Our unpleasant emotions will unconsciously control us, until we listen to them.
Nature gives us daily lessons in the beauty of imperfection. Mindfulness helps us find equanimity with the ups and downs of life. But it’s not always sunshine and daffodils. When we catch a whiff that something we’ve repressed is controlling us, that’s when we can learn to free ourselves from the grasp of resistance.
My story will show you why it is important to acknowledge, validate, and even befriend discomfort. Then I’ll share three self-regulation practices and a three step mindfulness practice to dialogue with your discomfort.
Last summer I was teaching yoga in the park in Brooklyn, as I’ve been doing since the summer of 2020.
I was excited to have found a new location: a small flat triangle of mowed grass in a location that was accessible to most of my students. Other spots had been too sunny, hilly, bumpy, grassy…
There were no unleashed pit bulls, no sharp, shattered remnants of Sunday barbecues. I’m not generally squeamish, and in the last few years I’ve cleared a lot of garbage to create a relaxing environment. I love nature, and I do my best to set the tone for everyone to appreciate the imperfect conditions. We would all leave lighter after moving and breathing together in the sunshine.
It was a hot summer morning and my walk through the park had energized me. I scanned the area and rolled out my mat, sitting to meditate before the first participant arrived.
Immediately I sensed it.
There was dog poop nearby. I had to find it before someone stepped in it.
I’ve always had a bionic sense of smell, for better or for worse. My bloodhound nose and I searched everywhere. I couldn’t find it. I warned the first student to step carefully. Then the next…
Eventually I gave up on finding the source of the smell and turned my attention towards teaching yoga. But when I sat back on my mat, dread and disgust crawled up my spine and lodged in my throat. I was actually relieved when I lifted my mat, and was able to make a joke about the dried turd I found sitting underneath it. It could have been much worse!
I made light of it in front of my students, and disposed of the petrified poop quickly. We got on with our class. After teaching, I carefully folded the dirty side of the mat in on itself, as I always do, then rolled it and took it home for a thorough cleaning and disinfecting.
That petrified poop hadn’t left a mark.
Or so I thought…
When Shit Goes Unexamined
Is it really about 💩? Why did I have to face my feeling of disgust?
In the weeks that followed I had planned to offer more outdoor classes. But I was also editing my book and getting my son to and from day camp. I tried, but couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for scheduling classes, inviting students, or even thinking about teaching yoga in the park again.
I had promised a fun beach yoga outing for the end of the summer, which combines my happy place with my calling in life! But it all felt like too much.
Every time I started to plan an outdoor yoga class or event, I felt overwhelmed and apathetic. It was easy to chalk it up to lack of time. I turned away from the discomfort. Which people do all the time. I’m not upset with myself. It is just so interesting. Fascinating, really, now that I’m turning towards it.
I had fully expected to teach a fall series in the park, and that fell by the wayside too. I told myself, “I can’t do it all!” But that hadn’t stopped me in the past, because I LOVE being outside practicing with my students. That love was gone. That part of me had dried up like the dog poo.
I turned towards online projects, and looked into renting an indoor space where we could spread out for winter classes. It was a long time before I realized there was internal work I needed to do.
“As thinking and emotions are not always immediately visible, we’re less aware of these experiences in our nervous system and therefore they’re easier to ignore."
I was functional. My nervous system’s shut-down state was only triggered by the thought of teaching in the park. Eventually, I got a whiff that something unexamined was controlling my choices. The smell of disgust was still sitting in my nostrils, and driving my actions (or inactions).
Disgust is primal and visceral, so why would I want to dredge it up?
Well, I realized that little dried up turd was sitting there in my subconscious, running the show. In cahoots with my limbic brain, it was making decisions to keep me safe before my awareness had a chance to get involved. The limbic brain is the oldest and fastest part. Its job is to keep us alive, so that’s good! But mine is overactive, and hyper-vigilant for threat. It viewed the smell of dog doo as just as big a danger as a fistful of poison berries.
Remember the movie Inside Out? Each of those adorable animated feelings has its role in keeping their person safe.
“Inside Out portrays the idea that while people may think they need to be happy all the time, that is not true. Instead, the film encourages the full spectrum of emotions, conveying that they all are an essential part of life and there is nothing wrong with feeling sad.”
Everything in my gut-brain axis was screaming, “NO!” My lizard brain definitely didn’t want to go back to sit and stretch in the grass at the park, even though my more evolved frontal lobe definitely did. There was a miscommunication between my reactive, primitive self, and my aware, higher Self. In fact, it was more of a hijack, which I had allowed to happen.
3 Yoga Practices to Help You Stay in the Moment When the Sh*t Hits the Fan
We are often taught that the goal of yoga is to be calm, peaceful, and serene. This is why yoga can lead us to gaslight ourselves if we’re not looking for our blindspots. For years, I used yoga and meditation to feel better. Thank goodness! I’m so grateful for the tools that helped me calm my emotions and soothe my nervous system. There’s nothing wrong with being peaceful, but shutting out anything in the world that is not peace is an unhelpful strategy. It clouds our perception of the truth. It is more helpful to think of yoga as a way to understand our true nature, and develop equanimity, so we aren’t as unsettled by the inevitable crap that happens.
