A Formula for Meeting Feelings Well
I’ve got a sentence for you to play with—a formula, actually, with an X to plug something into, but its purpose isn’t mathematical. It’s to support you to move through any strong feeling better, with greater awareness, in a way that’s kind to yourself. It has the lovely effect of both allowing you to come closer to a feeling, while simultaneously giving you distance and perspective—thus beginning to set you free, or to disconnect overt suffering from pain or discomfort.
Unavoidable Pain/Optional Suffering
There’s no way to avoid feeling bad sometimes. It seems to be a reality of a human life on planet Earth. We haven’t done something wrong or failed at being an evolving human being when we feel bad. Grief is real. Depression strikes. We have angry reactions (and they’re actually useful, sometimes, to show us that something’s off and must be dealt with) or feel building frustration (which is useful to call us to a reset if we catch it and respond!). There’s truly no problem with feeling bad. The problem is that we let it get to us, hijack the mind, and take us down the rabbit hole—or to places far uglier and less cozy than I imagine any rabbit hole to be. We quickly go from pain or discomfort to overt suffering--and that part is typically optional.
Think-Feel Feedback Loop
You’ve seen yourself put a story to what you’re feeling, right? You’ve caught yourself reviewing details of the story that seems to be the obvious cause of a bad feeling. Absorbed in the story, you intensify the feeling, and that stronger feeling asks for more story. Redundantly reviewing its details and your assessments of it (not fair, not okay, makes no sense), you get sucked in deeper; the feeling gets stronger still. Taking off on some defensive inner response (not what I meant, not my fault, not what I usually do) or some wretched interpretation (unseen, abandoned, betrayed), you may successfully get stuck in a bad feeling and perpetuate it for some time.
Come Close to Feelings You May Want to Push Away
Even if you try to shove it down, you can’t quite shake it off. It colors whatever you do—certainly your sense of well-being, possibly what others around you experience. The dark cloud you carry around may dim the whole room. Or are you someone who pretends it’s all good, unaware you’re radiating something false and impenetrable that frustrates and mystifies those around you?
But you could come close to the feeling instead, even magnify it for a moment, and really let yourself feel it. (By feel it, I mean feel it, not think about it.) Hey, the feeling’s here anyway (it’s present), so you may as well give it your awareness (your presence). That’s where my formula comes in.
Tell yourself, This is what X feels like. Ideally, sit down or lie down with it a moment, but you could do this while working on the computer, or performing any rote task. Here you are, living your human life. And here’s this normal (painful) feeling: X.
If you can close your eyes, this can help you drop fully into the feeling, even for 30 seconds or a minute. I’m going to first walk you through coming close to the feeling, then have you notice you’re gaining distance in so doing.
Plug In a Feeling Name for X
Your first job is to fill in the X with your best label or name for the feeling at hand.
This is what loneliness feels like.
This is what techno-frustration feels like.
This is what worry about someone you love feels like.
This is what distress over planetary problems feels like.
Whatever it is, name it, plug it in for X, and take it in.
This Is What X Feels Like
This. This is what it feels like. The phrase itself holds an invitation to feel it, so that's your second job. Not just feel it, but feel it precisely. You could
In short, come close enough that you truly let yourself feel what you’re feeling. In this way, you get present to the feeling. By not ignoring or minimizing it, you teach yourself that you’re fully equipped to feel this painful sensation: it’s not bigger than you; it won’t get the best of you.
Into the Feeling, Out of Conceptualizing It!
Perhaps most important, this gets you out of transferring a bodily sensation to the mind, making a concept out of it, bypassing the actual felt, sensory experience of what’s moving through you. This in itself is powerful. It also allows the feeling X, I believe, to better move through you and move on: you know, that pesky the-way-out-is-through thing.
The Simple Power of Breathing a Feeling
And while you’re giving X your awareness, you might consciously give it breath, though it’s likely that will happen anyway. The breath is soothing, calming, leveling to the nervous system. The breath is kind. You might think in terms of the breath wanting to support you and get you through whatever you’re moving through.
The breath, too, is a felt, sensory experience that we seldom feel at all. When you sit with this formula, tune in to the breath (no manipulations needed, though you’re welcome to slow it down and deepen it if you like—it’ll go that direction anyway if you give it attention for a bit).
Gaining Distance from the Feeling by Joining the Human Race
As you repeat This is what X feels like, be aware that any number of human beings have felt this way over time. Right now, some are feeling it right along with you. Connect to them. Be one with them. You might even imagine specific faces. Take these from all the continents, from various races, ages, socio-economic levels, gender expressions. We are all one. You are not alone, and in holding awareness of others in the same boat, you cast your vote that they feel relief too, that they feel less alone too.
