A few weeks ago, my curious and adventurous puppy wandered into a bush in our backyard and came upon a wasp nest. He bolted from the thick branches, with many wasps in pursuit, yelping in pain. As I bent down to pick him up, I felt a painful sting in my arm, and did my best to not join him in the high-pitched squealing.
Once we were safely indoors we nursed our wounds, and our nervous systems began to settle down, though we both were quite tender to the touch for a while.
The next day, I received an email from a reader that asked me if I could address “how to work with the difficult emotions that sometimes come up” in meditation. Sitting at my computer, with my upper arm now hot, inflamed, and itchy in an intense localized reaction to wasp venom, I considered how timely this request was.
Emotions are a lot like wasps — they can arrive completely unexpectedly, they can be quite painful, and our first instinct is often to run away from them as fast as we can. The emotions that pop up during meditation can surprise us in much the same way my puppy was startled by his discovery in the backyard: we’re just sitting on our cushion, exploring the landscape, enjoying some calm and sunshine, and then we peek under a dark structure and — ZAP! an emotion arises and stings us.
With mindfulness — kind and curious attention to our present moment experience — we can take a bit of the sting out of our feelings, and nurse our emotional pain in much the same way we tend to our physical injuries.
When a difficult emotion arises, you can…
1. Name Your Experience
When my puppy first emerged from the bushes, I had no idea what had happened — all I knew was he was terrified and in pain. As soon as I could label the experience as “wasp sting,” I felt (slightly) more in control. I knew where the danger was, and what I needed to do. I could handle the situation once I knew what I was facing.
When emotions first arise, they are just a buzzing confusion of thoughts and bodily sensations and judgments and action tendencies. But when we bring a kind attention to them, we get a bit of clarity, and we might notice, “Ah, this is anger,” or “This is fear.” The label doesn’t need to be exact (whether they were wasps or bees or hornets didn’t really matter at the moment, as long as I narrowed in on the “stinging insect” category).
When we name our emotion (or at least identify its genre), as neuroscientist Dan Siegel quips, we tame it.
Just labeling our emotion takes a little bit of its power away. It’s no longer a mysterious “feeling,” but an identifiable experience. It doesn’t mean we control it, anymore than I could control those dang wasps, but once we know what’s going on, we can work with it.
2. Allow Your Experience
When unpleasant emotions arise, we often want to turn away from them. We may place our attention elsewhere, pick up our phone, or deny that we’re feeling anything at all.
Sometimes we even fight the emotion, swatting it away or wishing desperately to be feeling something else. But the emotion is still there, and, as Carl Jung said, “That which we resist, persists.”
Had my puppy not gone into his fierce hunter mode, poking and disturbing a wasp nest with his clumsy, adolescent paws, perhaps he would not have been stung. When my kindergartner’s class went on a field trip to the local apple orchard a few years ago, they were told that when the bees come near them, they should BE(E) STILL. Striking at the bees frightens them and makes them sting; allowing them to float around you lets you experience them with curiosity and safety. (Note: this may not work for wasps because they’re kind of jackasses…)
Once my puppy and I had been stung, there was no use denying or fighting what had happened. I could have cursed all the wasps, or yelled at my inquisitive puppy, or angrily wished to NOT be in pain. None of it would have been helpful.
Instead, I was able to act with (relative) calm, taking action in the next moment because I had allowed the previous moment to be as it was.
3. Listen to Your Experience
As an emotion arises, take a close look at what is happening in your body. All sorts of messages are being sent through your breath and heart rate and “gut feelings.” Fundamentally, an emotion is INFORMATION: something in your environment needs your attention, and your body is doing all it can to make sure you get the memo.
Notice your rapid breath, your tense shoulders, your quivering muscles, your tingling hands, your churning stomach, your clenched teeth, your heavy heart… whatever physical manifestations of the emotion are present. “Anger” can be overwhelming, but breaking it down into its component parts makes it more manageable, and also, somewhat counter-intuitively, less personal. You can notice “This is what is happening now.” You can ask, “What information is my body trying to tell me?”
While emotions can be pleasant or unpleasant, there’s no such thing as a “bad” or “wrong” emotion; it’s all just information.
As soon as my puppy and I were stung, we got immediate pain messages telling us to back away from the wasps. Our immune systems immediately got to work defending us against the foreign venom now in our systems, and even began preparing us to be able to ward off future encounters with wasps.
So this means you can…
4. Soften Your Experience
Trust that what is happening is completely natural. Your body and brain are having a totally normal response that is aimed at healing you and restoring your equilibrium.
Inhale deeply and allow your breath to slow down (your heart rate will likely follow). Release the tension in your jaw, your neck, your shoulders, your fists, or anywhere else you are bracing against your experience.
You can also…
5. Step Back From Your Experience
One of my teachers says that “Not now” is always an acceptable response. Sometimes emotions arise at times that aren’t really conducive to exploring and working with them (e.g., in the checkout line at Target). When this happens, or when staying with the emotion gets too intense, you can step back.
This isn’t the same as denying your emotion; it’s a recognition of what’s happening, and also an acknowledgement that you needn’t be overwhelmed by feeling your feels all the time.
It took a good week for my poor arm to recover from the encounter with the wasps. During that time, I mindfully noticed and sat with the pain and irritation and OMG the itching, and I also relied on several creamy concoctions of aloe and camphor and hydrocortisone and diphenhydramine.
So feel your feels when you can, and also find the soothing balms that allow you to feel nurtured, that help you create a safe container in which to hold your experiences, wasps and all.
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