One of my core yoga practices now is to stay in the moment, even when the moment is not going well.
Why would we want to do that? Why not numb out, cast blame, or run away until the discomfort has passed? Because the discomfort will just keep coming! That’s the root of addiction — trying to avoid pain or get more pleasure. If we learn to stay present, through body awareness, touch, or breath, we can self-regulate in the very moment when the shit is hitting the fan (or the yoga mat).
“At its core, yoga allows us to create long-lasting life change by getting to know ourselves better and taking agency of our emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing where we can.”
Yoga is so much more than de-stressing, but that is a valuable side-effect. At first, if we’re very stressed, we will need to soothe ourselves so that we can stay present and not numb out or run away. To that end, the next time your stress is holding you hostage, try these self-regulation practices for building equanimity:
- Toggling Sensations: Lie down or sit in a very comfortable position. Scan your body to find a place that hurts, but you can tolerate paying attention to it. Now scan your body to find a spot that feels good, warm, or at least doesn’t hurt. Toggle your awareness back and forth between those two places in your body. You can rest your awareness for as long as you like in each spot. To finish, scan your whole body and then stretch or shake out.
- Mindful Walk: Next time you go for a walk, free your hands, arms, and ears. Let your arms swing freely and pay attention to all the sensations coming into your awareness. Notice your reactions to sounds, smells, sights, the temperature, the sensation of movement. Can you simply notice, without labeling or judging?
- Breath Pause: Take a deep breath in, and pause BRIEFLY at the top of your inhale. Be still without tension, and stay aware of your environment. Let it out slowly and listen to the sound of your exhale. Repeat for 3 breaths.
When I started doing yoga and got calmer, I was still suffering.
In fact, I felt the suffering of the world more than I had before. It wasn’t until I learned about mindfulness, and specifically mindful self-compassion, that I began to mine my suffering for its gifts. I started to cultivate equanimity and nonjudgmental awareness. Through self-compassion, I started to see the yucky feelings inside me as my teachers. Now, I speak to my uncovered emotions with respect.
Photo by Maria Lin Kim on Unsplash
Sit With Disgust and Other Uncomfortable Feelings in 3 Steps
I finally sat with my feeling of disgust in my mindfulness and journaling practice. My gut-brain had so much to tell me about the experience. I finally listened. I felt the bile on my tongue, the longing to escape my own skin, the lump in my throat, the shallowness of my breath, and the shame I hadn’t known was there. I was able to sit with the sensations and emotions.
When you feel self-regulated (see the tools above), set aside some time to sit with your discomfort, and listen to it without judgment. Start with a short session.
Now we are going for clarity rather than calm:
- Journal or meditate. If a feeling comes up that is uncomfortable, listen, acknowledge, and inquire with curiosity. Imagine you are taking a close friend to tea. A friend who has been through a lot and needs to vent.
- Dialogue with your discomfort. Reassure the feeling that it is valid, and you won’t abandon it again. It has been repressed, which can take time to reverse. Your emotion may be uncomfortable, but it is appropriate to the situation. It is doing its best to keep you safe. Coax it out. Invite it to share its wisdom with you. Ask, “What do you most need?” “How can I best support you?” “What else do you want to tell me?”
- Watch your breath without changing it. Give yourself permission to experience the full breadth of your emotions. Observe your sensations, and be in the moment even when you get uncomfortable. All feelings are allowed, and there is no next step where we banish the “bad” feelings and feel better forever. We just learn to expand our range, and live with all of it. Thank your uncomfortable feeling for teaching you.
Watch as if you are sitting on the beach, observing the waves.
Sometimes smooth, sometimes turbulent, the ocean is not bad or good. It just is. When you can cultivate that level of equanimity with your feelings, freedom will arise authentically. Accept the truth of the moment, and watch as it shifts before your eyes.
One of the most powerful ways to reduce our stress is to reduce our RESISTANCE to suffering. Resisting takes a ton of work. It’s draining. An alternative path is laid out in the Yoga Sutras: Discern, learn, and grow.
“The inability to discern between the temporary, fluctuating mind and our own true Self, which is eternal, is the cause of our suffering, yet this suffering provides us with the opportunity to make this distinction and to learn and grow from it, by understanding the true nature of each.”
-Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 2.23, by way of Kate Holcombe
I Had an Encounter With Excrement, and I Stuffed My Yucky Feelings in the Trash
Those rejected feelings expanded in my subconscious until they had a big impact on my life. The uncovered poop was long gone, but I had to uncover the buried feeling of disgust, and befriend it, in order to be free of it.
You, too, might have repressed feelings that are driving your actions unconsciously. You can use mindfulness to regulate your nervous system and build equanimity. Then you can acknowledge, validate, permit, and ultimately befriend your uncomfortable feelings. As the Yoga Sutras tell us, our suffering gives us an opportunity to discern, learn, and grow.
What have you had to face recently, that you really didn’t want to face? Tell me in the comments.
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