“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
In previous columns I have explored an idea that seems obviously true to me: mindfulness helps us cope with life when it hurts. Trying to avoid or resist pain and suffering does not work. Instead, it makes it worse. If we feel anxious and we are unwilling to feel anxious, we will try to “get away” from the feeling and fail to do so. And our anxiety will increase.
How do we avoid our own emotional experience? Can I run away from me? In the process of trying to not feel anxiety, we will not only feel it, but we accentuate our pain with extra despair and desperation.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapies like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) provide us with a scientific understanding of this dilemma and point us toward more effective solutions. Instead of trying to “feel good” or not “feel bad,” our goal is to increase our psychological flexibility.
As a result, we will be happier. We will feel better. We will experience a richer and more rewarding life. When reality slaps us down, we can bounce back. Our aim, however, is not to feel good. We aren’t trying to eliminate bad feelings. The prize we are pursuing is psychological flexibility, a process that involves a willingness to feel all our feelings, even the “bad” ones.
In The Reality Slap, Russ Harris reminds us that not all our thoughts are wonderful. Not all our emotions feel great. What do we do when we don’t feel good? When reality slaps us, many difficult thoughts and emotions will rise up and threaten to choke us. How can we respond? How do we react when we suddenly find ourselves confronted by thoughts and feelings that are as frightening as a poisonous snake or a menacing bear?
What can we do? Harris suggests we have four options. We can approach, run, ignore or simply observe and notice.
Grabbing a poisonous creature or attacking a wild animal could be fatal. We could be killed before we kill it. Likewise, running away might not work out any better. The bear might chase, catch and eat us. Ignoring might help but who can ignore something that is truly terrifying? The more we try to ignore our own thoughts and feelings, the more we focus on them instead.
How might mindful observation be more effective? Unlike wild animals, our thoughts and feelings can’t hurt us. They aren’t dangerous. We needn’t fear our internal experience of discomfort. Harris writes, “If we stay still and observe our emotions with curiosity, then they cannot hurt us or harm us in any way…and sooner or later they will pass.”
Harris explains there are two types of curiosity. One is cold, detached and uncaring like a machine or robot. Another type of curiosity can be warm, concerned and empathic like a loving parent. As we turn our gaze inward and experience difficult thoughts and memories, and painful feelings such as regret, grief or fear, doesn’t it “feel better” to hold it all gently and warmly like you might comfort a scared child?
Harris tells us the word “curiosity” comes from words that mean careful (full of care), curative diligence. We aren’t just noticing or observing. We are caring. We are attentive, persistent and protective. We are focused on health, healing and wholeness. We are separate from that which hurts and yet we choose to be with it in an attitude of open, interested compassion.
As we remain mindful, we can relate to our emotions with acceptance or what Harris calls expansion. We are aware without judging. We are indifferent or neutral. We allow them to exist. And by not preferring, blaming or resisting, we may understand them more deeply.
In Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, Steve Hayes urges us to accept our emotional experience in the present moment in a spirit of non-defensive willingness. It is “the opposite of effortful control.” Life continually asks us if we are willing to take it as it is. Are we? How does it help to go to war against something we can’t control or change?
Once we accept that suffering is a normal part of being human, we can mindfully notice how we respond to our painful experiences. Instead of giving into fear and grasping for solutions that sap our spirit and numb our nerves, we can pursue a new relationship with reality and the thoughts and feelings that arise in response. We can maintain an open and curious appreciation for the interesting differences between our experiences and the sad, scared or angry stories we tell ourselves about them.
We have a choice. At this moment, we can be present with what exists and accept it as it is or we can react with fear or anger as we mentally and emotionally oppose it. When we finally learn that resistance is futile, new doors open. New rooms are revealed. New ways of being are born.
We find it helpful now to notice how we are thinking while we hold ourselves kindly. And in the process, we might realize how frequently our own minds criticize and reject us. We are our own enemy. It is no wonder we struggle and strain. The game is rigged and we are tending our own traps.
As we anchor ourselves in the present moment, we realize the past and future only exist in the mind. They do not exist here in reality but are maintained as a kind of dream or alluring apparition. From this serene, centered awareness, we are able to connect with what is most important to us, like love.
No matter what life throws at us, we can preserve and protect our solid bond with that which secures and sustains us: our values. Pick a moment – any moment like this one – and notice something that is powerfully and viscerally true. Through mindfulness, we can wake up from our dream of suffering and separation. Freedom has arrived. We can see this now if we choose. It is within our power to continually reset our minds as we take a stand and refocus on our purpose.
What are we here to do? What is the plan? What can we do in the presence of all this pain? As we surrender, victory is ours. Can we see the opportunities before us? Regardless of the past or other people, we have a choice right now. What are we attending to? How are we attending to it? How are we responding? Is it helping or hurting? Do we treasure this life? Are we grateful? Are we in touch with all that is good, special and worthy of cherishing in our world? Are we bringing love into our experience?
Each moment of our existence, reality asks a question. Love or fear? Open or closed? Dead or alive? Will we move forward or run away? Are we ready to risk or are we going to play it safe? Are we going to keep dreaming or are we ready to wake up and see? We are all on the same train. The direction is clear. We are in this together. It all gets better from here if we want it to.
“And love is not convenient.
It does not cease at your command.
You might take and leave it,
but love is all I am.
Love is all I am.
“And love is not excitement.
It’s not kissing or holding hands.
I’m not some assignment,
no, love is all I am.
Love is all I am.
Love is all I am.”