A Little Time-out

Being human is feeling all kinds of stuff we’d rather not. It’s easy to run away from “bad” feelings, to try to Facebook / eat / drink them away. Or we might get stuck in a trough, and end up thinking the feeling is who we are. “I am an anxious/depressed/angry person.”

But how about experimenting with falling into whatever “bad feeling” arises? It can be interesting to explore and befriend an emotional state, without attaching to it.

I briefly befriended a tiny unhappy girl in pink snow boots last week, and later I realized the parallels. Small girl, small inner feeling. (My own feeling states usually start out small, and if I notice and tend to them early enough in their unfolding, I can often shift them before they get big.)

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Photo by Gunnar Sigurður Zoega Guðmundsson, via Flickr Commons

The girl was one of about 10 children in a child care group I assisted for a short time. (How I, the easily overstimulated introvert, ended up in this unaccustomed space is another story!) This girl ran and laughed with the bigger boys for a while, but then I noticed she had withdrawn. Her forehead had gone all puckery.

Say this little girl is the feeling, hankering for attention. The first thing is simply to notice the feeling arise. And it might not be obvious in the noise and clang of life. Maybe it’s just a furrowed forehead or the absence of a smile or the sudden need to pull back.

I could relate, as a formerly small and often overwhelmed girl myself. So I went and sat with her.

The second thing is to go and be with the feeling. It’s not helpful to chide the little girl for withdrawing, or feed her food she doesn’t need, or cajole her into playing again before she’s ready. But we can go and sit. Be in solidarity.

I saw that she tugged at the Velcro of her boots. So I helped her take them off. The day was warm. Her feet had gotten hot.

So that’s another thing: to address physical discomfort, or bring some air to something constricted. It wouldn’t do to holler at the little girl for having those boots on in the first place, or to ignore her discomfort, or to tell her to just keep marching.

That’s pretty much my process, not that I always do it. (I do my share of eating-for-distraction!) Basically: Paying attention, opening some space. I find that just by focusing in on what hurts, I can get valuable information. Not only that, but just attending with kindness is often enough to soften constrictions and transform pain.

By the way, I did play with the girl then. I tried different silly things to see what would catch her fancy. She just looked at me all sad-eyed. What finally got some movement from her was a beanbag toss game. Sitting next to her, I grabbed a bowl and beanbags and threw them in at very close range. Then gave them to her. She basically set them in the bowl one by one, very tentatively. I cheered each one. A tiny smile. (I felt like such a genius at this point, as I am more used to playing with animals than children!) We kept it up, with me moving the bowl around and acting goofy. She finally leaned in close to grab the bowl in one hand and hold it still. By this time she was laughing and I felt like I’d won the lottery, seeing those eensy teeth again, hearing that infectious sound.

So to continue the analogy…Maybe starting a tiny “job”—after sitting with the feeling and bringing comfort—is a way back from feeling stuck. Some easy thing that can be built upon, that can end up feeling like play.

After a while, she scampered off to play with the boys some more. (Me: “My work is done.”)

No matter how we deal with our emotions, the bottom line is: There’s nothing wrong with a little time-out to care for a tender underbelly.

Magnify Love

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.

—Desmond Tutu

Here in the U.S., we’re feeling the reverberations of yet another mass shooting. Some call it the deadliest in our nation’s history. Even as I unplug from the news cycle, I’m energetically affected by the pain and anguish, the anger and fear.

Sadness is mostly what I feel when I think of the shooting. When I remember to, I turn toward the sadness, feel it in my body, notice the wish to numb it, alongside the urge to amass information in support of my personal philosophy about these types of tragedies.

I “embrace, allow, include,” as I’ve been coached in mindfulness training. I open up room for all my responses and attend to them with kindness. In that space I can consider right action.

All of which gives me more compassion for others on their own path.

I like to believe that humanity is evolving in a positive direction, appearances (seemingly) to the contrary. The horrible things that happen always grab our focus, fuel our outrage. It’s the same with the inflammatory things said by some pundits and politicians: Our attention gets hooked by ugly things that seem to confirm the awfulness of everything. And the ugliness magnifies.

A wise yoga/meditation instructor recently reminded me that our brains are wired to notice the snake amidst the flowers. Danger! Alert! We fixate on the negative. It’s biological.

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No snake, just flower.

Mindfulness meditation creates an opening for a new practice to emerge. It offers a brief space—the length of a breath—in which we can begin to choose.

I wonder: what if we train our attention on something other than the horror? Not to look away blithely denying injustice, but turning toward the little acts of love and solidarity, small exchanges of soul happening every day. Is it a copout, born of privilege, to even suggest such a thing? Or is it an opening?

Some schools of Buddhism teach that the material world is nothing other than a construct of mind. What mind do I wish to inhabit?

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What do I choose to magnify with my attention?