Dear Still Water Friends,
When I was a teenager I suffered from a lot of anxiety. I began my practice of meditation around this same time. The year was 1979 and I recently graduated from high school and had the overwhelming feeling that I needed to navigate my own path in what appeared to be the great scary unknown. I felt overwhelmed. I could feel it in my body like a live electrical current.
Over the years my old friend anxiety has resurfaced again and again up from the basement of my being and into the living room. In fact, it is always there–deep inside. It is also not alone. Anger, sadness, joy, contentment, are also all there and accompany the large field of bodily-sensations (“felt senses”) within the body. The body-sensations I am referring to are felt senses in the body that originate and first present themselves as pre-cognitive. These are more subtle than emotions and yet proliferate into emotions. These body sensations are always in the here and now and provide an important pathway for our mindfulness practice.
In my early years of meditation practice I attempted to escape these unpleasant body sensations and focused primarily on my mind and resting in the space between thoughts. I was largely ignoring my body.
In our mindfulness practice, we learn to incorporate our body intelligence. We learn to pause and come home to ourselves recognizing, accepting, and embracing all that is arising and present. In this embodied practice we become well acquainted and intimate with the large array of felt-sense bodily sensations in the here and now. By skillful means we continue to fine-tune the feelings within the feelings and the emotions within the emotions. Larry Rosenberg in his book, Breath by Breath, interprets the seventh step of the second step of the Mindfulness of Breathing Discourse as: “Sensitive to mental processes (feelings and how they proliferate into emotions), I breathe in. Sensitive to mental processes I breathe out.”
Thay introduces us to the practice of shamatha (stopping) and vipashyana (looking deeply). In this practice we as practitioners use the skillful means to work with all that arises. When a strong emotion is present or a pre-cognitive felt bodily sensation is stirring within us we can practice these 5 steps:
- Recognition—If we are anxious we say, “I know that anxiety is in me”
- Acceptance – We accept what is present allowing it to be just as it is
- Embracing—we hold our anxiety with tender care like a mother would tend to a crying baby. We nourish with self compassion
- Looking deeply –we investigate our inner experience with gentle kindness
- Insight- is the fruit that may arise to see clearly the many conditions, primary and secondary that bought about our experience
Recently, I used this practice when I woke one morning with a strong feeling of anxiety. I felt I had so much to do and was feeling overwhelmed. This sensation was strong and carried me away in thoughts. In addition to the anxiety, I could feel felt-sense bodily sensations arising. They were strong and overwhelming. Stopping and recognizing my anxiety, I began to practice walking meditation in order to come back home to myself. Soon afterwards, like all mornings, I invited the bell and sat in meditation. When I sat with my anxiety, allowing it to be, the first sensation to arise was hunger, like a tight rubber ball in my stomach. It was pulling me away in aversion from the deeper down emotions and sensations arising. I had the strong urge to get up from meditation and not face these unpleasant sensations.
“Can I just stay with this?” I asked myself. Soon other emotions and sensations arose. There was sadness and the sensation of moist warm tears just behind my eyes. It felt as if tears were just about to fall. There was excitement and joy experienced like a bubbling sensation at my heart center. I was aware of the constriction of anger in my chest. I noticed fear like a hollow pit in my abdomen. I felt all of these at the same time and sat with each of these one at a time and investigated in a non-analytical, non-judgmental manor with friendliness and kindness towards myself. Naming whatever came up around each of these sensations. Not trying to fix anything, or creating a story around what was going on, I became curious about my inner life as human being. Deeply touching each of these emotions and sensations I felt a warm embodied connection to myself and other beings and the warm feeling that we are all in this together.
What has come from this practice is not an end to my anxiety. It is still there. What is changing is my relationship to my anxiety.
This Thursday evening after our sitting and walking meditation, we will discuss our challenges and successes with working with our body intelligence, our felt-sense body sensations. We will begin our dharma sharing with this question:
When we are locked into anxiety, or other strong emotions, how do we work with our mindfulness practice to bring our suffering into the light of our mindfulness?
Below are excerpts from Thich Nhat Hanh on working with our strong emotions and from Ann Weiser Cornell on The Felt Sense.
I hope you can join us.
Stopping, Calming, Resting, Healing by Thich Nhat Hanh from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
Buddhist meditation has two aspects — shamatha and vipashyana. We tend to stress the importance of vipashyana (“looking deeply”) because it can bring us insight and liberate us from suffering and afflictions. But the practice of shamatha (“stopping”) is fundamental. If we cannot stop, we cannot have insight.
There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!” This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop. The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless. We are always running, and it has become a habit. We struggle all the time, even during our sleep. We are at war within ourselves, and we can easily start a war with others.
We have to learn the art of stopping — stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace. We turn on the TV and then we turn it off. We pick up a book and then we put it down. How can we stop this state of agitation? How can we stop our fear, despair, anger, and craving? We can stop by practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, and deep looking in order to understand. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.
