It’s Okay to Feel.

{Originally published on Elephant Journal.}

There is a common myth about meditation that it means always being calm and collected, never being upset, sad or freaked out.

It’s simply not true.

While meditation and mindfulness practices can help us become more tranquil, centered and patient, they do not eliminate difficult emotions.

On the contrary, it can seem to exacerbate them, especially as we begin or deepen our practice, because there is nothing to do but sit (or stand, or walk) there and be with those emotions, allowing them to rise up and pass away in due time.

As I was reading a book a few months back called Planting Seeds (which is a guide for anyone interested in introducing children to mindfulness and meditation) by Thich Nhat Hanh and members of his sangha, I came across this little gem which jumped off the page and deep into my heart immediately:

“Breathing in, I’m bored. Breathing out, it’s okay to be bored.”

It was in the context of a chapter on teaching children how to observe and accept their feelings, whatever feelings they are experiencing in that moment: joy, sadness, boredom, anger, confusion, frustration, contentment.

I saw right away that this simple technique could also help adults.

Could also help me.

And so, I’ve started using it every day in my classroom, which this year miraculously consists of just three homeschooled fifth grade students. In our morning meeting at the start of each “school” day, we ring the Tibetan bowl and take turns sharing our feelings, if we want.

Most days, the kids will say something like, “Breathing in, I feel happy, excited, happy and excited. Breathing out, it’s okay to feel super happy and excited.” They then elaborate on what specifically is making them feel so blissful and excited. One of them often says, “I’m happy because today’s today,” which never fails to melt my heart.

Sometimes, though, they (and I) admit, “Breathing in, I feel tired, sad, worried, confused and grateful. Breathing out, it’s okay to feel tired, sad, worried, confused and grateful.” And often, we elaborate on why. In this way, we get to know each other better and realize that we all share similar emotions and challenges.

This technique is wonderful because it reminds us that whatever is coming up for us is okay. It doesn’t need to be changed, repressed, pursued or pushed away. It just is what it is. And it’s always changing.

I hope you’ll give it a try. If you’re a teacher, try it with kids or teens, and let me know how it goes. May it be of benefit!

E-motion-al Education

What if we learned that emotions are actually teachers, teachers with lessons in how to be whole? What if we allow our emotions to move through us and move others? 

School isn’t typically a place for emotions – no public place is. If emotions are expressed, we assume something is wrong and we try to fix the situation (without ever really acknowledging the emotions or the person who expresses the emotions). Especially when the emotions being expressed are “unacceptable” and “child-like.” Or we just ignore the situation and the emotions and hope they go away.

But they don’t. They go somewhere else and express themselves in some other way. They will resurface later, often with extra force or in some “unrelated” context.

In some cases, learners act out and then are labelled with behavioural disorders or emotional illnesses. Even if educators think of their learners as more than physical and mental beings and want to honour their emotions, one-to-one attention is a luxury in the classroom. It is even a luxury in homes where adults don’t remember how to be present with themselves and, therefore, can’t be –really be– with their children.

But can we really wonder why teenagers dress in costume or do all sorts of things with and to their bodies? Can we really pretend not to understand why so many of our youth are so angry? Or so apathetic? Or so addicted to approval and/or non-approval?

Isn’t it really our own emotions, especially as we age, that we are uncomfortable expressing so we directly and indirectly invalidate the emotions of others – just as previous generations did?

As adults, some of us turn to meditation or other practices to learn to be present and are often told (or we misinterpret) that being present means not thinking and not feeling, rather than allowing thoughts, feelings and sensations to come and go as they please. We wonder why our thoughts and emotions seem to go even faster, darker and crazier, but by trying to be positive, present and/or perfect, we are inviting the other half… which is perfect because the other half is exactly what we need to accept that we are whole.

What if the next time you felt an emotion dancing or bubbling below the surface you let it out regardless of where you were? What if we gave others the same freedom? If we all showed ourselves as the ugly monster or the broken mess that we fear we are, the worst that can happen is that we’ll find we are right and can stop pretending. (If you are worried about protecting others, allow it when you are alone. Though, trying not to be angry is the cause of lashing out; anger itself is only an emotion.) And it’s not just the “negative” emotions we deny ourselves and others.

A couple of weeks ago, after a series of hip and heart openers, I was that person in the yoga studio who burst into tears. While everyone else was breathing in the love and light, I was sobbing and snotting all over my mat. I got my hand held and my feet rubbed. I got hugs after class without having to offer an explanation or apologies. Mostly, I experienced a deep acceptance within myself. In my weakness, I found strength and knew that I didn’t have to be either of those. And that was enough to walk out of class without self-judgement and with my head high and my heart open.

“Much of our suffering rests in the assumption that if we feel something for too long or too intensely, or at all, we will become it. We assume that if we really allow the feeling to be there, it will stick and end up defining us… Just because you feel a wave, it does not mean that the wave can define you… There is only the dance of waves now.” – Jeff Foster, The Deepest Acceptance: Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life.

We are not our emotions. But we also aren’t not our emotions.

And it’s not guaranteed that experiencing and expressing ourselves fully will mean we are not accepted (and therefore unlovable). How else will you ever really know that you are loved unconditionally?

Acceptance is a feeling that occurs through the acceptance of feelings.

What if happiness wasn’t the only acceptable emotion to express in our superficial society, in our conflict-ridden schools? What if all emotions were welcome – then would we be so depressed, so withdrawn, so angry, so anxious, so awkward, so shallow, so lonely? What if you had been taught that emotions are your teachers – that a lesson was waiting for you just beneath the confusion or pain? What if every time you cried you weren’t told to “grow up” or “suck it up”  and instead were reassured that you are safe to explore and express your emotions? What if every time you gave yourself freedom to experience an emotion, you felt lighter, more liberated, connected and whole – where is the fear, shame or harm in that? 

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