When I was growing up, the world around me felt like an intense and sometimes dangerous place. There was a lot of drinking, yelling, and unpredictable behavior. My nervous system came up with ways to separate me from the stuff that felt like too much. I would go someplace else. It’s called disassociation. It is one clever way that the human brain deals with trauma.
As I got older, I found more and more ways to escape uncomfortable feelings. While some of my strategies were benign, many were personally unhealthy and some created havoc in my relationships. As the feelings I tried to keep at bay began to overwhelm my coping strategies, my escape plans became darker and more desperate.
At my lowest point, I somehow discovered a book called The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. It was the first time that I heard a veryu helpful message — how I was dealing with my emotions was causing my struggle, not the feelings themselves. Learning to sit peacefully with what I was experiencing internally was definitely not easy, but it absolutely changed the course of my life.
There was a lot of restlessness, fear, anger, sadness and boredom that showed up when I sat quietly paying attention to my breath. Sometimes these were small ripples and sometimes they felt like tidal waves. Many, many, many times I wanted to bolt and do anything other than sit there. However, over time, I found that I could be with just about anything I felt without doing anything about it. It is hard to describe how different this is from what my life used to be.
This is not to say that I never get caught in unproductive habits for avoiding discomfort – of course I do. The difference is that I can recognize much, much sooner when this is the case, I can accept responsibility for my behavior, and I can connect with the goals, commitments, and relationships I value most deeply. Escaping emotional discomfort is no longer the most important thing in my life.
Mindfulness. Just sitting in the presence of whatever shows up – such a simple practice. Despite what we may read in magazines, mindfulness is not a panacea. It is not a cure for cancer and it does not rid you of stress or anxiety. It does not guarantee eternal happiness and it will not make you rich. And it is certainly not always fun and enjoyable.
But the practice of mindfulness can build what I call unconditional confidence. It can allow you to be with significant discomfort and see it for what it is. It can build the experiential faith that you already have what you need to work with whatever shows up. You always have. Sitting consistently can build your ability to respond powerfully to challenging emotions rather than automatically escaping, suppressing, or succumbing.
It is impossible to know what would have happened to me if I had not discovered mindfulness. What I do know is that I feel so much more love and joy that I used to. And I still feel anger, fear, stress, anxiety, sadness, and boredom. But I do not feel the need to get rid of them or to fuel them. They are not a threat, they are a normal part of being human, and I have what I need to work peacefully with them. I always have.