Tag Archives: feelings

Exchanging ourselves for another

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Everyone has heard, at some point in their lives, the advice that they should  ‘think of someone worse off than themselves’.  It’s not always welcome, and it’s not always that easy to do.  Our own pain, whether physical or emotional, can be so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine anything worse.  Unintentionally, we are frequently rendered more selfish, more self-absorbed, by our own suffering.

But if we can, for one moment, put that pain aside, we will be able to see that, yes, indeed, there are many others who are in worse pain, who are suffering more than we are.  So we have a choice. We can allow our own suffering to shut us off from others, or we can use it to connect more deeply with the trials of those around us.  To acknowledge our common humanity.  To realise that even those who we feel ‘have it all’, will be struggling with their own private demons.

And so the first step is to not run away from our pain, but to look straight at it. To really see it for what it is.  To truly feel our emotions and to stay with them.  If we are sad, to really be sad, not to shut it away and numb ourselves with something else.  If we are angry, to experience how that anger makes us feel, without acting it out – yes, it’s hard!

And then we can start to think of others who are feeling the same thing – in their own way, and their own circumstances, yes, but just to acknowledge that there are others who we know, as well as millions who we don’t know, who are suffering  the same despair, fear, anger – whatever it is.  Millions of people experiencing their own pain.

And this is not just a logical, mental acknowledgement, it is an emotional process.  We feel our own pain, and we feel that of everyone else.  And, ironically, this can help to strengthen us in our own time of need.  We are not alone in our suffering any longer.  We no longer feel so helpless.  We are more able to extend ourselves to help others.

Because strength isn’t all about solidity, it’s about softness.  In Dru yoga, we soften the joints, even in ‘strong’ postures, so that we don’t block energy from flowing freely around the body.  Whilst we move from a strong core, we maintain a fluidity of movement through the body, learning where to soften and let go.  True strength comes from flowing through our lives with courage and determination, not from standing still and building up the walls between ourselves and those around us. Knowing when to accept help from others, and when to offer it. It can be wonderful to feel the effects of a beautiful yoga posture or sequence – but even more wonderful to send those benefits to someone who is in need of them –  whether or  not they are capable of accessing them for themselves.  When I teach Energy Block Release 3 in my class, a profound heart-opening sequence, we always pause at the end, hands in Namaste, to experience the peace generated by the movements, and each of us is then able to ‘send out’ that peace to anyone who comes to mind in that moment.

The Buddhist practice of tonglen is the exchange of ourselves for another. It reverses our natural tendency to run away from what we perceive as bad (suffering) and instead encourages us to embrace it.  It turns our natural tendency to shield ourselves from hurt on its head.  It gives us courage and strength, by allowing us to truly experience our weakness.  As Pema Chodron writes,

‘It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts’

~ Pema Chodron,’When Things Fall Apart’

We start by identifying our pain, and we breathe it in. On our outbreath, we breathe out softness, relief, and send it out.  This is a very powerful practice – instead of saying ‘no’ to what we see as ‘bad’, we say ‘yes, OK, this is how things are’.  We are accepting what is. Then we can think of someone else who is in similar pain – physical or emotional – and we breathe in their pain, too. We allow all this pain to open us, to free us, and we breathe out, softening and sending out this softness to them as well.  We can then move on to everyone who is sad,  angry, has a headache – whatever it may be – and  on our outbreath, send out that relief to them all.

When we have had a disagreement with someone, instead of isolating ourselves and allowing ourselves to make ourselves right and them wrong, we can instead try to breathe in their anger, opening ourselves to their viewpoint, and breathe out the softness, the spaciousness that we find. When we are anxious and troubled about someone, we identify with their pain, making it bigger than our own feelings about them.  We breathe in their pain and send out relief on our outbreath. There really are no limitations to this practise.  Whenever we feel good, we send it out.  Whenever we feel bad, we breathe it in. We can use it in formal meditation practice, or on the spot, whenever we remember.

If you have experience of working with tonglen, I’d love to hear about it.  If you haven’t and decide to give it a try, let me know how you get on.

