I was at the cinema recently, watching an extremely emotional film that featured a number of scenes that I found very sad and moved me to tears. What interested me was that in the audience was a large group of teenagers, whose response to these moments was to laugh. I wondered if this was because they didn’t quite know what else to do, faced with this emotionally charged story in front of their mates. I might well have done the same when I was younger.
It got me thinking about my own journey with mindfulness, how the starting point for me was finding myself in a life situation that confronted me with deep sadness. And not having a clue how to respond to that. Not knowing how to feel sad. Because it had never been modelled or encouraged in a healthy way.
These days, I see that I had often mislabelled my sadness as depression. I was fixated on fixing things, and calling it depression opened the door for a treatment plan to fix it. It was easier to believe there was something wrong with me than to accept that being human comes with emotions that can be deeply uncomfortable. But when I began experiencing recurrent miscarriages in my 30s, I experienced a sadness that I didn’t want to fix, because grieving was needed. And sadness can be beautiful.
Similarly, in my younger years I’d picked up the idea that the feeling of anxiety is somehow wrong or bad. I went through a few years of experiencing intense anxiety and in retrospect, one of the things that made it particularly difficult was that I was convinced that experiencing anxiety was proof that there was something wrong with me. I don’t wish to belittle how debilitating strong anxiety can feel, and at times the support of a skilled therapist is helpful to navigate the terrain when it gets rough (I’ve been there). But it was only once I stopped seeing anxiety as some kind of defect or failure that I began to free myself from this distorted demonising of feelings that are a completely natural part of the human experience.
I’d spent my teens and early 20s trying to be some sort of robot that only experienced shiny, happy ‘positive’ emotions. And that’s how I felt – like a robot going through the motions, not fully alive somehow. When I discovered mindfulness in my 30s, I began to broaden my emotional repertoire, and become fully human. I learned that I could cope with feelings of anxiety, sadness, shame… and open to much greater joy, beauty and gratitude.
I learned that feelings are not facts. They are not who we are. They are emotional energies that are part of being human. They go with the territory.
Feelings arise. And they pass. If we let them.
This is an area that is ever-present for me as a parent. Like any human being, my son experiences strong emotions at times. And for me, also being human, it’s uncomfortable to witness that. But I have learned that in those moments, the most unhelpful thing I can do is try to ‘fix it’ for him. This is where I lean into the practice of compassion – for my son, for myself, and for the feeling that is arising and needing to be felt. When I can make space for my son to feel whatever he is feeling, without labelling it as ‘bad’ or unwanted, and without trying to fix it, something magical happens. It passes on through, like a wave that rises and then breaks.
I know that my son will have to tread his own path in life, and learn to find his own response to difficult experiences. But I hope that I can give him a foundation of meeting those experiences with compassionate awareness, and emotional confidence. I hope that he will grow up knowing that no emotion is a defect.
As the poet Linda France puts it, ‘we are not broken; we are alive’ (thank you Singhashri for that quote).
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