Mindfulness has to do with your whole body and whole mind says Josh Korda, in this excerpt from his new book: Unsubscribe: Opt Out of Delusion, Tune In to Truth.
How to Make Any Sense Out of It
It’s commonplace for people to believe that what makes the human mind so special and powerful is it has provided us with language and logic—and these are, of course, very powerful tools. We can create and retell the stories of our days. We can transform stumbling blocks into life lessons. We can learn to discern harmless from harmful impulses. Our inner chatter will accompany us throughout our most frightening and overwhelming experiences, creating a sense of inner companionship.
It’s not surprising that after life’s most painful emotional events we listen avidly to this inner voice as it tries to make sense of it all, fully convinced it can uncover meaning and transcribe experience into ideas we can conveniently carry around and remind ourselves when necessary.
We cherish the conceptual, representational, narrative mind, so it’s no surprise that our stories are sustained by neural circuits largely associated with the brain’s left hemisphere, which is the dominant hemisphere of adult life. The left hemisphere of the brain is by nature optimistic and advantage seeking, believing that any problem, any situation in life can be abstracted, turned into a rule, and solved. If we can just find enough time to think, and the right way to encapsulate a painful tangle of events, then a hidden meaning will emerge, and with it safety, inoculation from pain. After relationship separations, career reversals, and financial setbacks, the narrating mind spins out its stories, providing a sense of security: this won’t happen again, if I can only figure out what went wrong. And so much of mental life is a ceaseless quest for the perfect, transcendent understanding of life, a pursuit which has no doubt dogged humankind since the dawn of our species.
All of this leaves out the fact that we have two hemispheres of our brain, not one.
The right hemisphere, which so often works diligently in the background producing our emotional and attentional impulses, focuses on other concerns entirely. A dominant agenda of these circuits is guiding us to connect securely with other people and situations. We are, after all, social animals, and connection is our bread and butter, the key to our species survival. Our needs to connect are expressed essentially via emotions—we experience joy when we feel socially accepted, and pain after rejections.
While our emotional circuits don’t have the abundant language abilities of the left hemisphere, it continually communicates to us through the physical body. When disappointing events occur, our obsessive thoughts distract us from an array of emotional messages: contraction of the brow, tightness in the jaw and throat, a sense of hollowness in the chest, and tight abdominal muscles. The emotional mind continually signals us when our priorities have skewed toward achieving rewards over sustaining meaningful relationships by creating negative emotional states. If we go through a breakup, emotional circuits create sadness, grief. If we do something that harms others, guilt arises (if we are not sociopathic).
Quite often we don’t appreciate the truths of our emotional pain. Our cognitive apparatus helps us evade the loneliness, grief, sorrow by producing alluring smokescreens, obsessive thoughts, and ongoing inner chatter that keeps us distracted with resentments and self-righteous indignation:“How dare they? Why did they do that? Why did I do this?
What should have been done different?” In other words, our inner verbiage is the place we seek refuge from the inevitable wounds of life.
The stories we tell ourselves—how life should have been different, how this or that shouldn’t have happened—might very well be true, but how much do they really solve?
The longer we’re enraptured by these narratives, the worse the underlying wounds become. They don’t just go away because we ignore them. Eventually the wounds pile up and erupt in anxiety attacks, rage, addiction, binges—the tantrums of the ignored inner child.
When we don’t listen to our bodies, feelings, and moods, we rely on addictive strategies to push our nonverbal experiences out of awareness. We might shop. I have an abnormal collection of hoodies, more than I’ll ever need. When I was working at the advertising job I loathed, I fell into the habit of rewarding myself for working yet another week by purchasing CDs. I wound up with an absurdly large collection of music I no longer listen to or care about; they’re all gone.
The rising of abandoned emotions creates insomnia. We suddenly become frantically busy, incapable of settling down, for to stop, pause, relax would draw our attention to sensations we’re desperately trying to avoid. Eventually we’ll fall into avoidance strategies: the repressed, vulnerable, wounded child starts to signal itself through the cracks in our voices, the sadness in our eyes.
