I’ll be honest – I had a completely different blog post prepared for this week. I was going to discuss practicing acceptance in the context of some of my past struggles with depression but as it turns out I’ve had a pretty rough couple of weeks and I am feeling the weight of my depression trying to pull me down right at this very moment so I feel compelled to discuss what I am experiencing now.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had to deal with some setbacks and challenges with my business and I’m still working on solving these issues. At the same time, I’ve been dealing with a very stressful situation that I’m actually not at liberty to discuss. I know, I know I’m being pretty vague here but some things are not meant to be divulged in detail in a public forum like this – especially when I’m not the only person involved. To top it off, I’ve been feeling really nauseous and tired and therefore unable to teach my regular yoga classes – could these symptoms be caused by the stress I’m feeling or am I actually coming down with something? I don’t know… Quite honestly I’m not sure if I’m making a lot of sense right now and I hope that this blog post doesn’t come off as confusing or self-indulgent. So let me try to clarify for all of our sakes!
In my last post I wrote about how important it is to get in touch with our feelings and how the practice of yoga has helped me to do this. I was living a life where I was always running towards my next goal and rarely paying attention to how I felt in the process. This led to an eventual burnout for me and I realized that I needed to slow down and connect more to my present moment feelings but in doing so, I had to face the reality that the present moment doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes (or a lot of the time) we feel stressed or depressed or anxious or angry or any other number of negative feelings. So what do we do when we feel this way? What do I do with how I’m feeling right now?
I know from past experience that identifying the precise details of how I feel is the key first step to healing. So here we go, this is what I am currently experiencing:
-Shortness of breath (almost like I drank a lot of coffee except I haven’t had any caffeine today)
-Inability to focus or speak clearly (is this blog post even making sense?)
-Tightness in my jaw and neck
-Feeling like I’d rather slam down my computer screen and go back to bed instead of typing this nonsensical post that I am probably going to have to throw in the trash (i.e.: feelings of insecurity)
-I keep shaking my leg and biting my lip
-I’m hungry but every time I take a bite of my breakfast I feel nauseous
-I’m wondering if I’m going to be able to get anything productive done today or will this be the third day in a row that I sit on my couch feeling useless and uninterested in anything at all?
Wow that’s a nice long list of negativity! Normally when I feel this way I don’t share it like that. I typically hide and shut out everyone. I don’t respond to calls or texts and I don’t leave my house cause I assume no one would want to be intoxicated by my negative state. And let’s be honest, no one really wants to be around a person that feels this way. I wouldn’t want to hang out with someone in that state of mind even though I can empathize with how they are feeling. Are you even still reading this? Or perhaps that was a little too much unhappiness to stomach and you’d rather watch funny animal videos on youtube! Fair enough – but if you’re still here and you happen to relate to my current state of mind then I do have some insight to share on this topic.
Sometimes difficult situations happen in our lives and there is nothing we can do about them. Not everything can be or needs to be “fixed” and this can be one of the most difficult concepts for human beings to grasp because as a species we are “do-ers”. This is described pretty thoroughly in the book The Mindful Way Through Depression in which the authors explain that our unique ability for critical analytical thinking is “one of the highest achievements of our evolutionary history as human beings and does get us out of a whole slew of fixes in life. So when we see things are not going well in our internal, emotional life, it’s hardly surprising that the mind often quickly reacts by recruiting the mode of mind that functions so effectively in solving problems in our external world. This mode of careful analysis, problem solving, judgment, and comparison is aimed at closing the gap between the way things are and the way we think they should be – at solving perceived problems”. In other words, we are naturally programmed as human beings to be problem solvers and to take action against negative situations that occur in our life. Whether it’s the desire to make a to-do list in the effort to control our situation or the desire to hide under the covers and sleep all day in the effort to avoid our uncomfortable emotions – our automatic reaction is always to “do” something. We don’t easily accept our present moment state of being when it’s not a good one and we have no idea how to simple sit with these negative feelings and let them be.
This practice of acceptance is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn and quite honestly I’m still not very good at it. I’m what people generally describe as a “type-a” kind of person. I pride myself on being organized and efficient. I take most of life’s challenges as an opportunity to prove myself. I make lists and plans and I like to always be two steps ahead of everyone else. Just sitting and being and not “doing” anything is extremely challenging for me. I’m sure this is why my initial experiences with yoga didn’t go so great. There was too much time spent “in the moment” for me. But eventually I found a style of yoga that suited my needs and personality and I’ve come to rely on it as one of my only ways to really access this magical thing called “awareness” that we often hear other spiritual leaders or healers talking about.
What is awareness exactly? Initially I thought awareness was all about getting in touch with our feelings (ie: the practice of feeling that I discussed in my last post). But I’m learning now that awareness also requires a sense of compassion and self-love for whatever feelings may arise. One of the foremost authorities on mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes the practice of awareness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. I see now that the “non-judgment” part is what I was often leaving out.
Through my yoga practice I was uncovering my feelings and beginning to be more mindful and aware in every aspect of my life but my natural reaction to anything negative that comes up is usually to fight against. I judge myself and compare myself to others in similar situations and wonder why I can’t simply “let it go” or make it better. The concept of being more kind to myself, of not judging myself for feeling angry or insecure is quite foreign to me and I never really took this to be a key component in the practice of mindfulness and awareness until recently but it’s something I am practicing more and more. Tara Brach explains this beautifully in her book Radical Acceptance. She identifies the practice of acceptance as having two wings: the first wing is the mindfulness (or awareness) practice that “recognizes exactly what is happening in our moment-to-moment experience”; the second wing is compassion or “our capacity to relate in a tender and sympathetic way to what we perceive”. According to Tara, “if we only bring the wing of mindfulness to our process of Radical Acceptance, we might clearly be aware of the aching in our heart, the flush of rage in our face; we might clearly see the stories we are telling ourselves – that we are a victim, that we will always be alone and without love. But we might also compound our suffering by feeling angry with ourselves for getting into the situation in the first place. This is where the wing of compassion joins with mindfulness to create a genuinely healing practice. Instead of pushing away or judging our anger or despondency, compassion enables us to be softly and kindly present with our open wounds.”
Other mindfulness experts like Jon Kabat-Zinn (mentioned above) may argue that compassion is an automatically assumed part of the practice of awareness and that these “wings” of acceptance are an unnecessary distinction. Either way, it seems that most mindfulness researchers, spiritual leaders and healers of all kinds will tell you that you cannot achieve full acceptance for yourself or the current state that you are in without inviting a gentle sense of self-love and compassion into your awareness practice. This is the key that I think I’ve been missing for a long time – cultivating self-compassion and giving myself permission to be exactly as I am without judgment. It’s like that age-old saying “talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend”. I know if my best friend was having a rough couple weeks like I’ve had I would tell her things like “it’s ok, sometimes life is rough, you’re allowed to feel how you feel, etc…” but telling that to myself is considerably harder.
So as the true type-a that I am I’ve spent the last couple weeks “doing” all the research I can do about awareness and mindfulness, I spoke with my therapist, I sorted through whatever issues I could manage to solve at work and at this point it seems there really is nothing left to be done. The time has come for me to just “be”, and right now my feelings of being are not the most positive or enjoyable. So for the rest of the day, or as long as it takes, I’ll be practicing acceptance: being in the moment, feeling however I feel, without judgment, without trying to change anything and with a little extra compassion for myself. To help me through I’ve developed a little poem or mantra that I’ve been reciting in my head all day. It goes like this:
Here I sit,
Feeling like shit.
Thanks for reading this one.
References from this post:
The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Radical Acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, Ph.D