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Opening the heart

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heart-1213481_1280Many times in my previous posts, I’ve written about the need for us to stay with our difficult emotions, rather than to run away and hide from them.  When we run away, or try to ignore our more challenging feelings, we make them even bigger than they really are.  If we take respite in our usual mental processes, making ourselves right and the whole world wrong, the effort of holding on so tightly to our own beliefs can be literally exhausting.  If we run away and pretend  everything is fine, those same feelings will usually surface again the next time we feel pushed and squeezed by the circumstances of our lives.

Sometimes our feelings are just so huge that they cannot be ignored, and we cannot run away.  At these times, we find that very shaky, insecure being we actually are behind the solid walls we like to create –  the persona we like to present to the world.  We become more truly ourselves.  It takes real courage to face this part of ourselves head on.  But if you imagine that all your dammed-up emotions are like a fortress, then a crisis can be quite liberating – although it certainly won’t feel like it at the time.

When everything feels wrong, when we cannot feel good about ourselves, it’s time to allow what seems like a disaster to open us up, to soften us and to chip away at those fortress walls.  As Pema Chodron writes, in ‘When Things Fall  Apart’,

“It’ s a kind of testing, the kind of testing that spiritual warriors need in order to awaken their hearts.”

We find the softness deep in our hearts.  We start to dissolve the barriers we have built up over the years. We learn to truly experience our own suffering, both large and small, and so develop more empathy for the trials of others.  We begin to tune in to the true quality of our heart chakra, Anahata.  We find compassion for others as well as for ourselves.  We develop maitri, or loving-kindness. We welcome the opportunities we encounter to grow – embracing our disappointments, our sadness, our anger.  The good news is we don’t need to go out of our way to find these opportunities – we will all find that plenty come our way!

 

An abundance of turquoise cars!

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Have you ever noticed that  you see more and more of the things your mind dwells on?  When we were planning a house move, I saw ‘For Sale’ signs everywhere we went, but as soon as we were no longer looking, I just stopped even noticing them.

My son and I often play a game when we are travelling in the car, where we count  cars of certain colours.  We started off counting cars in colours that were easy to spot, maybe silver, blue or black.  But then he started suggesting more unusual colours, which we thought we would be lucky to see.  On one occasion, within half a mile of our home, he suddenly said he would look for turquoise cars and that I would spot pink!  Well, I didn’t see the pink car that day, but he did see turquoise around the very next corner!  For the next few days, he would say that he would spot turquoise – and it was amazing just how many turquoise cars there were!  I started noticing them even when I was driving on my own – and one day I was able to tell him that I had seen five turquoise cars, just on one roundabout! We moved on to lime green (dark green was too easy!) – not quite the same results, but still more than I would ever have expected.

So the things we are concerned with, the  things our mind dwells on, are what we tend to notice in our lives. So if our expectations of life are  more and more stress, bad luck and unhappiness, that is what we tend to encounter.  We will notice the bad things, and the happy events will fail to cheer us up as much as they could.  On the other hand, if we anticipate  that our lives will be generally happy, then that will be our experience.  We will notice the good, and weather the bad times more easily.  We cultivate a more optimistic state of mind.  We see the best of our situation, and magnify it by the power of our attention.  I would rather magnify the good than the bad.  

But we  all have genuinely horrible days, dreadful days where it all goes wrong.  At such times, it can be truly too difficult to see anything good in our lives.  It can seem as if we will never smile again.

At these times, the best we can do – and this can be hard in itself – is to avoid magnifying the bad and making it even worse.  Just trying to stay with the bad feelings, without spinning off in all directions, thinking we know how it is all going to work out.  We don’t.  One of the hardest – and bravest – things we will ever have to do is to stay with our negative emotions without trying to smother them.  However bad it seems, just knowing that it will get easier, without us trying to find a way out.  Making sure we don’t block out the sunshine with our own personal raincloud.  Remembering we don’t know it all.  Remembering that we probably have felt this way before, even if we don’t think it was this bad.  It most likely was, and we most likely will get over it this time, in just the same way.