Representational thought has the additional tendency of reducing and simplifying our experiences into the same old story—others are against me, I’m invariably being misunderstood, I’m entirely innocent or doing the best I can while others are often nefarious, mean-spirited, naive, etc.Thus we’re able to excuse ourselves from investigating each moment from more challenging perspectives that might be more informative.
My work with practitioners has demonstrated that skillfully understanding painful events asks that we put aside our tendencies to try to “figure it out.” To uncover any understanding of life demands far greater investigation and vulnerability than most of us anticipate. That which makes sense of life’s powerful experiences cannot be conveyed in language-based thought alone; deep understandings of loss cannot be captured in trite sayings. The rush to try to alleviate loss with “Well, at least he lived a long life and got to see Paris before the cancer spread . . .” shows how desperate we are not to feel negative emotions, which in turn leads us toward tilted and incorrect interpretations.
I’d like to propose that there are three types of right understanding that must be present for our comprehension of an experience to be accurate, insightful, and of any spiritual value.
The first is that meaning occurs across multiple levels; it’s not just in a process of thinking. Meaning is something that is felt: that is experienced in the body, is expressed in our behaviors, is present in the way we breathe, is seen in the way we carry ourselves. It’s physiological as much as it is psychological. The need to always try to translate an experience into an idea or speech inherently does violence to the complexities of life’s events. Our lived human quality is not just a bunch of words floating through the mind. Experience contains physiological feelings of heaviness, jumpy attention, tears, sadness, states of not knowing. And these are just as meaningful as thought. In fact, in many ways, they’re often more meaningful than the inner speeches we feel the need to add on.
The Buddha’s profound teaching that mindfulness should begin with the body and then move to the emotions, as we discussed in chapter 6, was echoed by William James, who proposed that emotions and physiological sensations arise before thought. Our emotional signals are far more complex and nuance than thought, which always tries to simplify experience into predictable narrative. If we wish to make sense of our lives, to carve out understanding after the break up or a loss, we’re on the right track if we forego trying to “figure it out,” and choose instead to simply observe whatever arises.
This brings me to the second proposal, which is that meaning takes a lot of time. It’s never something that happens quickly. Full integration of the felt means that we cannot rush toward any form of “making sense.” Instead, we must turn toward our pain. I know after my friend Lauren died, killed on her bike by a careless driver, I felt a strong impulse to try to make sense of it all rather than attend to the feelings of loss and sadness and emptiness. My thoughts tried desperately to turn it into some kind of story, to really make sense of the unfathomable, but I fought against the impulse, reflecting in my practice that true understanding of such a tragedy takes a very long time. It’s similar to how, after a devastating, painful break up, we rush to simplistic conclusions such as “Well, that will teach me what happens if you date a Canadian.” We gravitate toward pronouncements, invariably in the hope of numbing what needs to be felt in the stomach, heart, throat, face, breath. It’s only years later when a deeper truth appears: “What was I thinking? That person was on a totally different path than me. They wanted something completely different from life; we were never that compatible!” To arrive at a place where we can be with and process an array of emotions, which is necessary before any right understanding is possible, requires allowing anger and sadness and frustration to appear, be held, and gradually diminish. Unattended grief or pain leads toward a hollow interpretation of our connections and losses.
So before we reach the last proposition, let’s review: (1) Meaning cannot be fully expressed in thought, but requires feelings and emotion; (2) Meaning doesn’t appear quickly but invariably takes time.
My third proposition is that understanding always requires intimate interaction with others, that true insight, an accurate appraisal of experience, can rarely if ever be developed in isolation, on our own. As the human mind tends to avoid the uncomfortable, and leans to repress difficult emotions, unearthing a true appreciation of important events demands interaction and mutual support. When we express our experience through nonverbal expressions and gestures, and when our trembling voice articulates our pain to another human being, then we can find a right-sized response and allow our simplistic thoughts to be gently elevated.
In contrast to the privileged status afforded to verbal cognition, interpersonal connection, I believe, lies at the core of all healing. In my experience the more a practitioner facilitates the emotional experience and expression of others, the more they in turn evidence positive changes in their lives.
