Allowing What Is: Mindfulness of Emotions

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In my work as a psychologist, every day I am in the presence of someone struggling with a situation, a relationship, or an emotion that they want to change or control. People ask for answers, work toward change, demand solutions, and search for ways to make the pain stop, the anxiety abate, and the difficulties to ease. Much of therapy is designed to help people find the solutions they seek. Cognitive therapy, as I’ve elaborated upon in the Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life podcast series, provides emotional relief by helping individuals discover and modify the self-defeating, dysfunctional beliefs that contribute to feelings like sadness or anger. Psychodynamic therapy, another form of treatment that I offer, helps individuals attain insight into the unconscious causes and conflicts that lead to difficulties. The more I practice mindfulness, however, the more I recognize the immense benefits of accepting life on its own terms, and allowing it to be. A distinction may be made between pain and suffering. A familiar Buddhist proverb suggests that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Shinzen Young, a prominent Buddhist writer and thinker, proposes a mathematical formula to illustrate this idea: Suffering = Pain x Resistance. The energy we put into resisting difficult emotions and situations actually exacerbates the degree of pain and anxiety we experience; it causes suffering. Therefore, I work with my clients to allow whatever they may be feeling to simply be as it is. When a negative thought or feeling arises, our natural inclination is to try and push it away. If we pay attention, we realize that by resisting an emotion or experience, we are focusing on the past (before the feeling or situation occurred) or the future (a time when we anticipate that the problem we’re experiencing will be solved, or a feeling will have passed). In so doing, we are creating distance between ourselves and the present moment, the place where life is most accessible. We are alive in the here and now, in this moment. By turning our attention back to the present moment, and exploring the nuances of thought and feeling that exist in the now, we invite ourselves to be fully engaged in life. When we focus on what exists in the present, allowing all of the thoughts, feelings and sensations we find simply to be, we may ask ourselves, “can I allow this just to be as it is?” In so doing, we find that indeed, we can. We begin to realize that we are already coping with the very feelings we believe that we can not handle. We recognize, as if by magic, that the precise burden we fear will devastate us is one that we are, in fact, already carrying with grace. By asking ourselves “What is happening inside me right now?” we actually experience relief from the anxiety and sadness caused by ruminating on the past and worrying about the future. With mindfulness practice, we find that whatever exists in our emotional landscape is far more manageable than we previously believed. Most importantly, we realize that while we may HAVE painful emotions, we need not BE those emotions. We empower the observing self, the peaceful witness-self that can calmly allow experience to flow through us, without judgment or attachment. In my next several podcasts, I will guide listeners through some simple mindfulness techniques to help you practice allowing the thoughts and feelings that arise in each moment. Please check in regularly as I plan to post one or two new podcasts this week. Until then, practice saying “yes” to whatever you find in each passing moment.

By Dr. Marla Cohen 03/30/2013 09:32 PM

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