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!

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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? 

Allowing (Triple Welcoming) from Scott Krayenhoff

This is one of my favourite activities whenever I’m in a bad mood or emotionally stuck in any way. It’s simple and quick to do, and you can do it multiple times on the same ‘issue’. There are three things we do that typically get us into these stuck places: we resist a circumstance, a reality, and person, etc.; we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be resisting it; and we make it all about us, or make it personal. The antidote is allowing, or welcoming. I was first introduced to this technique via The Sedona Method (they call it Triple Welcoming), and I’ve modified it a bit here. Here are the steps (take about 30-60 seconds for each), and it helps if someone reads them out for you in a calming voice:

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Life After Life

“If we want to enter Heaven on Earth, we need only one conscious step and one conscious breath.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

A tornado hit my elementary school when I was eight going on nine. I recall thinking, “I am going to die,” and not being okay with that whatsoever.

Then it went away.  The storm passed, as they all do.

But I was scarred. Something had changed in me, and I couldn’t help it.

I went to Mass the following Sunday and listened, probably for the first time, to what the priest said. We will be seated at the right hand of the Father in Heaven… And His life will have no end… Eternal life… Forever and ever amen. I thought of the Earth coming to an end, the never-ending blank black sky. Nothingness. I fixated on these disturbing conceptualizations.

Around the same time, my grandpa told me that he did not believe in the afterlife. After this life, that’s it. You decompose. There’s no fluffy cloud heaven with angels. Life’s a bitch, then you die. And even after you die there’s no relief? Not what I wanted to hear.

[Read the entire essay on Elephant Journal]

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The wisdom of no witness.

Everything is an escape. There are the obvious tricks we all know and knowingly apply to our boredom and/or fear: drugs, alcohol, sex, TV, internet, etc. Even meditation techniques can act as an escape, a drug, a numbing agent.

For the past several years, I have benefited from witnessing “the witness.” It was immensely helpful. Prior, I had identified totally with my bouts of depression and anxiety. I was young and did not have the life experience to assure me I’d ever be liberated from those states of despair and drama.

After years of meditation practice, I reached a point where I could disassociate with an emotion even as the emotion was occurring. For example, if I was in the woes of heartbreak, wailing with desolation, I could realize in that moment: “This too shall pass.” I witnessed my emotions, happy and sad, irate and excited, and all the rest, and found my center by breathing and observing the storm fade sooner or later.

Only very recently have I begun to move beyond the witness. I am, instead, striving to embody emotion. To feel it, explore it, sit with it. To infuse it with compassion. To know that it is natural and healthy. To let go of the storyline about the emotion and why I am feeling it. Rather than label each passing experience as is taught in certain techniques of insight meditation (“thinking,” “judging,” “worrying,” “planning,” etc.), I experience each without analysis. It feels rather contradictory to the witness, in fact. You dissolve the witness. As Krishnamurti points out,

“So long as the experiencer verbalizes the feeling, the experience, he separates himself from it and acts upon it; such action is an artificial, illusory action. But if there is no verbalization, then the experiencer and the thing experienced are one. That integration is necessary and has to be radically faced.”

The witness served her purpose, and I thank her for bringing me to this point; I could not have gotten here without moving through that essential phase.

But now it’s blissfully clear: there is no separation between “you” and “your feelings.” You let life happen, you stay open, you feel what you feel. This is empowering. This is enlightening.

I loved Lucy.

[Read the abridged version on Elephant Journal.]

My heart is empty.

Lucy was with me for nearly nine years, since my parents gave her to me when I graduated from college in May 2002. I loved her so. My constant companion died Sunday in the early evening.

A surreal flurry of fleeting emotions pass through my dazed, grief-stricken consciousness, more noticeably than ever. Oftentimes, the pain is so powerful, sobs overtake me.

When I am fully in the present moment, I feel a sense of abiding peace. I suffer when I wish to change the past or worry over changing the future.

I had taken her to an afternoon potluck at my friends’ beautiful penthouse apartment not far from my house. She ran around and played with kids and made people smile like she always did. At some point, I realized I hadn’t seen Lucy in awhile. I started looking for her, and gradually, everyone remaining at the party did too. Was she hiding? Had she stowed away in someone’s purse? No, no, no. She would never do that.

Dusk was falling, and I was breathing deeply, reassuring myself that she would come scampering from some secret room unscathed. I started to freak out when we couldn’t find Lucy anywhere in the apartment. In a daze, I walked down the stairwell, futilely looking on every floor. Thanks to whatever higher power exists in this strange thing we call Life, my dear friend and yoga teaching partner, Ash, followed me down. She kept me calm, though I eventually started crying, overcome with fear. At that moment, my next-door neighbors and good friends, Phil and Deb, walked out of the elevator with sad faces.

“Did you find her?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Is she okay?”

“No. I’m so sorry, Michelle. She’s gone.”

Lucy the Chihuahua had fallen fourteen stories to her death. We didn’t realize there was a small area on the otherwise safe balcony where a piece of protective glass was missing. No one witnessed her fall, but Lucy didn’t intend to jump. She loved life too much. It had not once crossed my mind that she might have fallen. That was just not an option.

I could not accept it, but of course I had no choice. I was at one with despair. How silly to deny a fundamental truth of nature: impermanence.

