I was recently talking with someone about how to have a better life, one in which returning past issues did not get in the way of being productive and happy, generally speaking. In the course of our conversations, a rough recipe for progressing in this direction developed. While I don’t consider the recipe definitive and welcome feedback so I can refine it, a good starting point it certainly will be.
Figuring out how to begin when we want to move from where we are to where we want to be is often a challenge. When we have not dealt with certain events in our lives and our feelings related to those events, these feelings and thoughts tend to accumulate within us and start to have an impact on our thought processes and behaviours. We’ll be puttering along in our everyday life, something will happen that triggers an exaggerated emotional response and eventually we’ll realize that we are feeling just as awful as we felt ages ago in a similar situation. “What the…??” we might ask ourselves, having thought that issue X had been long gone and yet here it was popping up into our lives, uninvited and disruptive. Regardless of how much we try to fool ourselves, any unresolved issue from the past can be triggered back into our lives at any moment. All it takes is the right trigger. What follows below is a recipe for consciously dealing with those past issues in a systematic and caring way so that they get resolved and lose their potential to cause more problems.
Know where you are going
A journey without destination is fine so long as you don’t mind the wandering. In our case, this journey is more like baking a cake, hence the recipe analogy and the need to define some sort of desired result or outcome. A destination/outcome for this journey could be something as simple as “I want to spend much less time feeling sad and much more time feeling peaceful.” Or it could be something along the lines of “I want to remain calm and centered when someone does or says something which today would trigger anger in me.” The destination is important, but there is no need to spend a lot of time on defining the “perfect” or most important destination. Pick any destination/result which will enhance your life and then follow the recipe below until you get there or reasonably close. You can always pick another destination in the future, and repeat this process/recipe as many times as you like. Each time you consciously release stored feelings, you will lighten your load and there will be a cumulative effect.
Like any recipe, it helps to have some basic understanding of what is involved before beginning. You’re going to need some ingredients and some will have to be prepared in advance of the recipe itself so you don’t get bogged down in the middle. Each of these ingredients will help the other, so they are all important and interdependent. At the same time, being human, you are allowed to cultivate these ingredients as you go along, so there is no need to have them all “perfect” before starting.
Patience - All personal growth/change takes some time. Sorry, no magic instant cures here. And, truth be told, most of the instant cures you’ve heard about don’t work that well, if at all. There might be one that truly does exist, but it has yet to become a panacea, so in the meantime, let’s just accept that we’re going to have to take some time to get to our destination. After all, we have spent most of our life until the moment we start to effect change establishing patterns and habits and world-views and beliefs which are so ingrained that we hardly notice them. Be patient, and don’t try to become someone new in a few days – life does not work that way. Think of how a ship turns at sea – it takes some time, but it turns, gently and steadily, until it is in the right direction. Sudden change = disruption, water splashing all about, and struggle against what is there. Change is also not about abruptly stopping what we have committed to in our life, but about evolving toward a balance between our existing commitments and our envisioned future.
Awareness - If we are not aware of where we are, it is next to impossible to get anywhere new, except by accident or happenstance. When we embark on a journey of change, we need to notice where we are, notice what is happening inside us, and notice our progress. Becoming aware of the need to make changes in our life is the first step, and once one does this, one becomes more self-aware all the time. The main things that we will be paying attention to on this journey are what I call the BETIS: Body Sensations, Emotions/Feelings, Thoughts, Images in our minds, Sounds or words we hear in our heads. Each of these is a form of inner communication and once we start paying attention to them, we are on our journey.
Persistence – If you seriously want to get to a better place, then you must do the work involved, as often as it takes. It can be hard to move on from a habit or reaction to which we have an established connection. But, as the saying goes, when you wake up in the morning, you are faced with the same swamp as yesterday, filled with the alligators of life to fend off. One of these days, you will start to drain the swamp and that will aid in the alligators disappearing. Draining the swamp is key to being alligator free or at least reducing dramatically their presence in your life.
Acceptance – Accept that it is human to feel anger or any other feeling. You are human and we humans have emotions. Do not try to control your feelings or resist them. Just feel them, notice them, feel them, notice them. Eventually, if you accept and allow those feelings & thoughts, they will dissipate, on their own. If you try to suppress them, control them, or make them go away, you will only delay this process and will be fighting with yourself, which usually results in frustration and feeling drained. Yes, we live in a world in which we are taught to fight with our emotions, and look how well that is working… not! Acceptance also means that you do not try to make sense of anything that happens at this time. Whenever you have strong emotions your brain is designed to help you survive and there will be more confusion than clarity. Once the feeling has been released, you’ll have plenty of time to think clearly, so give yourself a break and just accept the feeling as it is, without analyzing prematurely. You can stop trying to figure it all out – the answers you seek will come in due course, as any confusing mess will disappear once you release the stored emotions.
Allowing – Your journey is not about trying. It is not about effort, but about allowing. Feelings which are uncomfortable are normal and human. Allowing them to arise and then flow through you and out of you is the only way for them to pass, even if that takes a while. Do not try to stop yourself from feeling or thinking. Fighting your experience only delays the resolution you desire. Allow yourself to feel anger and other feelings that you might normally avoid because they are uncomfortable. Allow yourself to feel them for as long as it takes for the feeling to flow through and out. There are techniques such as AER which can speed up the release process around a feeling, but you can also simply sit with the feeling. It is human and natural to feel anger, sadness, guilt, etc. If you often feel guilty when you say NO, well that is just being human. What is also human and needed is to allow yourself to feel any emotion and then move on without judgment of having had that feeling.
