It was finally about a week later when I sat down to work on the church annual report, now well past its deadline, and found that the draft I had worked on had somehow become corrupted so it was just gibberish when I opened the file, that I finally lost it. I was no longer the one who could hold it together, I couldn’t even complete this report, and I had promised our church secretary, who had been very close to Barbara and was herself in grief, that it would be done today. Something inside me cracked but instead of the expected tears of grief, what spilled out that in my home office was a very indecorous temper tantrum. Emotions like frustration and anger surfaced like toxic sludge.
That moment was a turning point for me. It made me wonder if keeping my professional cool, if being the rock when others were troubled was really the only way I could be. And so for the past 15 years, I’ve been paying attention to what I feel, and especially to what I don’t feel, and why.
One of the first things I noticed on this exploration, was how not feeling emotions is a useful adaptation. I could lead folks in a memorial service, I could comfort my son if he was feeling overwhelmed. I met deadlines and got my work done. I was productive and positive. But I also noticed that if emotions surfaced and I told them “not now” it might be a long time before they came back. And they might come back in weird forms. I decided to treat any opportunity to grieve as a gift. Greif, I realized, doesn’t always come during the time you set aside for it- at the memorial service, or during the day you took off for self-care. From observing my own process, I realized a few things about grieving:
One- your grief feels however it feels. Numbness, Anger, tears, hysterical laughter, regret, peace, are all legitimate expressions of processing that loss. Whatever you feel, honor that, feel that.
Second- Grief has its own time table. If you are at work, at the dinner table, at the mall when it comes, treat it with the same respect you would give any other bodily need. Run for the nearest restroom if you need to, tell your boss you are taking a long lunch, or call in sick. Because having a good cry right as the emotion emerges is almost always better than snapping at your family later, or having ulcers in a month. The same exact principle applies to more pleasant emotions, like joy, or gratitude, or the satisfaction of a job well done. If you catch yourself enjoying life, give that a moment too.
The third took me longer to learn- You can’t get around it. Yes, we can defer our emotions, you can choose not to feel them, you can push them away, but there is a cost. One of the costs for me was that when I wanted to feel something, my whole emotional system was set to “hibernate’ and so often feelings weren’t available when I wanted them.
The other cost is that it becomes painful to be in your own mind. Emotions like fear often grow and become more terrifying when we run from them. As the saying goes “don’t run from a bear”. But this is true of even subtle daily emotions, if we run from them, if we avoid them, our own mind and hearts become a minefield of places not to step. This often becomes apparent when we have some time alone, when we are quiet, when we sit in meditation. (I know when I dread meditating, there is some deferred emotion that needs my attention)
When there are things that we are pushing away, it becomes a lot of work to manage them. I think of the Star Wars crew stuck in that trash compactor as the walls pressed in on them. Fortunately, thoughts and feelings aren’t solid like the walls of a trash compactor, they pass right through us. I know sometimes being hit with a wall of emotion, or a painful memory can feel as intense as being hit by a wall, but all emotions rise and pass away. Even the big ones pass. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor found that the actual chemical reaction of emotions that flood our brains lasts for only 90 seconds. If our emotional response lasts longer than that, she theorized, it’s because we got hooked. The feeling, let’s say anger at our friend who is late, starts as a sensation, but our mind quickly hooks it into stories and analysis. “This friend is always late, this is just like that other time she left me sitting at the restaurant for 45 minutes. If she really understood or cared she’d be on time…” and we’re off down a rabbit hole of resentment that could last for weeks if we let it. Or how about this one “I should be more forgiving and compassionate. It’s not right that I’m so quick to get mad at her. She has a lot on her plate. I must not be a very good person if I am so impatient”
The alternative, says Taylor is “that for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away. After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological response over and over again.” The alternative to being hooked is simply to feel the feeling itself, the texture of it, the color of it, where in the body it emerges, without analysis, without pushing it away or hanging on to it.
This is similar to what I learned at a contemplative formation retreat in a workshop about ‘welcoming prayer”. This practice has been transformative for me, so I’d like to invite you to join me in it now, noticing however you are feeling right now: [this version is by Phil Fox Rose]
"1. Focus and sink in - Feel the feeling. Don't run away from it or fight it. Stay with this until you really experience a connection to the feeling or emotion on not just an emotional but also a physical level.
2. Welcome - Affirm the rightness of where you are and acknowledge [the sacredness of] the moment by saying: "Welcome, [fear/anger/etc.]."
