Friday, June 4, 2010

Sitting with Feelings

Ask most women what they might change about their man, and somewhere near the top of many lists would be wanting him to be more emotionally intelligent. Men have a reputation - and often take pride in - of being emotionally dense.

It's not that men are incapable of emotional intelligence (there are many male therapists who are very emotionally intelligent) or sensitive (gay men tend to be more sensitive than straight
men, and have higher testosterone levels as well). So what's up with us?

We have never been taught how to experience and sit with our feelings. Here is today's Daily Om - on sitting with feelings - which is not as easy for men who were raised not to have feelings at all. Below this article I am posting an old essay from the last time I was in therapy - it kind of touches on these same issues.
As the Earth Allows the Rain
Sitting With Feelings

Sitting with our feelings is the best thing we can do for ourselves rather than stuffing them deep inside.

It can take great courage to really sit with our feelings, allowing ourselves to surrender to their powerful energies. All too often we set our feelings aside, thinking we will deal with them later. If we don’t deal with them, we end up storing them in our minds and bodies and this is when anxiety and other health issues can arise. Denying what our bodies want to feel can lead to trouble now or down the line, which is why being in the thick of our feelings, no matter how scary it seems, is really the best thing we can do for ourselves.

One of the reasons we tend to hide or push aside our feelings is that we live in a culture that has not traditionally supported emotional awareness. However, as the connection between mind and body--our emotions and our physical health-- becomes clearer, awareness of the importance of feeling our feelings has grown. There are many books, classes, workshops and retreats that can help us on our way to emotional intelligence. We can also trust in our own ability to process what comes up when it comes up. If sadness arises, we can notice its presence and welcome it, noting where in our bodies we feel it, and allowing ourselves to express it through tears or a quiet turning inward.

When we simply allow ourselves to fully feel our feelings as they come, we tend to let them go easily. This is all we are required to do; our feelings simply want to be felt. We often complicate the situation by applying mental energy in the form of analysis, when all we really need is to allow, as the earth allows the rain to fall upon it. As the rain falls, the earth responds in a multitude of ways, sometimes emptying out to form a great canyon, sometimes soaking it up to nourish an infinitude of plants. In the same way, the deeper purpose of our feelings is to transform the terrain of our inner world, sometimes creating space for more feelings to flow, sometimes providing sustenance for growth. All we need to do is allow the process by relaxing, opening, and receiving the bounty of our emotions.
* * * * *

This "meditation" was written a few months after returning to therapy. At the time I was in a relationship that was not working and eventually ended a little over a year later. I was really starting to work at the time on having access to my feelings.

This was a different kind of therapy than I had done before then - in the past I had done work around my father's death and my addiction issues. This time I had no clear purpose - it was simply digging around to see what comes up.

July 1, 2005
Conventionally, being fearless means that you are not afraid or that, if someone hits you, you will hit him back. However, we are not talking about that street-fighter level of fearlessness. Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.


In the Shambhala tradition, discovering fearlessness comes from working with the softness of the human heart.

~ Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

When I began my weekly talks with Maude, I had no idea what I was getting myself into or how my life would be changed. If I had known, I likely would have continued as I have, but I would have made more space in my days for just being. Some days, I am back at the gym and training my clients within an hour of hanging up the phone. It seems there is little time for reflection, meditation, and thinking up excuses to avoid the next conversation. I really was not well-prepared for the process I was undertaking.

All I knew when I made the first phone call was that I was not happy and that nothing I had tried until that point had worked to ease the discomfort always lurking beneath the surface of my consciousness. I wasn't depressed, or at least not in any way identifiable to most people. In fact, my outward life was working better than it ever had before, yet I was not content. Something was missing.

The one thing I did know when our conversations began was that I had never been a very emotional person. Perhaps it might be more honest to say that I avoided emotions to the point that I often was unaware of what I am feeling. My conservative parents taught me that "boys don't cry" or show any other vulnerable emotion. In fact, I was raised to value intellect over emotion in every conceivable way and in every instance. I learned very early that a powerful intellect garners power and respect, while vulnerable emotions are "weak and sissy." I learned through my father's words - "Stop crying or I'll give you something to really cry about" - not to show vulnerability in any way.

