Last time, I briefly discussed the difference between thoughts, feelings, and actions/behaviors. It is an important distinction that many people struggle with. The main reason we struggle so deeply is that we so easily shift from experiencing an emotion or feeling into thinking about it. It is so natural. Our minds desperately want to “solve” every problem and emotions, difficult ones especially, are often viewed by the body as problems needing to be solved. In other words, we want to think our way out of feeling anything unpleasant. We want to shove it away, compartmentalize (which is NOT a healthy coping strategy), or just “get rid of” anything that feels remotely uncomfortable.
When trauma is in the mix, emotions can go from uncomfortable to distracting, painful, and overwhelming. Being with emotions such as shame, terror, and anger can feel unbearable. The mind then gets involved and often distracts in ways that keeps a person out of the present moment and therefore out of really living. The mind’s desire to avoid and distract is the exact set of “skills” that maintains symptoms of trauma. The body fears the emotion, avoidance happens, and the individual feels better for a moment, but the feelings are then feared even more in a toxic negative feedback loop.
The solution is exactly what the mind doesn’t want to do: let the body feel. Part of the problem is that emotions and thoughts are confused as the same thing. In fact, when we learn to “sit with” emotions or SENSATIONS (i.e. FEELINGS), the body becomes the focus and can calm. This is easier said than done, especially if we have been avoiding emotions for years or even decades. Buddhists often say that all suffering is in the mind, pan is in the body. We can cope with stepping on a Lego. We know what it is, it’s just pain. But, the same sensation without explanation can spin us into fearing the worse: bone cancer, gangrene, an auto-immune disease…and that fear and dread without real cause is what the Buddhists refer to as SUFFERING. Suffering has little to do with the body, but everything to do with how we label it. It has everything to do with THOUGHTS. When we step into the body and sit with our pain (be it physical pain or sensations related to what we call emotions), the pain can move on. When we sit in our thoughts, trying to escape the body, we inevitably prolong the suffering.
So, how do we “sit” with our emotions? It begins with noticing the body and the things we call emotions and separating them from the thoughts. If you are dealing with past trauma, this is work to be done a trained trauma professional. They can help you begin to identify and it with the sensations that we call “fear, shame, anger, grief” and the like. How do you healthfully cope with “feelings”?