Difficult emotions aren’t easy to deal with some days. It can be hard to respond in a skillful way at times, partly because the rational areas of the brain get “turned off” when we get activated. The amygdala is a part of the brain that is designed to look out for danger and threats, and when some kind of threat is sensed, we go into flight, fight, or freeze mode. Our bodies divert energy to the muscles to take on the threat, and the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain, becomes less available.
Mark Coleman explains that
without that circuitry, we would not have survived as a species. For millennia it helped us guard ourselves against faster and more powerful predators.
However, that survival circuitry does not distinguish between physical and emotional threats. It gets triggered if a bus is about to knock us over or if someone insults us during a casual conversation. Threats to our self-image and social status are treated the same as if we had accidentally run into a grizzly bear: we become instantly ready to fight for our lives or run for the hills at the smallest of slights. As a result, we are bombarded with potential triggers all the time. It can be as simple as someone not holding a door for us or the perceived negative tone of an email. It can happen when a loved one speaks insensitively or curtly. A few careless words can easily spark a flash of anger and a desire to verbally retaliate.Mark Coleman, From Suffering to Peace : The True Promise of Mindfulness, pages 182-183
As we practice mindfulness, we cultivate the ability to recognize, feel, and be with emotions, we can introduce a pause.
An acronym that might be useful when a pause is needed is STOP:
- Stop – introduce a pause – I’m learning to say “stop” when I get stuck in a tricky cycle of emotion, which reminds me to take this pause and then…
- Take some breaths – 3-5 slower breaths, feeling the relaxation on the exhale
- Observe your experience – some inquiry might include: what is happening, why is there reactivity, what are the causes – thoughts, emotions, body sensations, stories, judgments, etc.
- Proceed – maybe take a break, or decide what skillful action would be useful
The proceed step should be considered with kindness. If the emotion is particularly strong or tied to a painful situation, the kindest thing in the midst of meditation may be to turn the attention to something neutral and grounding (feeling the feet on the floor or looking for things that are blue or something like that) or even somewhat pleasant – a tea break.
Wendell Berry describes an approach of turning to nature in a moment of despair:
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in meWendell Berry, excerpted from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
as shared here: https://onbeing.org/poetry/the-peace-of-wild-things/
I also want to remind you that meditation and mindfulness are only one tool in a vast set of resources to work with difficult emotional states. Therapists, medical professionals, and teachers trained in specific trauma-sensitive methodologies can all provide further support and skills to help a person find ways to relate, recognize, resource, and respond in a skillful way.
May you find skillful pauses in your day today, to nourish and support you in whatever difficulties that may arise.
With kindness and care,