Unhooked: Riding out difficult emotions.

I am learning that I am unkind to myself when difficult feelings arise.  I turn away from myself, pretending I am okay.  Imagine if you walked up to me and I turned my back on you and pretended you were not there.  Not very kind.  When I can’t put a finger on the cause of my discomfort, I find my finger pointing at you.  Your unhappiness makes me uncomfortable.  If you could just be happy, all would be well.  When I STOP EVERYTHING and gaze inward I have a chance to unpack a mess in the making.  I separate my feelings – sensations in my body -- and write down my thoughts.  When you are unhappy, I am afraid that if I make the wrong move you will turn your critical eye towards me.  That thought drives this physical sensation that starts in my throat, cutting off my voice; my stomach tightens, contracting my whole self.  This does not feel like kindness – it feels like fleeing from a threat –and it has nothing to do with you.  Again I STOP EVERYTHING and now look at these thoughts with curiosity.  What is so scary about me not making you happy? What if you were unhappy with me?  What is the worst that can happen?  The discomfort isn’t overwhelming, I have always managed to hide it.  It is an old familiar feeling; it is distracting and interfering with my being here with you.

The degree to which I make friends with myself, to that degree I have empathy and acceptance of other people.
— Pema Chödrön

Looking again at my thoughts takes me back to a primal fear of being abandoned and left alone to shrivel up to die.  It’s like the unfathomable stories of famine – no food, no water, no one to care, children left dying on the side of the road.  This is the non-rational thought connected to the discomfort I feel when I think you are angry with me.  While it isn’t logical and it is greatly embarrassing to admit, the kind thing would be to accept it and to acknowledge it.  Kindness is not making fun of my own damn self.  Open curiosity allows me to see that my brain continues to make this link all on its own.  I can stop it NOW and make a change in this very moment.  When I was a young child, there was no language to explain my mother’s devastation at finding out her husband was a lothario who had affair after affair.  Giving him babies didn’t do the trick and he left.  Later when I made an unholy deal with the devil – silence and cover up for my ongoing sexual abuse – the thoughts were driven deeper; the feelings festered in the darkness of my psyche.  Because I never STOPPED EVERYTHING and looked upon my psyche with a warm, open-hearted curiosity, I didn’t know what was hiding out there.

Byron Katie tells a story about a young woman walking on a dessert trail when she came upon a large rattle snake.  She froze in fear – her heart pounding, her stomach in her throat, readying herself to run.  When she looked again she saw the snake was a thick grey rope lying in the middle of the road.  Relief washed over her shaking body, and she burst into hysterical laughter.  Once she saw the truth she was never afraid of that rope, never ever again. By looking at my own poisonous snake I see that it is only a rope – a thought with no body, no physical power to harm. 

I cannot make you happy, but if I remain present, I can be your friend and perhaps make you laugh and lighten your load.  Or I can simply walk with you for a little while, hand in hand, side by side.  To my own self, I can address my old reactive thought pattern, “Hello old friend, you silly thought.  Old fear that sought to be my protector.  I’m OK now, but thanks for coming.  I do look forward to another visit so I can get to know you even better.” That is a radical act of kindness.

Can you stop and see if your snake is real?  Perhaps it is only a rope.