This is a very common and practical question. Here are three examples among many.
First student: “You said that meditation would help me to deal with my anger by accepting it, but, every time I try, I find that it is impossible. The more I meditate on it, the worse it becomes!”
Second student: “You said that being too attached to somebody or something will produce suffering since nothing last. How can I detach myself from something that I care for without negative consequences?”
Third student: “You said to meditate on impermanence including my own death. After 2 minutes I quit. Too depressive and not very healthy! I prefer to think about the good stuff”
What are our struggles?
Anything or people can be or become a struggle that we have to deal with. It varies indefinitely from one person to the next since a struggle is based on perception. What is a struggle for you may not be for someone else.
Among our struggles are, obviously our emotions such as anger, fear, jealousy, grief, guilt, etc. It can also be physical pain, unwanted task, aging, illness, bad memories, unfilled desires, impatience, phobias, commuting, cold temperature, noisy environment, procrastination, etc.
During our lives we are struggling with zillion of issues that we love to avoid or want to fix a.s.a.p. They are all coming from our emotional mind and triggered, either from outside sources such as the loss of someone, disaster, stressors or, most frequently by our ego driven thoughts, ideas, judgments and values that we apply to everything around us including to people close to us.
How do we usually deal with our struggles?
While facing these painful issues, we are reacting in many different ways and the emotional behavior is different from one person to the other. The usual well-known steps of grief (Denial & Isolation, Pain & Guilt, Anger, Depression, Reflection and Acceptance & Hope) are not necessary the rule.
Most of the time when facing a strong negative feeling such as anger, fear, jealousy, anxiety, grief, guilt or physical pain, our strong ego-driven self-defense mechanism coming from our subconscious mind tries to deny, avoid, reject, resist or fight theses feelings.
Our ego is always looking for the good stuff and not for the bad one and this is understandable. Therefore denying, avoiding or resisting the bad stuff is a normal reaction.
If we are able to pass or let go this initial emotional resistance, we may try to rationalize with the How and the W5 (Who, Why, What, When, Where) in order to fix the issues and then let them go.
Denying, avoiding, rejecting and resisting make our mind even more upset (one of the steps of grief) creating profound distress, frustration and anger (another step of grief).
As Buddha used to repeat 2500 years ago fighting our struggles is like squeezing a hot red coal while trying to get rid off. There must be a better way.
“So, what to do” asks the fourth student.
Accepting our physical or emotional pain regardless of its origin and its future outcome is the key to dealing and even neutralizing it.
The same student: “I disagree. On the contrary, I want to get rid off it, not to embrace it. It will get worse…for sure!”
I understand your reaction. It sounds totally counterintuitive but, again, fighting a thought, a feeling or a situation is like adding oil on fire unless you know, for sure, that you have absolute power on them, which is never the case.
Once we are trapped in our struggles, coming out of them is a big challenge. It is like been in shifting sands: the more you fight to stay on the top, the deeper you go. Here, the more restless your mind is, the deeper your struggle becomes and the more emotional you become. Another perfect Catch 22.
By using a reverse metaphor we can say that accepting your struggles is like putting water on your inner fire. Of course, it does not mean that you are going to solve your issue right away but, at least, you will control your mind that is spitting fire like a volcano. First step first.
Therefore, the best way to deal with and to solve our emotional issues is to use our non-emotional mind. This non-emotional mind is the one that accepts the emotion and is not the irrational or unstable one that rejects it. Then this logical, objective mind will provide you with a rational approach.
Do you touch your furnace when it is still hot?
The same student: “Of course not. So, is meditation the way”?
It is one of them.
By using our mindfulness skill we learn to break this vicious circle and the detrimental habit of linking your emotions to external causes (him, her, my boss, this jerk, the weather, my health, my neighbor, etc.) rather than connecting your struggles to the real source that is our ego mind.
While sitting with a still body, start to take few breaths slowly for few minutes.
The student: “How to accept what I want to avoid?”
Try to do the following:
- Pick one issue that you are struggling with, for example anger or guilt or fear or aging or a bad memory.
- Pay attention to your struggle even if you feel your emotional mind will react against it.
- Paying attention means:
- To observe your struggle as it is, without trying to be a psychoanalyst reviewing the How and W5.
- To be mindful that your struggle is transient.
- You become a passive observer of your struggle like a mirror reflecting it. You are not a victim, a culprit, nor the councilor or the problem solver.
- Slowly you are moving away from this square relation: Anger – Cause – Myself – Solution
- Slowly you are watching a movie called anger rather than being one of its main characters.
Having a “passive” mental attitude toward your anger rather than an active one will help your ego to accept your struggle.
This is the same principle than vaccination when you receive a little dose of a harmful virus to fight a lethal disease. By accepting your anger or fear or any negative feeling, you are tolerating it rather than resisting or rejecting it, like accepting an organ transplant.
The student: “I have been meditating for a while. Sometime, during meditation, some of my “demons” are popping out without warning. Is it normal and what should I do?”
Yes. It is normal and not unusual.
Many of our issues are in sleeping mode, buried deep inside our subconscious mind. When, during meditation, our mind becomes quieter and not too distracted by thoughts and outside world, bad memories and emotional issues can bubble-up to the surface.
Here too, don’t block them but accept them as you do for those you selected.
Therefore, during meditation we can either select the struggle we want to meditate on or let the problem revealed itself.
The student: “How long does it take to accept emotionally what we want to fight?”
Obviously, it will not happen immediately but slowly. It will take time for your mind to accept what it has been resisting for days, months or years.
Initially, you will focus on one struggle that you have previously selected from a list
Focusing on it for a short period – for less than five minutes. Then increase the duration.
Mind tolerance then acceptance will appear. We will rewire your reptilian emotional brain centers as part of the neuroplasticity that we talked about before.
All spiritual and religious masters have shown us that genuine and steady serenity comes from accepting our negative emotions rather than avoiding, denying, fighting and resisting them.
As an analogy a foreign organ graft is only tolerated with immunosuppressant. Similarly by accepting our struggles, they become tolerated and become part of our inner self rather than your enemy to fight.
Only after this acceptance phase, dealing constructively with your struggles becomes possible.
The masters are also teaching that we have to accept people and circumstances as they are especially when we have no control on them and no solution to offer.
When we simply see the interplay of events, people, and circumstances around us and feel free to make the choice that suit us best, we discover the path to emotional freedom and serenity.