As you simply keep holding what X feels like with the gaze of the compassionate, dispassionate witness, noticing that others feel it too, welcome yourself to the human race. Take the compassion you’re able (probably more easily) to extend to others, and bring it back to yourself. (Aw, sweetheart, Ow.) And know it's okay for you to feel this: it's something that human beings, in the course of a lifetime, over the course of eons, feel and have felt. Why shouldn’t you feel it too, just for now? There’s no problem.
And you don’t have to suffer. You don’t have to add in and review and get preoccupied with the story of the hour that seems to have launched the feeling X. You can just feel this pain. You can let it move through you and move on.
Love & blessings, Jaya
p.s. Want a list of things NOT to get involved with when you feel bad? Here are my well-loved (helpful, practical) 11 Rules for When You’re Discouraged or Distressed.
No, but can anything halt a running rumination, never mind dissolve it? I maintain that a good breath plus a good question has potent reset power. I’ll give you three footholds to this here:
In a hurry? Skip to #3 and grab some potentially arresting questions for next time the mind tries to run away with you.
1. A story
I recently went to the coast of Maine for the love of sea and summer and the place itself. It’s so lovely to breathe that clean air full of salt—and consciously breathing is my favorite reset.
One day, I got into a muddy line of rumination. You know when you throw a whole relationship into question? That. Reality: sunshine and blue sky. My mental space: a dank, festering atmosphere for some putrid specimen to grow unimpeded and keep spawning hands to palpate for problems. (Yeah, yuck.)
Standing outside to feel my feet on the earth (I was going for grounding to move out of my head), I heard a bird call I couldn’t identify. From grounding, the simple act of connecting to one of my senses brought me more fully back to presence. That’s when I took a breath that I actually paid attention to (coming closer to presence still), and I reached for a question.
Let me add that I was already aware of the line of thinking that kept reasserting itself, and I had already consciously noted some wise stuff. (It hadn’t fully taken yet, but I don’t consider that a problem; I trust the process.) These things I knew:
Nailed it. I felt an immediate and pure release. This could be a good daily question to ask the self about anyone close, and it’s especially brilliant for a romantic/primary partner.
Because you already know this, don’t you? You actually don’t need anything from anybody. The best work of unsticking from what you think you need from another (certainly the beloved) really happens between you and you, and you can leave them out of it. They don’t need to show up in any way (except however they do) for you to keep letting go of wanting to control them or of expecting them to make you comfortable. (Um, and rumination doesn’t help.)
The question reset me and I had a great day from there (peninsula, beach, lobster) and felt love and joy with the human being in question. The pure truth of needing nothing from another in order to be well, happy, safe, in love—anything—came in so fully for me that my mind didn’t even try to pick the rumination back up.
Now, you know the mind will typically try. In my case, on that day, it had robotically picked up a small set of repeating thoughts for at least an hour with factory-set arms of steel. I just don’t let this sort of thing move in for the day, so note that I was already in my process. Most important, I hadn’t been believing those thoughts. I had been witnessing them and telling myself truer things. So this probably set me up to be more open to the power of the question. It’s a useful thing to practice, that not believing your own thoughts.
A good question, even if it doesn’t just dissolve the whole thing, can throw a wrench in the works of a rumination on auto-pilot. The question creates an opening, or a sense of possibility that you could actually let it go. That’s pretty amazing in itself. You can best expand that sense of possibility through presence—not with further thinking.
2. An important distinction
It helps to clearly make this distinction: yes, you can meet challenging mental stuff through clear thinking processes of inquiry or contemplation; rumination is not that! When you give full focus to straightening out your thinking in a time you’ve designated for that—perhaps with a clear helper or a tool like The Work of Byron Katie—that’s a productive, helpful way to meet the mind. Rumination just hijacks your thinking. Rumination means mindless mental chewing as you do other things. It’s no good. It robs you of presence, expands whatever anxiety or emotion matches the content, compounds confusion, and further furrows the brow.
Want to play more with presence? It’s not hard. Keep coming back to the breath, and use grounding and checking in with your senses to connect to here and now. It takes rumination-thwarting focus to keep coming back to now, to what the moment is feeding you through the body and its senses. You might call it hard, but it’s not. It’s a practice, and it’s worth repeating (while the repeating thoughts that take over if you don’t do this are truly of no use to you).
3. Some questions
There are so many good questions to ask yourself. Just reach for it. Try out a few (without necessarily answering them), just to see how they hit you. You’ll know in your body when you’ve got one worth keeping in view for a minute. The right question may need no answering either: the truth it points to is self-evident.
That last one can actually be fun. I call it the Here and Now game. It allows you to get curious about or fascinated by where you were in time (years away, sometimes!) and what place you were in beyond your current physical location (an ocean away, perhaps). It’s a playful way to call yourself back to the moment, your actual reality. Take a conscious breath and ask, How far away did I just go in time and space? Could be all you need to foil the rumination.
Love & blessings, Jaya