I was hit with hysteria. “No!” I cried. “She can’t be.”

Of course, I never expected her death to be so sudden, or soon, or dramatic, or traumatic. Thankfully, I was able to express my most intense emotions in those first moments after discovering the tragedy. Deb and Ash hugged me tightly. I would have surely not been able to stand up without them.

This gorgeous penthouse apartment, the place where Lucy died, is also the place where I teach yoga on Thursday evenings. So I will go back there every week and face reliving the day of her death. While teaching yoga. It’s not going to be easy.

I could keep going over and over it in my head. I could dwell. I didn’t take her for a walk on her last day. I didn’t keep her with me. I didn’t prevent tragedy. But I won’t. I will prevail thanks to mindfulness and compassion for myself.

Thanks to mindfulness, you catch yourself early. You switch from feeling guilty to noticing a lot of feelings of guilt: a subtle but essential difference.

Lucy weighed only four pounds, but every ounce was feisty. She expressed the unconditional love only pets can offer, without the pesky judgments and grudges that come along with humanness.

Lucy loved yoga… of course she did the best downward dog. She especially loved it when people did yoga and would immediately jump on me (and anyone else who happened to be there) in any seated or lying down pose. Up to her last day, frolicked and played like a fresh puppy, so full of life.

Ash said, “Now Lucy is a legend. She’ll never grow old.” Like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. She left us in her prime. She went out in a flash.

As long as I’m in the present moment, I feel Lucy’s eternal devotion in my heart. But when I (oh so frequently) shift into the past or future, I buckle under the weight of loneliness and sorrow. I didn’t know I had this many tears.

Lately, I’ve been studying the Buddhist concept of emptiness. There’s an excellent explanation of it in An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama. His Holiness describes two levels of mind: 1) the clear experience of knowing, and 2) the “realization of the absence of the mind’s inherent existence,” which is emptiness.

In Lucy’s absence, my heart is full of sadness. But my heart is also empty, drained completely. The (not “my”) shock, angst, and depression are all being duly processed. This experience is bringing me a new, hard-earned, incredible understanding of the ultimate paradox of life — that everything is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless. Our emotions, thoughts, sensations and ideas and stubborn beliefs and attitudes color our every experience. Without those, the experience is empty.

I took Monday off work, did nothing but grieve. Got dozens of sweet condolences. Everyone was mourning with me, it seemed. Friends across Texas, California, and Guatemala were sending me love, and I truly felt it. It helped.

I can’t yet bring myself to meditate in my regular spot in my bedroom. It’s still too hard. Lucy had developed the habit of coming up to my fingers, outstretched in jnana mudra, to maneuver her way into a head scratch. Sometimes I would pick her up and hold her while meditating. She was pure, unconditional metta. So I’m finding other places to meditate, for now.

Lucy left her canine body last Sunday evening in Guatemala City. But with all the merit she earned in her lifetime of licks and love, I feel she must have earned a human rebirth, or perhaps as one friend suggested, she has skipped humanity altogether and attained full enlightenment as she fell from that great height. Perhaps she is, indeed, now a part of everything.

Living in The Places that Scare You

For the record, I love the Guatemalan culture.

I live here. I adore traveling around this breathtakingly beautiful country. It is colorful, fascinating, complicated. I love the Spanish language, the lush gardens, the mammoth volcanoes, the diverse, kindhearted people.

I do not particularly like the city. The crime, poverty, ignorance and repression in Guate are not so lovable. The climate and the kind people and the scenery are wonderful, but let’s be honest; this place is far from peaceful.

This is not a criticism of Guatemalan people. There’s no use in the blame game. I realize that the USA and its supposedly superior government has had a lot to do with the long-term instability in Central America.

The US State Department tells us, “Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America.  In 2009, approximately 25 murders a week were reported in Guatemala City alone.  While the vast majority of murders do not involve foreigners, the sheer volume of activity means that local officials, who are inexperienced and underpaid, are unable to cope with the problem.  Rule of law is lacking as the judicial system is weak, overworked, and inefficient.  Well-armed criminals know there is little chance they will be caught or punished.”

The fact is, I love living in Guatemala and am not leaving anytime soon.

I am a compassionate warrior. As Pema Chödrön writes in The Places that Scare You,

“The essence of bravery is being without self-deception.”

I like to deceive myself a little bit. I like to think I am safe. I like to feel somewhat in control of my life. Though I am all for free will, I know that control is an illusion. Anything can happen at any time, anywhere.

Rather than closing down, Pema suggests we open to vulnerability; from this comes lovingkindness, compassion, joy.

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Everything’s gonna be alright.

December 24 – Everything’s OK. What was the best moment that could serve as proof that everything is going to be alright? And how will you incorporate that discovery into the year ahead?

I knew everything would be alright when I hit rock bottom and survived. When I reached my emotional breaking point (luckily in the privacy of my own room), I was able to watch my storm of emotions (hurt, anger, frustration, sadness, and on and on) and feel my intense physical pain (head and neck aches) and cry (I mean, moan and wail like an animal).

Being able to watch and know all the while that these difficult emotions and sensations were temporary and passing, as everything is, serve as proof to me that everything is alright. I will incorporate that discovery by continuing to practice insight meditation and to notice and watch my thoughts, feelings and sensations pass as I practice in order to also have equanimity and compassion in my day-to-day life.