If something is bothering you, move toward it rather than away from it.
We all have pain in our lives, whether it’s the ex we still long for, the jackhammer snarling across the street, or the sudden wave of anxiety when we get up to give a speech. If we let them, such irritants can distract us from the enjoyment of life. Paradoxically, the obvious response – focusing on the problem in order to combat and overcome it, often makes it worse.
The mind’s natural tendency when faced with pain is to attempt to avoid it by trying to resist unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations. When we lose a love, for instance, we fight our feelings of heartbreak. As we get older, we work feverishly to recapture our youth. When we’re sitting in the dentist’s chair waiting for a painful root canal, we wish we were anywhere but there. But in many cases, negative feelings and situations can’t be avoided and resisting them only magnifies the pain.
The problem is we have not just primary emotions but also secondary ones – emotions about other emotions. We get stressed out and then think, “I wish I weren’t so stressed out.” The primary emotion is stress over your workload. The secondary emotion is feeling, “I hate being stressed.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. The solution is acceptance – letting the emotion be there. That is, being open to the way things are in each moment without trying to manipulate or change the experience—without judging it, clinging to it, or pushing it away. The present moment can only be as it is. Trying to change it only frustrates and exhausts you. Acceptance relieves you of this needless extra suffering.
Suppose you’ve just broken up with your girlfriend or boyfriend; you’re heartbroken, overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and longing. You could try to fight these feelings, essentially saying, “I hate feeling this way; I need to make this feeling go away.” But by focusing on the pain – being sad about being sad, you only prolong the sadness. You do yourself a favor by accepting your feelings, saying instead, “I’ve just had a breakup. Feelings of loss are normal and natural. It’s OK for me to feel this way.”
Acceptance of an unpleasant state doesn’t mean you don’t have goals for the future. It just means you accept that certain things are beyond your control. The sadness, stress, pain, or anger is there whether you like it or not. Better to embrace the feeling as it is. Nor does acceptance mean you have to like what’s happening. Acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation. Acceptance is about what happens next, what you choose to do; what has to come out of your understanding of this moment.You watch your thoughts, perceptions, and emotions flit through your mind without getting involved. Thoughts are just thoughts. You don’t have to believe them and you don’t have to do what they say.
Here’s the most fundamental paradox of all: Mindfulness isn’t a goal, because goals are about the future, but you do have to set the intention of paying attention to what’s happening at the present moment. As you read the words printed on this page, as your eyes distinguish the black squiggles on white paper, as you feel gravity anchoring you to the planet, wake up. Become aware of being alive. And breathe. As you draw your next breath, focus on the rise of your abdomen on the in-breath, the stream of heat through your nostrils on the out-breath. If you’re aware of that feeling right now, as you’re reading this, you’re living in the moment. Nothing happens next. It’s not a destination. This is it. You’re already there.
Peace and Love, Jim