The bad feelings won’t go away – and that’s okay 

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This is day 22 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the questions: “How do you run away from discomfort?” and “Why do you need to normalize discomfort, or understand that discomfort is a part of life?” More info here.

Every time I do a guided meditation, the soothing Andy Puddicombe asks me to remind myself of my motivation for sitting down to practice. 

But just before “Stop my rambling thoughts! Get rid of my stress!” comes desperately to mind, he adds a caveat: meditation doesn’t stop thoughts or feelings. Your motivation has to be in line with the nature of meditation, which is to help us observe, accept, and be present with them. 

Really, Andy, that’s all you’ve got to offer me?

Brené Brown would agree with him, but her way of saying it is that we need to “normalize discomfort.” Discomfort is part of life, normal. She even tells her students that if they don’t feel uncomfortable during the semester, they’re doing it wrong.

“The simple and honest process of letting people know that discomfort is normal, it’s going to happen, why it happens, and why it’s important, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame,” she writes. 

Well, it would have been nice to know that a while ago. Most of us grow up learning that discomfort, like pain, is a sign that something is going wrong. Now I understand why some parents resolve not to fix all their children’s problems and tears, but let them sort it out on their own. If every unhappiness or cry is treated like a catastrophe, we grow up into adults who live in fear of negative emotions. 

So, we devise all these techniques for keeping them at bay. I avoid emotionally risky situations – I’m aware that I have an aversion for trying new things, because it’s uncomfortable for me to be an uncertain beginner. It takes Herculean effort for me to go networking, because I constantly feel awkward. I distract myself – with movies and lolcats, reading books, meditation, or talking. 

But probably worst of all, I try to minimize my feelings. I blame other people when the cause is within myself. If I’m in the mood, I make jokes (“I’m stressed about stress! How ridiculous is that!”). I tell myself it’s irrational, I shouldn’t feel upset, to be optimistic. In short, I do everything Andy says not to – I deny what I’m really feeling and try to get it away from me!

“For many of us, our first response to the vulnerability and pain of these [powerful emotions] is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but rather to make it go away,” writes Brown. 

The good news in all of this – besides the fact that we’re not nuts, messed up, or flawed for feeling blue sometimes – is that negative and positive emotions are separate things. According to positive psychology research, emotion isn’t a single lever, but two. Women, in fact, have more positive and more negative emotions. Even if you’re feeling bad about something, you can also cultivate good feelings. 

My dad often reiterates words of wisdom from his best friend: “Who said easy?” A lot of the time, it’s our assumption that life will be smooth sailing that makes the rocking and bumping unbearable. As in meditation, the point is to ride out the storm and wait for the waves to settle, not steer the ship as if nothing’s wrong. 

Photo by Flickr user mikecogh

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A trick to reduce distraction in meditation

“There’s nothing to do, nothing to achieve. All you have to do is sit back and let the mind return to its natural state.” 

In the guided meditation app Headspace, you’re constantly reminded that your mind is like a blue sky. Although clouds of thoughts may swirl and thunder, making your day seem gray and dreary, there’s always a clear blue sky above. That calm and stillness isn’t something you have to achieve; it’s always there, if only you sit back and allow the clouds to dissipate. 

For me, the problem is when I don’t want to chase the clouds away. Sometimes I’m meditating and I remember this thing that I absolutely have to do – make a phone call, or set a reminder. I worry that if I let that particular cloud float away, it will never come back, and I’ll miss the appointment or forget the to-do. That thought keeps swirling around in my head, but I don’t want to interrupt the meditation to write it down. 

The trick I developed is inspired by the “memory palace,” a technique used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to remember things. To construct a memory palace, you start with a place you know well (like the rooms in your home), and then associate the things you want to remember with a particular location. This engages the spatial learning part of your brain and allows you to recall the memories simply by mentally “walking” through the familiar place.

When there’s something I need to remember during a meditation, I turn it into an image, stick it on a tiny cloud, and place it in the far corner of my blue sky (which I visualize when meditating). This trick only works if you visualize something when you meditate – do you envision the lapping waves of the ocean? Put your little memory-images on a buoy far out in the water. Or a tranquil forest? Carve your images into a distant tree.

I’m not sure Andy from Headspace would approve – he might say that the thoughts will come back later if they’re truly important. But it works for me. How about you – how do you deal with distractions in meditation that you don’t want to forget?