keep us safe forever? What if Pandora’s box, where we hid all unwelcome emotions, will open some day? People are experiencing that a lot of unhealed stuff is rising to the surface now. The #metoo movement is a good example of that. Issues that have been hidden in the darkness are now being revealed and we have to still deal with our own emotions about them.

Are we going to let our emotions take over then? Are we at the merci of fear, anger and sadness? When we allow our unhealed emotions to determine our actions, I doubt that we are going to create better outcomes.

There is another option though. We can choose to stay present with our emotions. It is not the easiest option and it requires mindfulness. It means that we allow all emotions to be, without resistance. It means we are willing to actually completely feel the emotion in the body. Without trying to escape.

This can be a real challenge, especially when it comes to intense emotions. Our survival instinct will keep us at a ‘safe’ distance. But we cannot escape forever. We will keep returning to these emotions until we are willing to face them and heal them. Once we get so fed up with this endless cycle of pain we will find the courage to do that.

There is one thing that I discovered that is very helpful when we decide we are ready to face our demons. I figured that what I really needed in such a moment is someone or something to keep me safe. But who is going to keep you safe when you are dealing with the internals of your mind? Another person can’t really go with you. I found out that no matter what is going to happen I can always choose to love myself. Even if what I was to experience would cause feelings of guilt or inadequacy, I could still get in touch with an even bigger power of unconditional love. That power was not something outside of myself, but it was something I could deliberately choose to apply to myself. I could surrender to a cocoon of loving, non-judgemental safety that would be present in the background while I was experiencing intense emotions. All it took was setting my intention to love (and forgive) myself, no matter what.

I started to practice staying present with my fears a couple of years ago. I was listening to some guided meditations. These meditations guided me to my inner world and I discovered that I couldn’t look at faces in my imagination. Whenever I would meet a person in my imagination and look into that person’s face, I would see a really scary face. The same thing happened whenever I had to open a door in my imagination. There would always be something scary behind those doors. Of course I knew that there was no real danger. It was just my own inner world that I was experiencing. But the fear was real. I then started practicing staying present and allowing whatever was out there to fully absorb me. In these moments I trusted my power to be that loving, safe parent for myself. That allowed me to move towards my fears instead of running away from them, and they started to soften, and lose their power over me. Whenever I now look into a face or open a door in my imagination, I can stay open and curious. I never experience that fear anymore.

Another example, more real life this time. It was winter and cold and our cat didn’t come home. And the next day he was still gone. I had already asked the neighbors in the street to check their sheds, to see if he was locked in. I had given him up as missing on a website. I had hung posters of our cat in our neighborhood, hoping someone had seen him. I felt really worried. So many ‘what ifs’ appeared in my mind. I knew the most sensible thing to do was to be present with my fears. To allow the uncertainty of what had happened, the ‘what ifs’ to remain unresolved without me falling prey to extreme stress. To know something and to actually practice it are two different things, but back then my mindfulness was sufficiently strong to apply this knowledge to my situation. The fears calmed down, returned again (more presence needed), and calmed down. It was manageable. It took 10 cold winter days, and then one morning, as if nothing happened, he returned back home.

A few years later he did it again. Another ‘vacation’, as we called it. And I noticed that it was already much easier for me to stay present.

What is going on in the world today, and in our personal lives, will give us a lot of practice material. It can be intense. May we remember those two powerful tools that we have and that will make our journey so much easier: the power to be present with our emotions, without running away, and the power to give a loving quality to that presence. A loving, allowing, safe awareness. A safe container of presence that forms the background of our experience.

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