Our Emotional Training: Short Term Relief
When feeling distress, discomfort, or any difficult feeling (sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, confusion), most of us immediately react by finding a way to get rid of it, to make it better, to fix it, figure it out, or get away from it. Some of us are so good at getting rid of these feelings, we can do it before our conscious mind even gets wind of what we don’t want to feel. We ignore, distract, or turn to a drink, a cigarette, ice cream (me!), or shopping to feel better. Maybe we even seek out medication. Any why not? This all seems like a reasonable response to suffering! In addition, American culture encourages us to rid ourselves of and avoid any sign of discomfort as fast as we can.
And these strategies may actually work, at least temporarily. There are times when such coping mechanisms are entirely appropriate. However, none of these approaches tend to offer long term relief. (The latest literature on psychiatric medications seems to indicate they may not be any more effective than placebos, long term.) In fact, these approaches merely drive our discomfort into the basement of our consciousness, only to accumulate and eventually emerge with greater force or cause chronic physical, and/or emotional symptoms (high blood pressure, chronic pain, depression, generalized anxiety). Instead, there is another way. A way that offers a better chance for long term relief.
Mindfulness: long term relief
Over the last 20 years, the idea of mindfulness has entered mainstream culture. A practice once found only within the confines of Buddhist monasteries, is now everywhere, from Oprah, to the covers of grocery store magazines. All the research of psychologists and neuroscientists around the world from the last two decades, identifying the very real and significant, positive impacts of mindfulness has caught up to popular culture. Mindfulness is somewhat of a buzzword, today. The promise of bliss, peace, and enlightenment continues to show up on popular magazines, talk shows, and celebrity interviews.
And make no mistake, the benefits of mindfulness are real and not too far removed from the claims being sold. However, what is rarely discussed is how the process actually works, and how such peace is achieved. Mindfulness operates in the opposite ways in which most of us have been taught to deal with pain and difficult emotions. Rather than offering new ways to get away from and get rid of our pain, mindfulness is a way of turning toward our experience. Our greatest potential for resolving our pain is to begin making friends with the very experience we have historically treated as our psychological, emotional, even physical enemy. Does this not sound entirely counterintuitive to how we have been conditioned to treat our discomfort?
The science is quite conclusive that this ancient practice of relating to our pain and suffering with a softer, gentle, open, and curious attitude is more likely to lead to the relief we’ve been seeking in so many other misguided ways.
In part two, I will discuss how to use mindfulness and the science behind how it has such a profound impact on our well-being.