And in the worst of times, remembering the best of times.  Not blocking out what happiness is still there for us.  Just keeping that awareness in the corner of our minds, and, if we can, maintaining those practices which make us feel  good.  Not to run away from the difficult feelings, but to learn from them.  Pema Chodron writes movingly in her book ‘When Things Fall Apart’, about how our emotions soften us and help us develop spiritually.  We learn to stop building up our armour against the slings and arrows of life, but to let them open us up to life in its entirety.  If we only take notice of the ‘good’, then we will never see that which we label as ‘bad’ as anything other than an interruption in the charmed life we believe is our right.  Not much growth going on there.  But if we can learn from the whole pattern of our lives, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, then we will surely continue to grow, day by day.

Celebrations

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We are just coming up to a 4-day weekend for the Diamond Jubilee, and the flags and bunting are going up everywhere.  It’s a big event, once-in-a-lifetime (I was quite young for the Silver Jubilee back in the 70s, and don’t remember a lot about it!).  On top of this, we will be hosting the Olympics this summer, and most of us are feeling at our most patriotic.  We are fostering our sense of belonging and security at our base chakra, at a national level.

It is so important to have something to celebrate in our lives.  Not necessarily, and certainly not only the big things, but all the little things as well.  Our own birthdays, those of our families and friends, Christmas, Easter, whatever festivals  are in your own tradition.  It can be all too easy to get bogged down in the more humdrum aspects of our daily lives, and to forget the wonder that such events can bring.  As adults, we may say we don’t care about our birthday, it’s  ‘just another year older’ – but this sort of thinking can certainly make us feel older.  Children would never say such a thing – and nobody would get the chance to forget their day!  Now, I’m not suggesting that we should go and tell the whole world when our birthday is coming up, but rather that we take the time to think what we would like to do on our birthday.  Even if we have to go to work, to think of some small – or enormous! – way to mark the day.  To see or talk to our closest family and friends, to visit a place we love or would like to see for the first time.  If we most love to cook and share good food,  to do just that.  To have some quiet time if that is what we would truly value.

And, even on our ‘ordinary days’, to reflect upon the things that have made them special, whatever that may be.  It could be some goal that we have achieved, a book we have read, some music we listened to, a yoga sequence we have practised, a meal that we ate, a walk by the sea, the people we have spent time with.  Let us not assume our happiness comes only from the ‘high days and holidays’, but that it comes from within us.  And the more we notice and pay attention to the ways in which we can foster those good feelings, the more we celebrate that which is good about our daily lives, the better we will feel.

One of my yoga teachers once remarked that she has a little holiday every day.  By which she meant that, whenever she really needed it, she practised some yoga or meditation during each day.  What a wonderful idea!  Not feeling a sense of duty about our practice, but using  it to lift our energy and our spirits.  Sometimes it can take only a few conscious breaths to alter our mood and our perception of our situation.  At other times, it may take some movement, whether flowing or energetic.  We may need some quiet time in meditation.  We may need to listen to some uplifting or calming music, or to get outside in the fresh air. It doesn’t necessarily need to take very long.  With Jin Shin Jyutsu, we may use the finger holds (mudras), to subtly identify and change our dominant emotions.  It doesn’t matter what works for you, it only matters that you do something to make every day that little bit special, to give you something to celebrate and be thankful for at the end of the day.

What do you do that makes your day flow more easily?

Family life and spiritual development

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walk-familysunset Unless you are a nun or a monk living remotely from others, you will have the additional challenge of developing or maintaining your spiritual practice alongside many personal, social and work commitments.  Some teachers have suggested that this is so difficult to do that most serious aspirants will find themselves shedding relationships along the way. For those of us who wish to develop or maintain a spiritual practice as well as our existing commitments to our families and friends, the going might be tough, but it is possible.

In my last post, I wrote about the challenge of finding time to maintain or to begin a yoga or meditation practice within the context of family life.  Today, I want to look more deeply at how our daily lives can feed into our practice.