What this means is that when I talk to you about my sadness, my loss, my dismay, I don’t convey it in words alone. But somehow when I explain it or talk to you, the cracks in my voice, the emotions in my face, my body language, the hesitation in my voice lets you see the emotion creeping through. Then I will look at your emotional expressions and I will begin to align with them. Human beings implicitly co-regulate; while we talk and exchange ideas, unconsciously we gravitate to the same emotional tone as each other. This helps us make sense of experience in a way that we never can alone.
Tara Brach and Michele McDonald developed a practice called RAIN that emphasizes mindfulness as non-judgmental. Over my years of teaching this practice, I’ve modified it somewhat to the following four steps:
Recognize what is going on;
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
Investigate with kindness;
Nurture, which asks that we relate to our internal experience with care and compassion, rather than resistance or frustration.
Allowing thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations to arise doesn’t mean agreeing or disagreeing with them; instead, we simply acknowledge the presence of such energies, be they comfortable or unpleasant.
The process asks that we feel what is present, weighing our feelings and impulses against the input of reason. In this way it helps us to consider both our rational thoughts and our emotional feelings.
While every tool in the Dharma has its uses, when they’re hijacked by our avoidance strategies and defense mechanisms, they’ll lead to only more suffering in life. While there are many helpful benefits of sustained spiritual practice—such as better self-regulation, improved mood and health—it cannot reprogram the emotional processes that are meant to be felt, attended to, and processed.
Thankfully liberation is not a state without emotions, even the difficult ones, such as despair, fear, disgust, anger. (Without feeling anger we cannot confront social injustice or establish secure boundaries; without sadness we cannot process loss; without fear . . . well, you get it.) From my time spent attending to great nuns and monks during retreats, I believe that liberation consists of greater equanimity and emotional balance. It is a state where emotions and sensations can be held and tolerated without adding additional reactivity or suffering, but there are still difficult emotions to be experience.
So spiritual growth should not be seen as the achievement of lasting elation. To be a spiritual practitioner entails being available and present with whatever is present, no matter what the sensations and energies are, without letting anything define us.
Noting Emotions in a Safe Container
Set an intention to put aside, if only for a little while, thoughts that concern events that are not actually occurring right here and now. When such thoughts arise just note them, and remind yourself you can return to them later. Don’t push them away. Simply allow them to remain in the background.
Take three deep, full breaths, tensing the body on the inhalations, relaxing during long, smooth exhalations. Think to yourself “May I find true, lasting peace within” to help relax the mind and override unresolved life dramas we’re carrying around in our thoughts. This practice should be heartily developed by those who have trouble letting go of the word-based, chatty narrator of the mind.
Locate and focus awareness on body sensations that occur with each in-and-out breath. Don’t visualize how you look, just feel the inner sensations. Follow these sensations by noting how they move through the body, such as the sensation flowing up from the abdomen to the chest with in-breaths and back down with out-breaths.
Locate a resting place in the body where the mind can return during the pauses between breaths. The belly is an excellent possibility. Staying present during these pauses requires the greatest effort.
After a while release the focus on the breath, and open the mind to anything that seeks your attention, including the thoughts you put aside during the first step of this practice.
As each thought, image, or external sensation arises in the mind, notice the accompanying sensations that arise in the body.
Identify or label these feelings as emotions. For example muscle contractions in the abdomen during a worrisome daydream might be labeled “fear,” while a feeling of tightness in the chest arising during an unpleasant memory might feel like disappointment.
Accept these feelings without resistance or judgment; don’t try to change or push away the experience. If the sensations are overwhelming, relax other areas of the body and extend the exhalations.
Stay detached from the thoughts and stories that try to pull you away from the somatic experience. Keep the mind in a state where it doesn’t identify with anything, but rather notes and observes.
After observing the emotional state for a while, bring to mind a reassuring phrase of self-love and kindness, such as “I care about you, I’ll take care of you.”
Remember all feelings convey messages they believe are in our best interests; while they can be misguided, they are like children that need our attention and care.
This is an excerpt of Chapter 10 from Unsubscribe: Opt Out of Delusion, Tune In to Truth by Josh Korda, provided for Braided Way readers by Wisdom Publications.