“While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.” Benjamin Franklin
If we had a way of controlling our negative thoughts and feelings, we would probably choose not have them. Instead, most of us do our best to numb fear, anxiety and sadness in whatever way we can – with alcohol, drugs, overeating, shopping or by working excessively.
One of my favourite teachers, Jack Kornfield, offers a perspective that’s different to many others. Rather than trying to rid ourselves of difficult thoughts and feelings, he suggests softening into all of our experiences and making room for every emotion we feel.
In his words, “There is a deep joy that comes when we stop denying the painful aspects of life, and instead allow our hearts to open to and accept the full range of our experience: life and death, pleasure and pain, darkness and light. Even in the face of the tremendous suffering in the world, there can be this joy, which comes not from rejecting pain and seeking pleasure, but rather from our ability to meditate and open ourselves to the truth.”
Jack suggests that we change “the way we think about our thinking”. His approach is a mindful one. It’s about going with the flow of life rather than fighting against it. This is not an easy thing to do, but in my experience, it’s completely liberating if you’re willing to give it a try.
- Become aware. Firstly, pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that stop you from feeling hopeful and positive about the future. Just notice them for now – make friends with them. Say hello to fear or loneliness and be curious about what it’s like to experience those feelings rather than pushing them away. Become aware of how your body feels when there’s fear, find out where it’s located in your body and just name it – ‘this is fear, I’m noticing fear’. It’s enough to just do this for now. Soften in to it, stay with it, don’t resist it.
- Don’t run away. Notice your tendency to numb the emotions that are most difficult. Learn about your habitual ways of dealing with pain – what do you feel like doing most to get away? Instead of doing what you usually do, take another breath and make room for the experience of feeling into the emotion in a mindful and open way. Keep naming it. You’ll be surprised at your capacity for difficulty when you stop fighting.
- What really matters? Once you’ve made room for the emotion and taken the time to sit with it for a while, you might want to do a values exercise to determine your deepest desires about how you want to live your life.
- Do one tiny thing. Rather than choosing habitual behaviour, choose one small action step (something that feels manageable) that is aligned with your values. For example, if you have a value of inner harmony and you know that being outdoors helps you feel calm, take yourself out for a fifteen minute walk in the nearest park.
- Don’t be afraid. Sometimes people worry that if they acknowledge and make room for difficult feelings, they’ll become consumed by them. Usually the opposite is true – fighting them and pushing them away only serves to escalate them. Trust that you can manage whatever life throws your way, but if it does become too much to manage on your own, reach out for some support.