I carried those lessons into adulthood, and in many ways they helped me get to where I am now - both good and bad. However, the lack of vulnerability has been a hindrance to healthy relationships and to living the compassionate life that Buddhism teaches. In fact, it was my [now-former] partner who suggested I talk with Maude. She has known Maude for many years and recommended her as someone who might be able to help me find whatever it was that my life seemed to lack.

When I made the first call, I didn't suspect that I would be learning about fearlessness. Nor did I suspect that true fearlessness, as Trungpa suggests, acquires its strength from the tenderness of a human heart.

* * *

The details are unimportant. Suffice it to say that no human heart makes it to the age of 38 without gathering a variety of wounds - some deep and damaging, others less painful but still significant. For most of my life until this point, I thought, "So what, quit whining and get on with your life." I believed we all had wounds but that the strong person was simply better at working around them. As near as I could tell, I was doing a fair job at working around whatever wounds I had accumulated - and I had worked through many of them years ago with another therapist. As long as my life wasn't in crisis, I saw no reason to go digging around in my psyche again. All that was ever required, from my point of view, was more knowledge and understanding. No problem seemed so great that I could not think my way through it.

I must have been dropped on my head too many times as an infant. Or maybe it was the copious drug use in my teen years. Whatever the case, my thinking - as educated in psychology as I actually am - has turned out to be less than adequate to the situation. I think it was Einstein who said that a problem can't be solved by the same consciousness that created the problem in the first place. He was correct.

Yet, the consciousness that created the problem was doing exactly what it was designed to do. When a child's psyche is exposed to pain for which it is ill prepared, the psyche devises defenses to deal with the pain. For example, if a young boy is repeatedly told that he should not cry when he feels pain or fear, and is even punished for expressing his vulnerability, his psyche will find ways to stuff that pain away someplace out of reach. The feeling element of his psyche will split off and be disowned. A subpersonality will develop in its place that is tough and unfeeling. The role of that subpersonality is to protect the boy from painful feelings.

As the boy grows into a man, he will continue to act with few authentic emotions. Even if he realizes what is going on inside himself, either through meditation, introspection, or relationship with others, his intellect will be insufficient to resolve the problem since it was his mind that created the problem in the first place.

* * *

So, one day I'm feeling a little discontented. The feeling comes and goes for a few weeks, and I am clueless as to why I should not be happy when so much of my life is exactly how I want it. After talking with my partner [at the time], who has experienced me as distant and emotionally unavailable, I decide to talk to Maude. Looking back, that decision was the spiritual equivalent of walking out into the ocean and allowing the waves to carry me far from land.

Much of what I assumed to be true - about who I am, about my childhood, about what I want most in life - has been washed away. In many ways, this is good. I have written before about "coming undone," about the ways we can renew ourselves through giving up beliefs that no longer serve our lives. I respect the process of undoing and generally seek ways to jettison elements of my life that no longer serve me. This is different. I am undoing many of the core elements of how I define myself in the world. I am no longer the person I was when I picked up the phone for the first time. Nor am I yet the person I am in the process of becoming.

I am stuck in between. In the study of ritual and initiation, this is what is called liminal space. The word liminal derives from the Latin limen, which means threshold - of or relating to being in an intermediate state, phase, or condition; in between, transitional. In the colloquial, one might say I am neither here nor there. In truth, I no longer even know where here or there are.

Liminal space is uncomfortable. I am often grumpy, short-tempered, moody, impatient, on edge, and generally no fun to be around. Did I mention the moodiness? It's like being a teenager again, but at least there's no acne this time. In fact, I have all the symptoms - low energy, poor sleep, moodiness, a need for isolation, disrupted eating patterns - of someone who is depressed. This isn't the neurochemical imbalance kind of depression that requires pharmaceutical intervention. It's what is known as situational depression and is best treated by examining the situation that has created it. In this case, that would be liminality - and the emergence of many years of buried feelings.