The mindfulness practice discussed previously is a powerful way to make every moment rich with potential for spiritual awareness. Think of the wonder a small child displays about his or her world. The freshness, the newness of their eyes.  A walk with a toddler can take so long, as they pause to examine a leaf, a twig, or a stone every few steps. Going that same route alone, we tend to be focused on our destination, barely noticing our surroundings. Yet how much richer our experience would be if we took the time to really look around us as we walk, to develop an appreciation for our neighbourhood, for the beauty of nature, and to take time to smile at those we meet along the way. The world becomes a much friendlier and lovelier place!

Jesus said that people would need to become like small children to enter the kingdom of heaven. If we pause to consider what this means, I think it touches on this innocence and sense of wonder that our children have. We need to become more open to the inherent joy and beauty of our lives.  And on the days that this joy is hard to come by, how often do you find that happiness in the company of your child?  In their unconditional love for you, their parent?  That simplicity of a child’s outlook, when a cuddle with a loved one puts so much right – we can really learn from that!

But I think another way we can learn from our children is in the way they live in the moment. Toddlers and young children are known for their tantrums and fluctuating emotions. I’m not suggesting that we start to follow their example and throw our own tantrums – although many of us do display our own adult versions at times!  Very young children may still be learning to cope with their strong feelings, but they don’t usually bottle them up and repress them in the way they might when they get older.  They really feel them!  They really show them! They’re upset – they cry.  They’re angry or frustrated – they shout or hit.  But the main difference between a young child and an older child or an adult, is that they then tend to let that emotion pass – the energy of the emotion subsides, and they will generally return to their more sunny selves.  What a lesson!  Children just are more present in the moment than us.  They may act out their feelings, but then they let them go.  If the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is taken in the sense of being in touch with our own spirit through our presence and our awareness, then children are winning hands down.

The sad thing is that as we teach our children to cope with their feelings, we could inadvertently be teaching them to store them up, to suppress them, and then their emotions may stop coming out in that same instant, cleansing way it did when they were small.  Somehow we need to find balance in the way we help our children cope with their feelings – to encourage them to show their feelings, albeit in slightly less dramatic ways than a toddler tantrum.  We need to be clear with our children that all their feelings are acceptable, even though some actions are not.  We must not make it seem as though sadness or anger, for example, are not allowed – they’re very much real emotions, even if, from our adult perspective, the feeling seems out of proportion to the cause.  We will encourage our children to share their feelings with us, if we extend ourselves, every time we can manage, with empathy and concern; if we genuinely listen to what they are saying and wonder why they are saying it. Remembering that we do not have all the answers, and just because we might not like what our child is saying, doesn’t make it wrong. Honouring our child’s individuality, and his or her right to their own feelings. Loving the fact that they are not a little extension of ourselves, but have their own unique spirit.  And helping them to maintain – and ourselves to rediscover – that presence they had when they first came into the world.

What other ways have you found yourself learning from your child?  In what ways do you think your practice actually grows with your family, despite having less time for asana or meditation practice?  Leave a reply – I’d love to hear your experience!

Being in the flow

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In my last post, I wrote about the importance of being able to stay with our uncomfortable feelings, and to let them pass. In my yoga teaching and therapy practice, as well as in my own personal life, it is evident that we really struggle with our emotions, and may hold on to perceived hurts for long after the event which caused them.  We may feed our sadness or our anger, dwelling on the events or circumstances of our lives to which we attribute the emotion, going over and over it in our minds.  We can have a relatively small encounter which upsets us, and by repeatedly bringing it to mind, we can blow it out of all proportion;  when it’s a more significant event, we can hold on to the associated feelings for years.  Once we dwell on and feed an emotion, it can become a part of us.  It is no longer just an energy flowing uncomfortably – but ultimately harmlessly – through us.  Instead, it crystallizes and becomes an attitude.

We all have these attitudes or outlooks, which can affect our whole lives and the way in which others perceive us.  We all know people who we would describe as angry, sad, fearful or anxious – as well as those we would think of as basically happy, giving and forgiving types.  We also flit in and out of these modes of being throughout our own lives.  So what started as a brief, passing sensation can last much longer and colour our whole life.