Focus - Concentrate, as best you can, on just one feeling at a time. Feelings are often interlinked, but if we pay attention to just one at a time it is easier to notice it fluctuating and eventually dissipating. Notice what is arising in you emotionally when you pay attention to your inner world. Those emotions are what will keep you in the old. Releasing them, will enable you to move a little bit ahead on your journey. When you have released a feeling, you can take a break or allow the next to arise. But do not worry if feelings jump around, seeming to increase and diminish. They are like bundles of energy in flux, and when you allow them to flow, they will discover that you are OK with them being and OK with them leaving, and they will go on their way.
Time and space – Setting aside some time and having a space in which you can take this journey is very important. You want to be able to be relaxed and to be undisturbed for at least 30 minutes each time. Invest in yourself by putting aside the time and finding a private secluded place to relax and notice.
Commitment – When you start paying attention to what is happening inside, a lot of buried feelings will probably want to come to the surface. They want to escape, to be free and your role is to allow that to happen. Starting on a journey of self-healing is often like opening the door to the basement – you never know what you might find down there, and it is often more than we remember having put down there. For many people, feeling something that has been buried for years can be scary or uncomfortable at first and there will be a tendency to stuff those feelings back down. Stuffing feelings down inside us only results in more pain, as the pressure will build until it suddenly explodes. Staying committed to the journey is critical, even when it feels hard to do. The reward is freedom from each of the stored feelings that you will release and their reduced impact on your life.
Impartiality – Judging our feelings as good or bad and reacting to them only causes us to have relationships with them which keep them stuck inside. Being impartial or neutral or non-attached to these feelings will greatly facilitate the release of them. So, just notice them. “I am feeling sad”, for example. You are not your feelings, so it is not correct to say “I am angry” as that suggests a permanent condition rather than the temporary experience you are really having.
Emotional support – As anyone who has seriously tried to do anything new has discovered, most of the people around you will find it hard to accept your attempts at change. They will resist them overtly and covertly, all under the guise of wanting “the best” for you. They can’t help themselves – they want things to stay in the “devil-known” zone. You will find it much easier to effect the change(s) you desire if you have an ally, someone who will be on your side and encourage you to stick with it when the going is not so smooth.
Environmental support – If you live in the middle of a whirlwind of activity, or eat junk food too often, or have any other elements of your life that are constantly disruptive, then this journey will be harder. Diet, for example, has been shown to have a direct effect on your mental state, so eating foods which give you a mental boost, both for mood and for concentration, will be an essential part of the support you create around you. For some interesting reporting on the diet connection, see the film Super Size Me in which the author finds himself feeling lousy after eating a lot of fast food.
How to bake your new life
Now that you have a notion of the ingredients needed, you can bake your cake, embark on your journey. Here is the recipe, and it is very simple and straightforward:
All you have to do is pay attention to your inner world and allow whatever feelings come up to be just as they are and then flow out of you. That is it. The “tricky” part is that the normal human approach to life is to avoid discomfort, and so we normally do not willingly sit with our uncomfortable feelings, allowing them to be and to flow out of us. We run away from them, distract ourselves, medicate ourselves, stuff them down and out of sight in our inner basement. For this journey, it is crucial to pay attention and stay in the feeling, no matter how counter-intuitive that may seem at first. Eventually, like riding a bicycle, you’ll be doing this naturally.
To begin, write on a piece of paper (or copy this to a word processor and print it):
ALL FEELINGS ARE NORMAL AND HUMAN.
IT IS OK TO FEEL WHAT I AM FEELING.
JUST FEEL ONE THING AT A TIME.
ACCEPT WHAT COMES UP – IT IS ALL PART OF BEING HUMAN.
ALLOW THE FEELING TO BE.
ALLOW THE FEELING TO LEAVE.
STICK WITH IT UNTIL IT LEAVES, AS BEST I CAN.
WHATEVER I AM ABLE TO FEEL TODAY IS OK
Have this paper in front of you when you are in the process of being fully aware, to remind you that it is OK to feel whatever you are feeling, as millions of other humans have felt before you today and millions will feel tomorrow.
Now go and bake
Go to your secluded place, get comfortable and if you want, listen to this guided relaxation meditation:
(you can right-click on that link and save the file to your computer)
As you listen, you will notice the BETIS I mentioned above. Just notice them. If you find yourself getting distracted, just notice that. If you don;t want to listen to that recording, then sit in silence or listen to some instrumental music.
To track your progress, start a journal and note down what feelings come up during an awareness session, giving each feeling a subjective intensity rating on a scale of 0-10 when you start to pay attention to it, and then when you finish noticing it for that session. Perhaps it will be 6/10 when you start and 4/10 when you finish. That’s OK. Perhaps it will be 4/10 when start and 6/10 when you finish, and that’s OK, too. There is no right or wrong, there is only noticing what is there. Just the act of conscious noticing is enough to facilitate the natural human process of release of those long stored emotions.
Do this noticing each day if you can. Notice what comes up for you and allow it to flow through and out. Just do your best, whatever that is for you each time. No judgment, no analysis, just notice and just be.
After a while of doing this awareness exercise, you will start to notice that some feelings that used to pop up don’t do that so much anymore or not so intensely. Others will arise for their turn at being released. You’ll get a bit closer to your destination each time.
Copyright 2010 Robert S. Vibert, all rights reserved. Constructive feedback and suggestions welcomed.