When I was in my twenties, which is a long time ago now, I often felt that I was a child pretending to be an adult. I looked around at other people my age and they all seemed to have their lives together and I felt like the only clueless person, the only one who felt lost.
Then I got a bit older and realised that almost everyone feels this way, everyone is muddling through the best they can, they don’t have a grand plan, they don’t have everything sorted out. Even as older adults we can still feel like this sometimes when things are overwhelming us, we can feel like we’re the only person who can’t cope.
Its easy to see why we make this error. We are aware of all of our difficult thoughts and feelings but not of others people’s and vice versa – people will look at you and think that you are more sorted out than them even though we would look at all of our neuroses and see an intractable mess, like a big pile of spaghetti. But self reflection and meditation can help to sort out our spaghetti over time with regular practice.
The first thing to say is to pick the time and place for introspection. If you’re having a really tough time and feeling overwhelmed it’s best to focus on basic meditation practice – breath, body, calm ease, mindful walking. When the storm is really blowing the fundamentals are your friend, you can wait for calmer times to do some self-reflection.
A good time for self reflection is when you feel an emotion arising like fear or anger. One of the key insights is that we don’t have to be a vehicle for these emotions, we can instead view ourselves as a conscious being that is experiencing sadness, joy, fear. In that way we can break the link between difficult emotions and automatic behaviours and instead allow ourselves to fully experience and accept what we’re feeling.
When we’ve spent some time breathing and being present with the emotion we can ask ourselves questions to understand why we’re feeling the way we are and prevent difficult feelings from developing into suffering. So we might ask: * What are the immediate circumstances which are triggering these feelings? * What are the wider circumstances that are feeling into it? e.g. lack of sleep * What are the thoughts I’m having around these circumstances? This might seem obvious but we’re frequently not aware of the thoughts we’re having when we have difficult feelings. * What past experiences reflect what’s happening now? * What assumptions and beliefs were formed from those experiences that are informing my reaction? * Finally, how does my emotional reaction reflect the experiences of previous generations?
In short it’s drawing a line from our arising emotion all the way back through our lives and beyond to gain insight into our suffering. By gaining understanding we can be more accepting of our experience and let go of difficult feelings rather than holding onto them. Meditating on the emotion is a helpful approach. Breathing in, I am aware of my anger. Breathing out, I smile to my anger. Breathing in, I see the roots of my anger. Breathing out, I smile to the roots of my anger.
Ultimately we need to be kind to ourselves, to treat our feelings and suffering with compassion because its not helpful to blame ourselves for our reactions. Everyone is doing the best they can given their circumstances (including you) so be kind to yourself and be kind to your spaghetti.
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