Don't just say this and move on Repeat it and sit with the feeling until you experience a genuine sense that you welcome it, that you are not fighting against it.
3. Let go - Say "God, I give you my [fear/anger/etc.]," At this point, you can turn the feeling or emotion over to God and let it go. Or [if you are atheist or agnostic, just imagine your emotion drifting away in the breeze].
If you haven't truly felt it and welcomed it in, you may still experience resistance here. Stay in the letting go, or turn back to the focus or welcome stages as appropriate. "
As we welcome our feelings, memories may emerge. Insights and patterns may emerge, so let them come, don’t push them away or grasp on to them. Notice them, but don’t follow them. Stay present in the feeling itself.
As my classmates and I got up from the first period of welcoming prayer, I gathered my things to leave. I bent over to get my purse, and a wave of emotion hit me. I was determined to follow my own advice and try to feel tings in real time and not save them for later, but feelings can be slippery kind of things, so I just held perfectly still as I tried to stay present with it. It passed and I picked up my bag and stood up. Another set of emotions. I stood stock still and tried to stay open to them. Wow, this was going to be a lot of work.
Not long after I was listening to a favorite podcast on this very topic- staying present to our feelings. Brooke and Vanessa coined the phrase “stop, drop and feel’ and promised to put it on a T-shirt. Yes, I thought. That’s it. To truly experience my emotions in real time, I was going to have to stop what I was doing, drop down into my inner experience, and feel whatever I was feeling. After 15 years of trying to catch grief out the corner of my eye as it snuck past, feelings came closer and closer to happening in “real time” A number of you who are in the Spiritual direction Group or Committee on Ministry have witnessed my journey. For me it’s been a whole new way of being in the world.
This way of being with emotions has the effect over time of not only allowing us a greater degree of authenticity, honesty and presence, but it also shows us something about the nature of who we are. I am not my emotions, I am the one who is aware of the emotions. I keep coming back to the advice given to artist Laurie Anderson by her meditation teacher “’You should try to learn how to feel sad, without being sad.’ Which is actually really hard to do. To feel sad, without actually being sad”.[i] This is the practice. When we can feel the emotions without clinging to them, without pushing them away, we start to see more clearly the relationship between the emotions and our Self. Like clouds passing in the sky, even the worst emotions are temporary, transitory. We start to see that the clouds in the sky are not the sky, are not the ones observing the sky. We are not our emotions. We are something larger, more spacious.
The final, and arguably most important part of this process is compassion. When I was growing up my mom always said “it’s not the feelings, it’s the feelings about the feelings.” It’s very human for us to sit in judgement of our inner processes. “I should have forgiven my friend by now, I should be happy on this special occasion, I should be done grieving by now.” How different, and how challenging, to feel our feelings without judging them. To just notice whatever is arising, to meet ourselves wherever we are. Even if what we notice is “wow, I am really pushing away those feelings today.” Just notice. When we meet our feelings with judgment, they tend to either run and hide, or wind themselves up to justify their continued existence. When we meet our feelings with compassion, we allow space for them to move and change.
This past week I was in Seattle visiting my dad and all the family who had come to celebrate the wedding of my brother and my new sister . My heart responded by opening up to the warmth and affection of all the loving people around me. I was able to be helpful and supportive and open-hearted at the same time. As my brother and my new sister expressed their feelings for one another at the celebration of their marriage tears rushed down my face as I felt many feelings at once. I had moments of gratitude for those who hosted and entertained me, moments of compassion for folks who were struggling. My last day, I got this gross, unpleasant feeling that I rejected like a piece of rotten fruit. But sure enough it came back when I stopped my busy-ness for a moment. I remembered my intention to be present to whatever emotions arose, and turned towards it. Part homesickness, part sadness that I would soon be leaving my west coast family, and part anxiety about the long journey home. Yup. There it was. I sat with it just as it was. “Feelings, no matter how “nasty” they may seem to us, lead us inexorably to our hearts” Said Bill Schulz, former president of both Amnesty International and the UUSC. How lucky I felt to have spent pretty much that whole week, a week of tender moments, sad moments, joyful moments, even frustrating moments, to have spent that week in my heart.
It’s not always easy to be present to our feelings, especially when they are difficult emotions like anger, fear or sadness. But staying open to our emotions can be one of the most rewarding spiritual paths.
l had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest Me-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
[A Man Without a Country p. 132]