Maude has the unmitigated audacity to tell me, over and over again, that I am exactly where I need to be. If she wasn't so damned right, I'd just be really annoyed. In fact, I am annoyed. Yet, despite all the turmoil and chaos swirling around inside my head, I am still capable of taking a step back and looking at the process as though it was someone else's life that was coming unraveled. From that point of view, I know she is right. I am neck-deep in the ocean of my psyche, the alchemical nigredo. No matter how foreign it feels, and it feels like being a stranger in my own skin, I know how to swim and I am not going to drown.

* * *

But wait, there's more.

Like I said before, I was raised to believe that I can think my way out of any problem. Or rather, that if I work hard enough at something, I can master it and be in control. I thrive on being in control, on mastering problems and being the one who figures thing out. I need to have all the answers, and on the rare occasion that I don't have all the answers, I am convinced that I can find the answers quickly. From this point of view, I should have solved whatever was bothering me after the first couple of phone calls. From this point of view, I should be running the world by now, or at least some multinational corporation. Such is the power of ego.

But ego is insufficient to the task at hand.

The more I try to do something to "fix" myself, the more I create distance from feeling. Doing is intellectual and active - it's where I am most comfortable. Feeling is emotional and passive - I avoid feeling as much as possible. So Maude does not give me "homework," and she constantly rebuffs my pleas for some kind of technique or activity that can lessen my discomfort. "Just notice your avoidance as it comes up," she says; or, "Just be aware that you are intellectualizing instead of feeling." Yeah, that's all great, but I want to DO something.

How difficult it is, with such a belief system, to no longer be in control. Liminality does not tolerate an inflated ego. It quickly pokes holes in such a bloated sense of self. The result is that pesky depression I complained about a few paragraphs ago. Which brings me to another of my "issues," which is that my sense of self is either inflated or deflated, but seldom balanced. Neither is real. I am never as in control as I try to convince myself that I am; nor am I ever as helpless as I sometimes feel. Both viewpoints serve to distance me from my authentic feelings - most often fear or grief.

* * *

The tenderness and sadness Trungpa speaks about is assumed in Buddhism to be the natural state of the heart. For all its wisdom, Buddhism lacks the insight into developmental issues that western psychology has mastered over the past one hundred years. Buddhism excels at the higher reaches of human development but lacks a solid understanding of how human beings develop from birth to adulthood. The real source of that sadness is the wounding we experience as we grow to maturity.

The tenderness comes from learning to be compassionate with ourselves - and then with others.

A wise friend once told me that my greatest gifts in life would grow out of my deepest wounding. Although I grasped his point intellectually, I had no idea how much literal truth there was in his words. One of my deepest wounds is the sense that I am separate, unappreciated, unloved by Spirit, Divinity, God - whatever you want to call the creative intelligence that is ground and goal of material reality. I have no idea how that grief will become a gift in my life, but I do know that touching that grief is softening my heart. The more I can touch that sadness, the more fearless I become, and the more tender is my heart. This is the path of the warrior that Trungpa writes about.

When I first picked up the phone to talk with Maude, I had no idea I was embarking on the path of the warrior. I knew about warrior spirit from my readings in Buddhism, Native American traditions, and from some New Age authors such as Dan Millman. I never really took much of it seriously. I had no desire to be a warrior - spiritual or otherwise.

Yet here I am, rereading Trunga's book in some ill-guided attempt to intellectually understand what is happening within me. Maude knows I cannot help myself in this area. Still, she makes a point of reminding me that I am exactly where I need to be - even if I have no idea where in the hell I am.

* * * * *

That was from July of 2005. So much has changed since then, and the process that had been ignited that summer is still underway. It's time to go back to therapy, but this time it's time to work with other men dealing with the same issues.

I'm sure there will be more to come.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Indeed, it is important to just let yourself feel, but there is a time and a place, and not forget your privacy.