After a recent appointment I found myself trying to rectify why it seemed that I was talking to my client out of two sides of my mouth. The oversimplified version was one side of my mouth was telling my client to share her feelings and the other side was telling her to not feel anything, of course there’s more to it. The client had been talking about how hard it was to see her grown son making unhealthy choices and how it sends her into a tailspin of worry about what she can say or do to make things better. I advised her to tell her son what she is observing and how it makes her feel, then leave the problem solving to him. A few minutes later we were talking about how she feels good when she sees certain signs that tell her he is making healthy choices, and then feels distressed when those signs are not there. My suggestion was that she practice not getting attached to feeling good about the signs when they are there so that she won’t feel bad when they are not there. So the more complicated version of “telling her to not feel anything” is telling her to practice non-attachment and avoid meaning-making. Which means what?
Non-attachment is an acceptance of the impermanence of all things and states of being. Attachment is a clinging to or strong need for circumstances to be a certain way. And mean-making is what our evolved brains do so well, looking for patterns, making sense of things, interpreting what we see, predicting the future, etc. The downside both to meaning making and attachment is that we begin to expect certain things and set ourselves up for disappointment when those things are gone or turn out differently. Another downside is that our focus gets directed away from the present moment and the full experience of what is happening now.
Sometimes it can seems like a good thing to redirect our focus, for example if the present moment is painful, however, if we are not taking it all in we are denying ourselves access to all the information that is available. Staying present allows us to notice if there is a familiarity in the experience that could give clues to subtle connections to things that could be exacerbating the emotion or increasing its frequency, such as habitual interaction styles or distorted beliefs about self, others, and the world. The good news about staying in the experience of the moment no matter how painful is that if you are not feeding an emotion through judgment, mean-making and then the emotion will fade after about 90 seconds.
“Stillness, insight, and wisdom arise only when we can settle into being complete in this moment, without having to seek or hold on to or reject anything”
-Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go there you are
You can obtain this stillness of the present moment by allowing yourself to observe the physical sensations, thoughts, imagery, and energy of an emotional experience in the moment rather than being consumed by analysis and thus transported to the future or past. You can boost your ability to accept even the most difficult situations by using some tips from Marsha Linehan: try a half-smile as you go about your day tuning into the sensations it brings; use “radical acceptance” to remind yourself that acceptance is acknowledging what is which is not the same as judging it to be desirable; and turning the mind again and again and again towards a commitment to accept.
I like to remember the difference between NOWing and KNOWing. This reminds me to focus on how something makes me feel NOW in the present moment so I can avoid the temptation of focusing on the illusion of KNowing how I will feel in the next moment or KNowing what the future will hold. I also believe accepting impermanence makes it more possible to generate gratitude for the special uniqueness of each moment. My cousin shared the quote below when my mom was at the end of her life, I like the imagery generated by her words and I like how it addresses the misunderstanding and over-simplification that non-attachment means we can’t appreciate and enjoy the good things while we have them.
“We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”
-Pema Chodron, When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times