We are all meant to be blissed out right?
One of the common misconceptions about meditation practice is that once we’ve done it for a few weeks we somehow transform into peaceful, tranquil beings who are completely unflappable in the face of any and every situation, never have extreme emotions (unless it is a moment of transcendent awe) and never put a foot wrong in our personal relationships.
Sorry to have to break it to you – but this is not going to happen!
We are, after all, human beings with a range of emotions. And not only that, but we are also the sum total of all our experiences to date, which will have left their marks on us. We have buttons that get pressed, trauma that gets triggered, and personalities we have formed over decades. These are the things that make us who we are, and we don’t really want to wipe all that out, do we?
The hardships we have endured and the lessons we have learnt through making mistakes have allowed us to accrue wisdom, understanding and hopefully compassion for others who have hard times and make mistakes. And the emotions we experience are all part of being human.
We often mistakenly believe that ‘spiritual’ people or those of us practicing mindfulness or meditation, should be above emotions such as anger, frustration, rage, shame etc. but according to neuroscience research, this is impossible and would not be healthy or helpful. Take anger for example, it can be destructive when out of control, but it is a great motivator. How many humanitarian projects have been fuelled by anger at injustice for example? Anger is necessary for our survival – if we don’t feel anger at the person coming towards us with an axe, we won’t release the necessary stress hormones to take the relevant action.
And it can be feeling these so called ‘negative’ or ‘destructive’ emotions that can derail our mindfulness practices and development when we mistakenly believe that we are failing in some way. As Dr. Laurie Santos reminds us, being in the moment is easy when it’s all unicorns and rainbows but the real work starts when it’s anger or fear that we have to face. She also reminds us that this is so important for psychological flexibility and, ultimately, happiness.
I want to share with you something psychologist and researcher Dian Hill recently wrote:
“Every year we take a trip along the coast to cut down our Christmas tree. It takes teamwork, physical effort, and time I never think we have, and that is what makes it meaningful. It’s a tiny practice in psychological flexibility.”
She goes on to explain, “If you want a full life, a meaningful life, turn toward your values…even when it’s uncomfortable.”
These feelings of discomfort can be mild, such as irritation or frustration, and by skilfully managing these on a daily basis, accepting that they are here, they are normal human experiences and it’s ok to have these feelings, we can then make better choices about how to act rather than simply reacting when the feelings we’ve been trying to ignore eventually catch us out and take over. That is when we tend to make mistakes by doing or saying something we later regret.
Hill goes on to remind us that psychological flexibility is a lifestyle, not just a skill set. And little practices prepare us for when we need it in bigger doses. There are lots of practices we have explored over the last year; below you will find some recommended by Hill to help you develop this flexibility with compassion for yourself and your efforts. Remember you are doing the best you can!
So next time you have a thought or a feeling that you think you ‘shouldn’t’ have, or that you aren’t ‘doing’ your mindfulness properly or you would be able to avoid difficult thoughts or feelings, remind yourself of these teachings. In ACT we are taught that we won’t necessarily be able to change all of our challenging thoughts and beliefs, the ones that make us question our abilities or self-worth, as they may have been with us for too long, but what we can do is learn how to pick them all up and take them with us as we pursue our values based, meaningful and rewarding lives.
Remember that all of our emotions have a purpose and that, with practice, we can learn how to be more comfortable with them so that they don’t control our behaviours and actions, we can see them for what they really are and then we can make choices about how to respond. And when we fall into reactivity, that is when we need to be most compassionate with ourselves. This is what develops our emotional and psychological flexibility and the ability to learn from our mistakes rather than getting stuck in shame and blame.
Have a read through the exercises recommended by Hill and maybe have a go at some of them. I’d love to hear about your experiences if you do.
1) The way out is in: Psychological flexibility begins with how you relate to your inner world. How can you stay present with whatever shows up under your skin? Brother Phap Huu teaches us the basics of compassionate awareness. Greet difficult feelings when they show up and care for them, “Hello fear. I see you. I am here for you.”
2) Open to uncertainty and change: When you resist change, your attempts to control can end up controlling you. If you can learn to ride the wave of uncertainty you will grow stronger. First, identify how you are resisting change. Then shift your perspective from seeing change as a threat, seeing to change as a challenge.
3) See context in everything: Staying psychologically flexible involves zooming out from time to time. Often we get so focused on “me”, we miss important contextual factors. As Dr. Christina Maslach shared with me about burnout, “It’s not a me problem, but a we problem.” It’s important to look at cultural, social, and biological factors when it comes to your well-being. It’s not all just in your head. And if you are burned out, take a look at these tips.
4) Forgive yourself: Being human means you will make mistakes, fail, and fall apart sometimes (actually, often). Consider turning toward your imperfections with kindness and care. Here are some ways to get started and a powerful conversation with ACT founder Kelly Wilson about forgiving the unforgivable.
5) Become an apprentice to grief: Learning to be skillful with loss is an essential life skill, because “everything we love, we will lose.” Grieving allows you to express gratitude and will expand your life. As Francis Weller shared with me, “When we open that deeper register of sorrow, the upper registers of joy become accessible.”
6) Unravel assumptions: Flexible thinking is like physical flexibility, you are going to have to get a bit uncomfortable if you want to expand your range of motion and move beyond rigid assumptions and harmful biases. Watch me be wrong and grow from it here. Then go pick up the book Unraveling Assumptions: A primer to understanding race and privilege.
7) Practice good stress and deep rest: A psychologically flexible lifestyle is not a stress-free one. In fact, you may experience more stress because of it. Train your body and mind to get better at responding to stress with intermittent hormetic stress and restorative “deep rest.” Try a deep rest with me here.
8) Take time to reflect and connect: It takes time and reflection to learn from your regrets and change from your mistakes. Give yourself that time each day, in whatever small way you can. Make it a lifestyle.
All the best, Natalie x