This weekend, Pema Chödrön gave a retreat in Vermont called “Three Steps to Courage.” She spoke of how much more courage it takes to be with our strong emotions than to act out based on them. She noted that the bravery we ascribe to acts of physical courage often pales in comparison to the bravery needed to face our fears and habit energies that have become our life’s companions and, perhaps, demons.
Although Ani Pema taught for several hours, for me the core of her teaching was about refraining from acting on our strong emotions and instead simply letting ourselves experience them and then let go of them. This is consistent with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings of touching or embracing our emotions and then letting them go.
Usually, when we feel the onset of a strong emotion, there’s both a physical and a mental sensation—the heartache of sorrow, for example, or the fire of anger. Instead of staying with these initial physical and/or mental sensations, our habit is to reflexively attach a storyline or reaction to the sensation. As a result, we do not really come to know the emotion, but instead replay a familiar tape about our sorrow or set of churning thoughts that become our anger. Most of us confuse our thoughts about our emotions with the emotions themselves because we so rarely endure the discomfort of simply observing the emotions.
Ani Pema gave four steps to refrain from acting out of our habitual patterns:
- Recognizing you’re hooked—that a strong emotion or feeling has activated you and you’re either in the grips of the emotion or well on your way to being caught up in it.
- Feeling what you feel. Focusing on the actual physical sensation or quality of the underlying sensation and staying with it from a stance of openness and kindness.
- Releasing or interrupting the storyline that has almost certainly already started about the emotion or feeling, which serves to stop the momentum.
- Relaxing, letting go, and softening to receive and be aware of the physical and/or emotional state, including its shifting, changing nature. One teacher calls this letting be instead of letting go.
By practicing these four elements of refraining, we come to see that acting upon and putting words to our emotions are “like exits to feelings,” according to Pema Chödrön. They let us avoid and not experience the true nature of our emotions and feelings, instead leaving us trapped in the stories and habituated patterns that we’ve built. Ani Pema teaches that what’s wonderful about leaning into our emotions and being with them is that we discover they’re not nearly as scary or awful as we’ve made them out to be. Instead, there’s immense wisdom in them. By experiencing our emotions and coming to know the energy they convey, we see our basic humanity not only in ourselves, but in others who experience the exact same thing. When we come to know the underlying nature of our experiences and emotions, we recognize ourselves when we see others get triggered, and we recognize them in us when we get triggered and head down the same path.
This Thursday, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Training with a focus on the First Training, Reverence for Life, which is reproduced below along with a quotation from Pema Chödrön. For me, Ani Pema’s discussion reflects the First Training because it is when we turn away from our direct experience and live in our world of recurring storylines and emotionally avoidant habits that we wall ourselves off not only from our own direct experience of life, but from each other and from life itself. When we auto-default to blame upon feeling the mere hint of rejection, burst out when we catch a whiff of frustration, or start imagining a sweet when the flutter of anxiety or dullness of boredom peak around the corner, we are missing critically important moments for potential awakening to our actual experience of being alive.
After we recite the Five Trainings, we will share our experiences of refraining, or not refraining, in our daily lives. Have you been able to watch emotions unfold, or do they seem to happen in a flash leaving you gobsmacked? Are you aware of when you’re spiraling down a habitual path, but are helpless to stop the momentum? What experiences have you had with refraining and with failing to refrain?
I hope you can join us,
First Mindfulness Training, Reverence For Life
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.
Pema Chödrön, Practicing Peace in Times of War
Traditionally, it is taught that patience is the antidote to aggression. So when you’re like a keg of dynamite just about to go off, patience means just slowing down at that point – just pausing – instead of immediately acting on your usual, habitual response. You refrain from acting, you stop talking to yourself, and then you connect with the soft spot. But at the same time you are completely and totally honest with yourself about what you are feeling. Patience has nothing to do with suppression. If you wait and don’t fuel the rage with your thoughts, you can be very honest about the fact that you long for revenge; nevertheless you keep interrupting the torturous story line and stay with the underlying vulnerability. That frustration, that uneasiness and vulnerability, is nothing solid. And yet it is painful to experience. Still, just wait and be patient with your anguish and with the discomfort of it. This means relaxing with that restless, hot energy – knowing that it’s the only way to find peace with ourselves or the world.