So in the last few posts, I have been offering tools and approaches to enhance present focus and mindfulness in meditation and everyday life. However, this begs the question, How is it that we have become unmindful in the first place? Why is it that “we all live a distance from ourselves”. Why is it so hard to stay present, even when the process of being “absent from the moment” produces so much suffering?
While I don’t pretend to have all the answers to this conundrum, I do believe that a basic understanding of some tenets of Buddhism and behavioral psychology (an unlikely pairing) may help shed some light on this issue.
In behavioral learning circles, there has been a lot of research to explore the phenomenon of behavioral avoidance in a variety of organisms, including humans. Critters of all stripes can be easily trained to avoid stimuli which, through associative conditioning have been associated with aversive or unpleasant events such as loud noise, electric shock and so on. Such avoidances, once acquired, can be durably maintained even long after the aversive event is no longer forthcoming (eg. shock is discontinued). Such empirical observations have been extrapolated to help describe , explain and even treat a number of human behaviors and symptoms including social and simple phobias, PTSD, OCD, etc.
The Buddha, in laying out the Four Noble Truths indicated that the principle cause of suffering is desire. It is my belief that one of the strongest and pervasive desires is to abolish or minimize emotional pain. Paradoxically, it is our very endeavor to decrease pain by avoiding the cues that provoke or are associated with emotional pain and unpleasant emotional experiences, that is responsible for so much of human suffering at a personal, interpersonal and even international level (more on the later in a future blog post).
The fact is, we are constantly leaving ourselves in order to not face any one of a huge host of unpleasant emotions, and sensations: boredom, shame, fear, loneliness, despair, anger, helplessness, hopelessness, insecurity, guilt, restlessness, craving and so on. Through a near endless array of internal (covert) and behavioral (overt) mechanisms we have learned to flee from emotional pain. In the book, “How To Lose Control”, I attempted to describe the many mechanisms through which we avoid exposure to uncomfortable feelings through internal defense mechanisms, drug and alcohol use, preoccupation with eating, shopping, cleaning, work, sex, exercise, material and monetary acquisitions, interpersonal control, overindulgence in technology (texting, video games etc. ), staying busy, relationship dependencies, to name but a very few. In fact, a tremendous amount of our time and energy is consumed by the endeavor to remove ourselves from emotional pain and the associated internal and external cues.
Therefore, until and unless we learn to become friends with the “dark emotions” and unpleasant feelings and sensations, true mindfulness will allude us.
Some steps to help foster emotional mindfulness:
1) label your feelings – the simple act of labeling your current feeling state with some degree of discriminative specificity can greatly enhance mindfulness and help produce measurable degrees of neural integration (see below posts) https://blackturtlebooks.com/mindfulness-and-psychotherapy-the-mindful-brain/
2) Identify and focus on any unpleasant physical sensations that may be occurring in your body. Take some time to simply watch thee feelings or sensations.
3) Watch the conversation that your brain weaves around difficult feelings that you are experiencing. Your brain always wants to engage in dramas and stories. Feel the feelings but watch the drama. As noted in a previous post, the brain is a very sticky place and will want to ensnare you in its drama. When you are able, note the drama and observe it without getting in it. If you find your mind indulging drama, softly say inwardly, “drama”. And gently focus attention on where you are and what you are doing. For those new here, you may want to check out the post on the “Parade Metaphor” for more techniques on mindful emotional viewing. https://blackturtlebooks.com/mindfulness-exercise-the-parade-metaphor/
4) Practice emotional surfing. https://blackturtlebooks.com/integrative-mindful-exposure-emotional-surfing/ Emotional surfing is a powerful exercise in which you mindfully ride with emotional responses experiences. As you ride the wave of emotion you will see how quickly feelings unlock and morph into other feelings that were held down below them much akin to peeling the layers of an onion. By practicing this exercise, you will learn that there is nothing you need to do with difficult emotions. Like all other mental events, they simply come and go on their own All things are transitory. Nothing lasts. The irony is that the more we avoid difficult emotions, the more they linger. Unexposed emotions stay perfectly conserved and therefore stuck. Learn to “lean into pain” and you will find there is nothing to fear, therefore nothing to control. True control is requiring no control at all.
5) Ask yourself the question, when in the course of an activity or while contemplating an activity, “Am i avoiding an uncomfortable feeling by engaging in this?” Or, stated another way, If I wasn’t doing this, what might I be feeling?”
6) Expose your fears of losing control: Most of us are convinced that powerful emotions are dangerous and therefore in need of subjugation and control. We must learn to understand and expose these fears in order to relinquish control. More on this in the next posts.
By implementing these practices, you just might find that you are able to stay a little bit more present in the moment and in yourself.
All are welcome to post comments!!!!!