How to calm the storm within

I recently came across the suggestion that if you want to get a taste of what meditation is about, instantly, you can try the following exercise.

When you’re feeling a difficult emotion like anger, anxiety or sadness, sit down and just say to yourself, or rather to the feeling, “Bring it on!” Focus your attention on what’s happening in your body and just let it happen.

The image that came to mind when I heard this was of Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump when he’s sitting at the top of the mast during the storm. The rain is lashing down and the waves are rocking the boat from side to side, and he’s shouting “It’s time for a show-down — you and me! You’ll never sink this boat!”

Our most intense feelings are the ones we most want to hide from. Mindfulness is actually a practice of feeling your feelings more acutely. When people don’t realise this, or think that it’s supposed to make them feel better straight away, it can really put them off.

A friend who did her first very meditation with me said that she was never going to do it again because it made her feel her back pain, which before the meditation she couldn’t. Another said her anxiety felt stronger when she meditated, so maybe she should stop.

It’s understandable. Of course we want to escape pain or discomfort if we can. But ignoring, suppressing or numbing emotions may sometimes work as a short term strategy — but, think about it, does it ever work for you in the longer term?

If you ignore your back pain and keep doing what’s causing it, it’ll get worse. If you don’t face up to your anxiety, it might well self-perpetuate.

But mindfulness isn’t just about feeling it more, it’s also about learning to be OK with it. To allow whatever feelings are there to be there.

This, again, is a rebellion against natural selection, which has designed your feelings to control your behaviour. The stronger the perceived threat or reward, the stronger the feeling and the stronger the feeling, the greater the motivation to take an action will will help you pass your genes onto the next generation.

Evolutionary biologist Georges Romanes wrote, ten years after Darwin,

“Pleasure and pain must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism, and so evolved for the purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other.”

When you sit there and say “Bring it on” you’re throwing down the gauntlet to natural selection and saying “I will not be controlled by my feelings!”

An Indian sage once said “There is only one question worth asking: what are you afraid to feel?”
If the answer is nothing, then the world is your oyster.
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