and visiting our pain
There are ways in which we can use mindfulness and meditation to help deal with the difficult emotions to which we are all subject at times in our lives. On its own it is not a substitute for other therapeutic approaches, such as counselling, for understanding and dealing with the issues which lie behind persistent and painful emotions, but it is often a good complement to counselling, with insights flowing between the two domains and enriching both processes.
Attachment… is the psychological process which lies at the heart of most human suffering. It is a standard Buddhist teaching that “all suffering comes from clinging on”. The use of ‘clinging’ in this translation is deliberate, in that it indicates something that is dysfunctional, an act of desperation, a sign that there is more at stake than appears on the surface. There is nothing wrong with attaching, so long as there is nothing wrong with un-attaching, but to cling on to something or someone when it/they have ceased to be a sustaining or creative force in your life, implies some hidden owing or dependency which in the end will cause more distress.
All of the emotions I look at below owe something to the process which we know as attachment.
Disappointment… can be a momentary thing, or it can be more extended and might be a layer of feeling contained in emotions such as sadness or regret. It always relates to something that isn’t but might have been. It is quite often accompanied, in our thoughts if not in our words, by “If only…”. In origin the word relates to not having been appointed to a position, and so we can see that, giving it an emotional context, it implies not being in the (emotional) state that we expected to be. Thus it is not so much being deprived of something that in some way we possessed and have become accustomed to, as being deprived of something that we expected. You will recall that the second of the precepts for the Clear Space path for meditation related to not burdening ourselves with expectations. And the implication of feeling disappointment is that, rather than simply wishing or hoping for something, we have expected it. Therein lies the pain that we feel. Not acute perhaps, but still there. Tied up with the emotional investment we have made in an outcome over which we did not have complete control, or maybe any control at all. A more mindful attitude to a future prospect would be “If it happens, it happens”. Of course there are still the times when the disappointment is with ourselves, or with our part in something. The equivalent attitude in this case might be “If I can do it, I will do it; if I don’t manage it, it was beyond me”. Does that sound insufficiently resolute? After the event it is simply a statement of reality. I suggest the lack of resolution, if there is any, comes in what we do next.
Stress… is insidious. It creeps up on us without our noticing. It does this by reducing our awareness of what is going on, what we are doing. We don’t notice that we are working over every night, not just the times we absolutely must; we forget that we haven’t taken a proper break; we don’t realise that we never say “no”, take on too much, make promises we can’t keep without sacrificing our own rest and recuperation time, help others and end up not being able to help ourselves. The mobile phone, the smart-phone, the iPad cease to be tools and become masters.
Stress will eventually produce anxiety and, in common with some anxiety conditions, is almost always to do with boundaries and our failure to set and maintain the boundaries that are appropriate for us at the time. For many there may be aggravating factors − with work stress, competition and/or the organisation’s ethic are often factors; for adolescents (and others) peer comparison can be significant; in social settings ‘looking good’ or ‘doing what is expected’ is often important. But in all cases the resolution must lie with ourselves. It would not be true to say that we can always set boundaries that alleviate our stress. If we are overstretched by work but, for the survival of our family, we cannot refuse excessive demands and because of the prevailing economic situation cannot find alternative employment, then in the short-term at least we will have to find a way to live with the stress by minimising somehow the toll it is taking on our system.
Stress lowers our immunity, damages our relationships and distorts our reasoning.
Any one of these could produce the event that stops us in our tracks … with a breakdown or cardiovascular illness, through a home life which has become intolerable to our partner, through a catastrophic mis-judgement.
A practice of mindfulness and meditation will not cure stress … and there is a risk. To the extent that such a practice alleviates the symptoms it may bring a false belief that things are now alright and that no changes need to be made. Thus a re-assessment of one’s personal situation and major aspects of one’s life is essential. Because of the effect of stress in distorting judgement, it would be important to do this with someone else, at some stage with one’s partner, but also perhaps with someone independent and impartial. And alongside such a re-assessment, a regular daily meditation period, if possible at the start of the day, will ease the passage through the day, while short breaks for intentional mindfulness will sustain the steadier emotional state evoked by meditation.