But our habit energies are often stronger than our volition. We say and do things we don’t want to and afterwards we regret it. We make ourselves and others suffer, and we bring about a lot of damage. We may vow not to do it again, but we do it again. Why? Because our habit energies (vashana) push us.
We need the energy of mindfulness to recognize and be present with our habit energy in order to stop this course of destruction. With mindfulness, we have the capacity to recognize the habit energy every time it manifests. “Hello, my habit energy, I know you are there!” If we just smile to it, it will lose much of its strength. Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to recognize our habit energy and prevent it from dominating us.
Forgetfulness is the opposite. We drink a cup of tea, but we do not know we are drinking a cup of tea. We sit with the person we love, but we don’t know that she is there. We walk, but we are not really walking. We are someplace else, thinking about the past or the future. The horse of our habit energy is carrying us along, and we are its captive. We need to stop our horse and reclaim our liberty. We need to shine the light of mindfulness on everything we do, so the darkness of forgetfulness will disappear. The first function of meditation — shamatha — is to stop.
The second function of shamatha is calming. When we have a strong emotion, we know it can be dangerous to act, but we don’t have the strength or clarity to refrain. We have to learn the art of breathing in and out, stopping our activities, and calming our emotions. We have to learn to become solid and stable like an oak tree, and not be blown from side to side by the storm. The Buddha taught many techniques to help us calm our body and mind and look deeply at them. They can be summarized in five stages:
(1) Recognition — If we are angry, we say, “I know that anger is in me.”
(2) Acceptance — When we are angry, we do not deny it. We accept what is present.
(3) Embracing — We hold our anger in our two arms like a mother holding her crying baby. Our mindfulness embraces our emotion, and this alone can calm our anger and ourselves.
(4) Looking deeply — When we are calm enough, we can look deeply to understand what has brought this anger to be, what is causing our baby’s discomfort.
(5) Insight — The fruit of looking deeply is understanding the many causes and conditions, primary and secondary, that have brought about our anger, that are causing our baby to cry. Perhaps our baby is hungry. Perhaps his diaper pin is piercing his skin. Our anger was triggered when our friend spoke to us meanly, and suddenly we remember that he was not at his best today because his father is dying. We reflect like this until we have some insights into what has caused our suffering. With insight, we know what to do and what not to do to change the situation.
After calming, the third function of shamatha is resting. Suppose someone standing alongside a river throws a pebble in the air and it falls down into the river. The pebble allows itself to sink slowly and reach the riverbed without any effort. Once the pebble is at the bottom, it continues to rest, allowing the water to pass by. When we practice sitting meditation, we can allow ourselves to rest just like that pebble. We can allow ourselves to sink naturally into the position of sitting — resting, without effort. We have to learn the art of resting, allowing our body and mind to rest. If we have wounds in our body or our mind, we have to rest so they can heal themselves.
Calming allows us to rest, and resting is a precondition for healing. When animals in the forest get wounded, they find a place to lie down, and they rest completely for many days. They don’t think about food or anything else. They just rest, and they get the healing they need. When we humans get sick, we just worry! We look for doctors and medicine, but we don’t stop. Even when we go to the beach or the mountains for a vacation, we don’t rest, and we come back more tired than before. We have to learn to rest. Lying down is not the only position for resting. During sitting or walking meditation, we can rest very well. Meditation does not have to be hard labor. Just allow your body and mind to rest like an animal in the forest. Don’t struggle. There is no need to attain anything. I am writing a book, but I am not struggling. I am resting also. Please read in a joyful, yet restful way. The Buddha said, “My Dharma is the practice of non-practice.” Practice in a way that does not tire you out, but gives your body, emotions, and consciousness a chance to rest. Our body and mind have the capacity to heal themselves if we allow them to rest.
The Felt Sense by Ann Weiser Cornell from The International Focusing Institute
The key concept of Focusing is the felt sense: a body sensation that is meaningful. Examples include a jittery feeling in the stomach as you stand up to speak, or a heaviness in the heart as you think of a distant loved one.
A felt sense is usually experienced in the middle of the body: abdomen, stomach, chest, throat–although felt senses also occur in other parts of the body. A person may get a felt sense of “this relationship,” or “that creative project,” or “the part of me that has a hard time with public speaking,” and so on. Felt senses are different from emotions, although they are likely to contain emotions. If emotions are like primary colors, felt senses are like subtle blends of colors. The emotion might be “fear,” but the felt sense of the fear would be more like: “jumpy, almost excited,” or “frozen like a rabbit in the headlights,” or “clutching in my throat, won’t let go.” There is a uniqueness to a felt sense, a quality of “here is how it is right now, for me.”
Felt senses are often (but not always) elusive, vague, temporary, subtle, and hard to describe. One of the most difficult aspects of learning Focusing, for most people, is the shift of attention from experiences that are definite, clear, and unmistakable (like headaches) to experiences that are, as Gendlin puts it, “indefinable, global, puzzling, odd, uneasy, fuzzy.”