This week, I decided to tie a bow of sorts on the narrative theme of the past couple practices. Whereas the goal the other week was to identify the story going around in my head at any given moment, this week the practice was to, in the words of Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun and teacher, “Feel the feeling and drop the story.”
At its heart, this practice is about ending suffering — or at least ending a particular type of suffering, known in some Buddhist traditions as “the suffering of suffering.” This is the suffering that we bring upon ourselves by how we engage with our feelings and pain. Everyone will experience pain, seasons of loss, setbacks, and illness. Pain is not optional in our world. But, according to this idea, suffering is optional. According to this idea, which in my experience has merit, we make our pain and suffering more powerful by resisting our feelings and giving them meaning through the stories and scripts we associate with them. “Psychologically speaking, resistance and resolution are at opposite poles,” notes Dr. Leon Seltzer. In the more famous words of Carl Jung, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”
And so instead of analyzing our thoughts and bracing ourselves against our feelings, we can develop the practice of feeling our feelings and dropping the story. It’s a paradox. If by resisting our feelings we only give them more power, the correlating idea is that by embracing our feelings we can reduce their hold over us. The image that comes to mind is the classic cartoon trope of the shadow of the terrifying monster projected against the wall that turns out to be a kitten. The reality is that the kitten is far easier to endure and embrace than the shadow monster is to fight. And so, far from being an exercise in rubbing our nose in our pain, feeling the feeling and dropping the story is in fact a practice of self-compassion and love. It is, as Susan Piver notes, “truly the royal road to release.”
At least that’s the theory.
What is it?
The basic instruction for this practice is all in the name: feel the feeling and drop the story. Experience your emotions and feelings, but without giving them any narrative meaning that might get us caught in them. It’s as simple as that. But, if you’d like some more intentional instructions, Pema Chödrön has outlined the practice in her book Walking the Walk, in a helpful four-step process with the acronym FEAR:
- Feel the feeling. Don’t resist it but welcome it.
- Embrace it. Be curious about the feeling instead of becoming overwhelmed by it. Where do you feel it? What are the physical sensations that accompany it?
- Allow it to dissolve. Simply watch as as it dissipates on its own. Neither push it away or stop it from dissolving!
- Remember that you are not alone. Others are feeling this same feeling right now too.
I’ve been in really good spirits the past few weeks and so for much of the week I didn’t feel I ‘needed’ this practice. But the fact that my mental space was relatively calm allowed me to see a couple things about the practice I hadn’t noticed before.
First, it works just as helpfully with positive emotions as with negative emotions. Not because I want those positive emotions to go away, but because I want to experience them. As Brené Brown has pointed out, joy is terrifying. It’s terrifying — and therefore becomes stilted and cut off by our fear — because we’re so afraid that the other shoe will drop and it will all go away. When it comes to positive emotions, our stories can be just as destructive as with any. In the case of joy, the feeling of foreboding can be just as destructive to us in the long term as the opposite story, the false myth that the good times will last forever. This week’s practice reminded me simply to be grateful for these good times and not preoccupied with the knowledge that hard times will come again.
Second, being intentional about this practice this week allowed me to deploy it in different contexts from what I’ve been used to. I cut my teeth with this practice in dealing with strong emotions in my personal life. This week I was almost startled to realize I could apply it just as much to frustrating days at work or to my anger at the political news of the day.
And, for the most part, it worked.
I have a long history with this practice, or at least the philosophy behind it. And that history touches on some pretty personal areas. So this reflection will be a bit more personal than most.
While this is now one of my go-to practices when strong emotions arise in the moment, it took me a long time to come to terms with it and embrace it. I had encountered some variety of it many times over the years and had been able to implement it here and there with success, but yet I still tended to resist it. I wanted to stop feeling sad, lonely, or angry, not jump headlong into those feelings.
Yet over time, the wisdom of the practice kept on being reinforced. First, it was travel anxiety. When a return train from Portland to Seattle was canceled with no ready information about how or when they were going to get us back, I was able to tell myself, “Well, there’s nothing you can do about this, so you might as well just feel anxious about it.” Sure enough, after a few very uncomfortable minutes, while the uncertainty remained, the tension I had been feeling about it was gone. A couple years later, and far more importantly, I found that embracing my feelings of grief and loss at how my old life had fallen apart I was finally able to metabolize those experiences. It wasn’t the normal ‘in the moment’ version of this practice, but the same principle was involved: by embracing the feelings, in just a few weeks, I was largely able to metabolize experiences that had been haunting me for years. (As a Christian, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the beatitude: Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted). And yet I still resisted, or would “yes, but” the suggestions that it could work in the moment when my feelings were tripping me up.
I’ve gone back and forth in my head about where this resistance came from. I’d had plenty of evidence that the practice worked, and yet I still didn’t want to go there. Was it because I was afraid of these “bad” emotions and couldn’t go there? Was it because I was attached to the stories and couldn’t let them drop? Or, was it because I was afraid of what would be left if I actually dealt with those feelings? If I’m honest, all three were probably partly in play. Those ‘negative’ feelings were robbing me of time I wanted to spend doing other things. They seemed so overwhelming and huge. If I really dove in, would I ever resurface? Secondly, those stories — as much as I didn’t like them and as much bad fruit as they were bearing — had a lot of energy to them: There’s nothing quite like self-righteous indignation to feed the ego. Related to this, my natural inclination is to think through problems so it may have been less that I was attached to the stories but more that I was attached to storytelling. And, lastly, since those emotional/narrative loops in which I was stuck in that season when I finally embraced this lesson were largely about my loneliness and frustrations with the state of the dating world, there may have been a part of me that felt that dropping the stories and feeling the feelings would result in a kind of passive resignation to a state of affairs that feels unsustainable.
Of course, the practice worked its normal wonders, and none of those fears or concerns were founded. By embracing the feelings, the suffering around them stopped. By letting go of the stories, I experienced a freedom far better than any ego-boost. And by dealing with the feelings as they arise — which is not a one and for all thing but a practice — I wasn’t left feeling resigned and empty, but strong and deeply rooted. It’s not a learned helplessness or passive resignation that’s left, but a greater equanimity, a sense of contentment within a discontented circumstance.
And so, returning to my experience with the practice this week, it was a bit amusing to be thinking “Gee there isn’t much to deal with this week,” all the while I was feeling irritated by work, sad for friends going through difficult seasons, and depressed and angry about the political news at home and abroad. There was plenty to deal with this week. And so, I got back on the mat (so to speak) and felt my frustrations and anger, and watched as they dissolved. And just as the dissolution of my loneliness back in the day didn’t leave behind passive resignation, neither did the dissolution of my work frustration and political anger. Instead what was left was something far more productive: the steely resolve to make things better.
Clearly, I love this practice. It has been revolutionary in my life. Yet, I want to address an important caveat before I end this post. This practice is about normal day-to-day emotions and experiences. While I believe the practice can be beneficial for everyone, if it causes old or recent traumas to re-emerge in unhelpful or distressing ways for you, please stop the practice and find the assistance you need at the caring hands of professionals. There are many things in this world that are beyond the scope of a sacred practice. If you need help, don’t be afraid to seek it. Your life and your health are precious and deserve to be treated with care.
But for the rest of us, a beautiful and easy road to freedom is available to us: Feel the feeling and drop the story.