I’ve been thinking about how so many of us find it hard to be in the presence of our feelings. We believe that we should work to make them go away when we have them. Like they are demons to be exorcised.
And sometimes, because we find our own feelings uncomfortable we find the feelings of other people uncomfortable, too. Because the natural response to another person’s feeling is to feel it with them.
Anyway, last week, I lost my Buddhist robes (kind of the equivalent to vestments in other religions) when I left them on an Amtrak train. I said so on my Facebook page. I also said that I was sad.
The responses were interesting in the regard that some people joked or implied that the feeling of sadness was wrong. “Aren’t Zen people supposed to detach?” Some tried to change my sad feeling in various ways. Others actually tried to help (thank you!!).
I’ve come to feel that trying to avoid or change or fight feelings in myself or others is in itself a cause of suffering. Of course, there are meticulous means for changing our feeling state when it is necessary in order to get things done.
But a passing feeling of sadness for one’s robes or grief over a loved one or fear for a child or even self-pity for not having a romantic partner, as examples, are not usually changed or helped by saying, for example, “detach” (of course, there is the occasional case when it can help, but not generally as a knee-jerk response).
I think this: That when I am tempted to try to change another person’s feeling state it is actually because I am frightened of or uncomfortable with the sympathetic feeling state that arises in me. That I am, basically, wanting to change their feeling to avoid feeling mine.
Thus, if we are scared of our feelings or uncomfortable with them, we can find ourselves trying to change people and the world around us, not because they are the best changes, but because we don’t like the feelings in ourselves.
It is said by some that feelings are not facts. But my experience does not bear that out. Feelings, at the moment I feel them, are Truth. The stories that have caused the feelings or the stories that are sparked by the feelings may be delusional, but the feelings themselves are there and true.
Maybe this sounds like a long bitch about the fact that some people were not sympathetic about my losing my robes. LOL. But it is not. Actually, I have come to feel that our inability to truly face ourselves and our feelings and everything else about ourselves is one of the roots of our vast world problems.
When we see people in poverty or suffering injustice, the sadness and powerlessness is potentially so strong in us that we avoid feeling them by telling ourselves stories about how it is not our job to help or that it is those people’s own fault.
When we see climate injustice or social injustice, the fear of what it would take to help is so strong that we have to tell ourselves that it is someone else’s fault, far, far away, and we get very angry at them but meanwhile keep doing what we are doing.
Or when someone loses their Buddhist robes on the train and they are sad, we fear feeling sad with them so we tell them they should detach or think of the person that finds them. (God bless the person who finds my robes, by the way. They won’t be any use except maybe on Halloween and, then, only if the person who wants to wear them is nearly 6 feet tall.)
I have all this pushing away of feelings, too. Sometimes people start to tell me a tale of woe and I think “I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to feel feelings right now.” (That could lead us to discuss appropriate boundaries, but that’s a whole different topic. Suffice to say that, trust in myself to erect boundaries is one of the things that makes me feel safer to feel my feelings).
But when someone tells me they are sad, I have been experimenting with saying, “You are sad, so I am sad too.” Or if someone is hurt, I might say, “I feel your hurt with you.” And then, if it’s appropriate, “How may I help you?”
I’m not saying it is right or wrong or that there is any appropriate response for all circumstances. I’m just saying this is an approach I would like to adopt more often.
I’m also saying that my attempts to avoid my own feelings can do harm and can cause me to miss opportunities to do good. I notice that can be the case in others too. And I think, in part, to solve the big world problems, part of what is required is for us to learn to accept feelings and stop spending so much energy trying to push them away.
By the way, for me, meditation seems to be one great method for learning to comfortably remain in the presences of my feelings. While paying attention to the breath, watch feelings arise. What is this? Don’t judge and opinionate but really observes. Often, I’ve discovered, what I am fighting so hard to get rid of is just a passing tightness in the chest or discomfort in the tummy or watering of the eyes.