Pretty messy


Most of us find our way to mindfulness because we’re looking to relax. It’s renowned for stress management, and you don’t have to wait long to see results in that regard. Even a short moment or two of a mindfulness practice can reduce your heart rate, slow a racing mind and shift your body out of “fight or flight” mode. That’s why we love it, right? Of course, if you like it enough to add it to your repertoire and keep at it, you start to see other benefits as well. You may notice more clarity in your decision-making, find you have a longer fuse in challenging conversations, or feel compassion towards a person who usually annoys you to no end. It all sounds very zen, and who doesn’t love that? I could go for that all day.

There’s something interesting that happens when you start noticing more, though: not everything you observe makes you feel zen. This may mean some uncomfortable thoughts or emotions bubble up in the midst of your mindfulness practice. You thought you were over that conversation, that struggle, that relationship, but it’s still there. You thought you weren’t upset about that thing that happened last week, but it’s starting to feel like maybe you are. It’s okay, though, because as you know, the idea is to observe without judgment, and make the choice about how to respond to whatever you encounter, just as you do when it’s happening externally, in real time.

Mindfulness is a top-notch internal housekeeper. Let it work long enough, and it’s going to find some stuff you thought you either already got rid of, or stashed so far away that it was as good as gone. You’re in charge, though, so if you want to put it back, you can. Seriously, it’s ok. It will be there, and now, you know that.

You might, however, find there comes a day when you choose to work with it. Note that I said work, and not struggle, tackle, dismantle or decimate. Interesting thing about negative emotions – and emotions in general, actually – engaging them just helps them grow. That’s fun when you’re feeling great, but a sticky trap when you aren’t. I mean, think about it. You get mad that you’re feeling angry, and well…that’s just more anger. You internally berate yourself for not being over your ex, or reaching a goal, or being perfect, and now you’re just sad, and more sad. Diabolical, isn’t it?  Emotions are physical experiences, but they can also become internal narratives that we construct and repeat on a loop, prolonging and growing them on a continuous basis. Mindfulness can help you step off of that merry-go-round, and away from that story.

Encountering something within yourself that makes you feel less than fabulous is no different than facing an external stimulus that has the same effect. Both of them create a response that is uncomfortable. So just as when you realize someone’s getting under your skin in a conversation, your strategy here starts with observation. Just notice. “Wow, that’s frustration/disappointment/anger, etc.” How does that emotion feel? No really, I mean it. Does it give you a headache, or make your stomach turn? Observing these details – although unpleasant – actually helps you see the emotion as an experience, rather than a characteristic of yourself. Experiences come and go. They have a beginning, middle and an end. The only constant across them is you.

If you can think of anytime you’ve been disappointed about something and then gotten over it, you know this is true. There was a time when you weren’t disappointed, then you were, and then you weren’t. You may have been intensely hurt or sad at the time, and now those feelings have either muted, or are gone. They can’t stick around for long without an invitation from you to do so.

Now, I know this is asking a lot, so I’ll go back to the point that you can choose to abstain from all of this. If you want your mindfulness practice to simply be about relaxation, you have every right to make it so. But, it’s helpful to know that if uncomfortable things do bubble up, it’s totally normal, and you can choose to set them aside. You’re in charge of what comes out of storage, and what doesn’t.

It’s your house, so to speak, and your first responsibility is always to take care of it. Just find your breath, notice without judgment, and keep moving. According to one of my favorite quotes, “You are the sky; everything else is just the weather.” Whatever is happening will pass, and you will still be there, clearer than ever, when it does.

Photo credit: Mike Petrucci

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