When the Buddha received enlightenment under the Bodhi tree he understood that life is full of suffering and that we suffer more because of our attachments.
If we spend a few minutes alone in silence it becomes apparent how attached we are to the outcome of our efforts, how attached we are to our identities and the stories we tell, and how attached we are to wanting things to be different either in the past or the present.
Why is being present so difficult? Why is it so challenging to accept ourselves and be gentle with our pain? What pushes us to continually distract, avoid, or try to escape our pain?
The simple answer is that this conditioning didn’t start with us. It’s generational and environmental. Just as we have been shaped by it, those under our care will be too.
We are taught early not to feel. Most parents, well intentioned, try to distract or punish negative emotions in their children. Most adults become overwhelmed when dealing with the big emotions of toddlers and often project the problem on to the child’s behavior. Expressing negative emotions is viewed as a character flaw rather than as a necessary core of human experience.
When my nervous system cannot tolerate my negative emotions, then how can I hold space for another person or a child who is in the midst of a stormy emotion? Ironically, when we are shut down to our own negative emotions we are also shut down to the opposite ones and spend our lives avoiding being touched by either the depth of grief or the height of joy that is a part and parcel of every human life.
Before I began practicing yoga this was my conditioning. Every negative and difficult experience had to be changed (from the outside) or avoided all together. So I would never go somewhere if I didn’t feel like I fit in. I would only befriend people like me who agreed with my worldview. I would only survive in relationships that were superficial.
Practicing yoga revealed to me that unresolved pain was in fact lodged inside of me. I did not have tools or resources until I found body, mind and spiritual practices for dealing with my difficult emotions. Now I practice noticing the discomfort that arises when I want something to be different. I try to pause rather than attempting to escape, or fix, that which is causing me discomfort.
My inner dialogue is constantly projecting out stories trying to make sense of life. Despite the futility of this exercise, my mind invests an extraordinary amount of time and energy into these narratives. When I avoid feeling an emotion it leads to a familiar pattern: suppression to feeling overwhelmed to explosion. These extremes lock me into a place void of connection and feeling.
Yoga, on the other hand, brings me long stretches of awareness when I access subtle feelings in a safe place. Instead of needing to feel the BIG feeling to understand where I am, I can feel the subtle feeling and stop there. I work to be gentle and kind at the first sign of discomfort and integrate the wisdom of a gentle body practice into my daily life. When the stormy emotion hits, my practice arrives as a resource and I can experience emotion as waves of sensation in my body.
Even the strongest emotions will come and go. Learning this has helped me to have the courage to acknowledge my feelings. An emotion is an energy in motion. When we try to block it we ensure that it will come out somewhere else. If we can pause and witness, then an emotion loses its power to scare us and instead can become a source of personal empowerment and authenticity. Feelings stretch our hearts to the often sharp and beautiful experience of being alive.