“Don’t fret. Everything’s going to be OK.”
That’s a helpful advice for someone, isn’t it? Yeah, sometimes. But sometimes not.
I read a commentary last week in the Wall Street Journal about “toxic positivity.” Elizabeth Bernstein wrote that “forcing ourselves or others to always be positive can be harmful to our well-being and our relationships.” She says that sometimes the worst thing you can say to someone unhappy is “‘Cheer up!’ ‘Don’t worry!’ ‘Stop focusing on the negative!’ ‘Try to have a better attitude!'”
Listening to Others
I’ve said exactly these things to people many times. I think we all have. But Bernstein’s point is that people want to be heard, not given pat advice. Superficial platitudes can shut down a conversation. Over time not listening can wreck a relationship. Bernstein isn’t against positivity, certainly, but it needs a foundation.
“Yes, cultivating a positive mindset is a powerful coping mechanism, especially in tough times. But positivity needs to be rooted in reality for it to be healthy and helpful.”
Most times it’s probably true that everything will be okay and the person doesn’t need to worry. But the fact is they are worried!
Feelings can’t be switched off like a lamp. To deny and suppress feelings — sadness, anxiety, fear, or whatever — doesn’t get rid of them but instead drives them underground where they fester. One way or another they will be heard! Eventually they can emerge in any number of unpleasant ways. Maybe as road rage or some other inappropriate outburst. Or as some physical ailment ranging from indigestion to suppressed immunity, or from high blood pressure to heart attack and stroke. Even early death.
In her article, Bernstein emphasizes the importance of listening to others. No argument here! But just as too many of us don’t listen to others, we also don’t listen to ourselves either. And this disconnect with ourselves causes us deep unhappiness. Ultimately the person that that needs to hear and deal with our feelings the most is ourself.
Listening to Ourselves
I’ve talked in this blog about mindfulness and being present in the moment, about acceptance and about meditation. I think it’s a common misconception that meditation means having having no thoughts. You’re supposed to sit quietly with absolutely nothing on your mind. Your head should be as empty as the vacuum of outer space. If this is your experience, better check your pulse! It will only happen when you’re dead.
Thoughts and feelings will flow through our minds constantly during meditation. And that’s the point. We can listen to ourselves, really listen.
Meditation and mindfulness are about being present in the moment, aware of both the external world around us and our internal world — our thoughts and feelings — and accepting both these external and internal worlds. Resisting thoughts and feelings only makes them stronger. As Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said “What you resist persists.” Denying or burying feelings is a form of resistance, and we all know the Borg has told us “Resistance is futile.”
I think it’s another common misconception that meditation and mindfulness will make us happy. It’s thought that by being fully aware and accepting of our feelings we’ll be happy. We won’t suffer the negative consequences of denial that I describe above. And many times we will be happy! When this happens it’s wonderful.
But sometimes we won’t be happy. That depends in part on the situation we find ourselves in. But regardless whether or not we’re “happy,” we can at least be at peace — which in itself is far more pleasant than sadness, fear, anger, guilt, regret and the rest.
I’ll give an extreme illustration. If I were in a car crash and laying in traction in the hospital, it’s not likely I’d feel happy at that moment. But I could be at peace. I could accept that the accident happened and that I’m in the hospital. That’s the objective reality. No amount of upset can take me back in time and undo the accident. The past cannot be undone. Being upset won’t make the situation better — but it sure can make it a whole lot more painful and difficult.
At the same time being upset is a natural first reaction. I’d probably start there. I’d probably be telling others how upset I am and wanting their acknowledgement and sympathy. “Hey, Buddy! It ain’t so bad. Cheer up!” will not be appreciated.
But after getting everyone’s sympathy and understanding, I’m still left with my upset. These are my feelings and it’s up to me to move past this state of mind. Hopefully in the midst of everything I’d remember that denial and resistance are futile. With meditation, hopefully I would calm down and accept the reality of the situation even while not liking it. If successful I’d at least be at peace. Plus I might actually feel grateful. True, I’m in traction (not good) but I’m also alive (very good).
The quality of mercy is not strained;William Shakespeare
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.
Last week I also saw a wonderful post on another blog, Pointless Overthinking. (Bookmark it; it’s good!) The post was entitled “Escaping the Emotional Rabbit Hole.” I reblogged it as a post here on Just Sayin’. I won’t repeat much here except to say that it explained very effectively the way we get ourselves caught up in downward spirals of negative thinking and feelings. I hope you’ll read it.
The Rabbit Hole post closed with reference to a form of directed meditation called ‘RAIN’ which had come to mind immediately when I read Bernstein’s commentary in the Wall Street Journal and started drafting this post. RAIN can be a very helpful way of dealing with difficult feelings and emotions.
I first learned of RAIN years ago through Tara Brach, a woman I can’t say enough about. She’s a clinical psychologist and Buddhist who gives the most delightful and insightful talks, blending together compassion, humor, storytelling, neuroscience and spirituality. The RAIN meditation was first developed by Michele McDonald. Tara Brach later adopted it and modified it a bit.
What is RAIN?
RAIN is a 4-part meditation that one can do either guided or alone. The meditation focuses on one thing or situation that is causing distress. It might be an illness, a conflict with someone, a difficult challenge, a painful memory, a loss… pretty much anything (except a deep trauma). These are the four parts:
I did a RAIN meditation around the issue of my cancer. I’ve been quite unsettled about this health challenge. The feelings come and go but include depression, anxiety and an unfocused generalized “agitation.” I also feel distracted and I’m more forgetful than usual.
I still haven’t reached a place of acceptance and peace with my cancer yet, but the RAIN mediation is helping me along that path. Through RAIN I’ve been able to identify that feelings of loss are a big issue for me: loss of certainty (life span and quality), loss of freedom (daily radiation appointments), loss of energy (everyone tells me radiation will be exhausting), loss of function (‘nuf said), and more. While I’m still not fully at peace yet, it felt really good drilling down and identifying loss as an issue for me. The satisfaction of reaching this insight was kind of like finally finding that valuable thing you’ve been searching the house for. “Oh thank God! Here it is!”
I recognized what was going on (R), I accepted and allowed myself to feel the discomfort (A), I was able to investigate what exactly was making me most uncomfortable about the cancer (I), and then this awareness enabled me to not BE the discomfort but just FEEL the discomfort (N). Big difference! It was very freeing and I felt pretty good for several days.
But I’m not done. This remains a work in progress.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.Viktor Frankl, Austrian
Tara Brach Explains ‘RAIN’
This is a talk that Tara Brach gave explaining RAIN. She describes each of the steps in RAIN and how she tweaked it by adding an emphasis on kindness to ourselves and intimate attention. She describes how RAIN not only helps us deal with an immediate issue, but also this practice can rewire neural pathways in the brain enabling us to overcome habitually negative thoughts and behaviors. We’re never too old for this according to current scientific thinking about neuroplasticity.
A Guided ‘RAIN’ Meditation
This next video is a 20-minute guided RAIN meditation led by Tara Brach. I suggest being somewhere comfortable, peaceful and quiet where you won’t be interrupted. It’s a “video” but there’s really nothing to watch. It’s the audio of her voice that guides you. This is the meditation I followed and described above. I will keep repeating it.
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