Anxiety… is a human condition; few people can say that they never experience anxiety or that there is no aspect of their lives in which, at least in some circumstances, they would not feel anxious.
It is helpful to distinguish anxiety from fear. Broadly we could say that we feel fear at something specific and anxiety when our disquiet has a less tangible cause. ‘Less tangible’ might refer to not knowing the size of what might hit us, or the likelihood, or the timing. So anxiety is related to uncertainty, but there are other conditions, which are also present, which are to do with ourselves rather than outside factors. They are necessary conditions for anxiety to arise, though not always sufficient in themselves.
One of the most common is boundaries, or more specifically, how we maintain our boundaries. This goes from someone who is not an intimate coming too close (we all have a physical comfort zone, perimeters which we set according to the person we are with, and if someone comes inside our ‘perimeter for them’, then we feel uncomfortable), through to the prospect of another demand for our time or attention when we feel unable to say “no” or when what is being asked is inappropriate. For all these situations, the responsibility lies with us. We may not be the encroacher, but now or sometime earlier we have given away our power by allowing our boundaries to become more vague than we can manage. Changing may be something we can do ourselves, because we can recognise a pattern like this, but sometimes the start of the pattern may lie deeper and may have involved events or experiences that we could not control. The circumstances have become buried or the link with our anxiety has been lost. These are situations in which assistance with psychological therapy would be advised. There are also many people who would say that they know themselves as worriers or “the nervous type”. A disposition to anxiety of this kind is likely to have its roots in their early years, even from the moment of birth (some would say before birth), and may be part of their personality which will never completely go away. For all of these a diligent practice of mindfulness will be a palliative, though not of itself a cure. An extension of the mindfulness moment may help further. Having achieved a state of non-judgmental awareness of the moment (which will be the more difficult the more anxious you are), reflect on the change you have felt towards a more relaxed state, stay with it for a few extra moments and tell yourself that you appreciate it. This sort of drawing our own attention to how we feel does not prevent re-occurrence of anxiety, but it will gradually ease the way to reducing its effect.
For some people however, anxiety is all-pervading and hangs like a weight over their very existence. They might know it as agoraphobia or social phobia or generalised anxiety disorder, and with it may come symptoms of panic. Some people know it as a dark shadow and a black negativity about the world. I will call all these existential anxiety. This form of anxiety in the extreme can be paralysing for sufferers because it causes them to withdraw from the world in order to limit their exposure. The withdrawal might be physical, as in agoraphobia or social phobia, or it might be by limiting their range of activity, or it might take the form of an emotional cutting off from engagement with their surroundings, and feel as if real life was draped in a shadowy curtain which takes away its colour and its vivacity. This form of anxiety accompanies many presentations of depression. With all these responses, which are symptoms of the condition, there is a distancing as an attempt to maintain some sense of being in control. The anxiety is a survival response to the unknown or the unmeasurable.
The ultimate unknown for us all is death and we unwittingly increase our fear of death by making it an object. In the same way, we make life an object – we more often talk about ‘life’ than about ‘living’. The contribution of the Clear Space path is in its focus on process, so that life does really become a process of living and not a precious object like a jewel to which we cling. If I had an expensive jewel - which I don’t - I might become so afraid of losing it or having it stolen that I would lock it away in a vault. Then I could not enjoy it, even for the time I might have had before it was taken from me. Likewise with life, if I see it as an object: my anxiety arises from my clinging, because I might not be able to cling firmly enough. And in the end death will come anyway. Clear Space can offer relief from anxiety-provoking clinging because we cannot cling to processes. We can cling to ‘life’, if that is how we frame it, but we cannot cling to ‘living’. The distancing which is the characteristic of anxiety achieves nothing, because it destroys what it is trying to protect. Death will still come - it is the one certainty about living - but it comes as the ending of all processes. In reality death is nothing.
© Simon Cole 2014