Sitting With Difficult Emotions

Many years ago I used to do a lot of white water kayaking. Even though at this point my sojourns on water in a small boat are restricted to calm lakes, I often think back to the many lessons I learned from those experiences. Below are a few paragraphs I wrote at the time. (All the pictures are from my trips.)

I feel the pull of the current and the power of the water. There are rocks all around. I’m feeling out of control and terrified. For one fleeting moment I give in to flowing with it, to feeling the power and loving it in all its terror. By putting all of myself into that moment, committing totally, it becomes a moment of beauty, a moment of poetry.

But there is a price for the only way to learn enough to be able to paddle in whitewater is by making mistakes. When I lean too much or don’t lean enough, when my mind wanders or maybe just when the water gods demand it, all of a sudden I’m flipped upside down with immense, unbridled fury.

The world underneath a kayak is mysterious and foreign. It’s dark and cold. I can’t breathe and my helmet hits rocks I can’t see. I’m pushed and pulled and flung around in every direction. My body is pleading, begging for air. Every instinct says just get me out of here, stop the pain, give me the quick fix. I know I can bail out of the boat, quickly get my head above water and breathe. But then I’m swimming and I’m swept downstream. It’s many minutes before I can drag myself, dripping wet, cold and bruised out onto the shore.

If, however, I stay underwater and be patient, then I can get my paddle in position and roll up in one fluid, easy, effortless motion. I’m back to the world of sight and sound, colors and smells, safe and warm and it’s two easy strokes back to the shore.

What does this have to do with mindfulness? When I think of this experience as a metaphor, I realize many different challenges in my life can leave me begging and gasping for air. My knee jerk reaction is to run away, avoid, distract, or take the quick fix. Yet sometimes I can manage to be present and to “sit with” unpleasant emotions. It’s not so easy to do, however, as with the kayaking, I find there are many rewards.

For instance, just yesterday I was once again in a cycle of self-criticism about my lack of ability to maintain an exercise routine on a consistent basis. I know exercise is essential for my aging body. I know the tricks. Get an exercise buddy or sign up for a class, for instance. It’s all very helpful, just not enough.

So, I decided to take a different approach. I decided to actually listen to the part of me that doesn’t want to exercise. This meant being present in a kind, compassionate and curious way. Many emotions came up. There was the sadness of watching my body as it ages. There was mourning for the loss of all the things I used to do that I can’t do now. It gradually became clear why exercise is so unpleasant for me that I avoid doing it. Moving my body shines a light on my stiffness, on all the little hurts and bigger pains.

What ultimately emerged was a commitment to be gentle with myself, to feel the sadness and the hurt and the frustration and to just acknowledge it instead of cutting it off in self-recrimination. As I did this, the emotions gradually became softer, clearer and less intense. I began to see lots more options for different ways to approach exercising. Yes, I did get out yesterday for a long walk. Yes, I did get on my Total Gym equipment for the first time in weeks. That’s only one day. It’s an ongoing journey.

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