But just because the attitude has begun to dominate our general mood, doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever.  The emotion may seem to have solidified, even to have become immovable, and yet it can still melt away once we become aware of it and begin to work with it.  Even if anger has become such a basic part of our nature that we react irritably to minor events and explode when faced with bigger challenges; even if we are so fearful that we feel we cannot move forward in our lives.  Things which seem permanent can change and dissipate over time.

Firstly, we need awareness.  We must not close our eyes to the way we are.  We must see the difference between the way we would like to be, and the way we truly are.  Not judging, but seeing kindly, with compassion for the difficult parts of ourselves.

Secondly, we need to desire change, and to create the space to change.  One way we create this space is through the breath; through meditation.  Just sitting quietly – watching the breath, stilling the mind.  Noticing the space between the inbreath and the outbreath.  Calming the mind so that the endless chatter starts to ease away.  An analogy often used is that of  the sky – letting our thoughts be like clouds, just floating through our minds without holding on to them or spinning off in all directions.  In this way, we slowly learn to  stop fanning the flames of our emotions, and to be less reactive in our wider lives.  Whilst we are learning – and this may be for the rest of our lives! – we must continue to be kindly observant of ourselves, to reflect on our progress and not only our inevitable failings.  And whilst we are developing this kindness for ourselves, and learning not to identify with our difficult feelings – acknowledging, for example, that anger is a passing energy rather than turning ourselves into ‘an angry person’ – we could also think more kindly of the difficult people in our lives, allowing that they too can be other than the way we perceive them.

Feeling your emotions…

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We call our emotions feelings, yet sometimes – or even, usually – we do anything and everything to avoid feeling them. When is the last time you really allowed an emotion to flood your body and then stayed with it?  If you felt sad, did you just allow that feeling to be with you, feel where it affected your body, whether it made you feel heavy in a particular place, or did you try to smother it by distracting yourself with television, reading or food – maybe two or all three of these at once?   If you felt angry, did you just notice how it made you feel on the inside, or did you act it out, shouting, stamping your foot in impatience and frustration?

And did your actions, in the end, make you feel any better?  Or did you, after an outburst or too much chocolate, just feel ashamed and wish you’d behaved differently? Our negative emotions – feelings – are such powerful sensations, that they tend to scare us and make us deny them as far as possible.  But different emotions affect us in different ways – they may make us feel heavy, as in sadness, hot, as in anger, or paralysed with fear.  When was the last time you managed to stay with those uncomfortable sensations, to truly experience them and watch them pass?  However intense those feelings, they usually start to subside surprisingly quickly if they are allowed to.

Emotions are simply energy states in the body. Some, such as anger, are high energy states, whilst others, such as sadness, are very low energy states. Our clumsy attempts to deal with unwelcome emotions usually try to redress the energy balance – for example, when we act out our anger, we release some of our excess energy by shouting or slamming doors. When we feel sad, if we try to make ourselves feel better with stimulants such as chocolate or alcohol, we lift our energy levels, at least temporarily.

But the difference if we attempt to simply observe our emotional states can be so revealing. We can feel the emotion on a physical level, and truly experience the ancient wisdom which finds the seat of worry in the stomach, sadness and grief in the lungs, and anger in the liver. We feel the discomfort of the emotion, we stay with it, and let it go. In meditation, we simply observe each sensation as it arises, and learn to stay in the moment, regardless of whether we perceive that moment as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We learn to create a space between our feelings and our actions, a lesson we can begin to apply in our daily lives.

The more we maintain and honour our meditation practice, the more present we manage to stay in our daily lives, and the less reactive we become. When we feel pushed by the circumstances of our lives, we find it harder and harder to maintain the space between our feelings and our actions, and the more we react, the more of a habit that reaction becomes. Our regular meditation practice can help us to keep that space, and help us be brave enough to feel our feelings – ‘good’ or ‘bad’.