A wise meditation teacher once said that if you live long enough, you would likely experience loss and emotional pain. Losses and pains can take many forms—broken relationships, financial hardships, the death of a loved one, a change in health status, and so on. The popular saying, “Pain is inevitable and suffering is optional” reminds you that emotional pain is a normal part of living. And suffering often occurs when you fight against the pain. Certainly, there are social, environmental, and other causes of genuine suffering. Most people, however, are active participants in amplifying emotional pain to the point of inducing their own suffering. Worry, doubt, negative self-judgment, obsessive thinking, compulsive behavior, and pessimism are several ways that human beings give more power to their emotional pain. While well-intended friends and professionals might encourage you to “let go” of emotional pain, letting go is not always the most skillful way to deal with the pain, and can result in additional pain, along with feelings of self-defeat when attempts at letting go are not successful.
If you’re challenged by emotional pain in your life, consider the following process as an alternative to letting go.
Don’t try to let go of painful emotions such as anxiety, sadness, or grief. Trying to let go can easily turn into a battle that pits you against your inner emotional experience, which then becomes the ‘enemy’ to be vanquished.
Let it Be
Just allow whatever you’re experiencing to be as it is without adding any extra ‘ingredients’—such as judgments, expectations, or stories—to the process. Another way to say this is simply allow what is there to be there without trying or thinking anything to make it be otherwise. Whatever you’re experiencing will pass in time—experiences are always temporary. If you add anything extra, the experience will become more cognitively complex and emotionally charged, potentially lasting longer. In letting things be, if judgments or other additional self-defeating stories do arise, practice letting them be as well. With regard to letting “it” be—it’s really not about the “it”—it’s about you! Just letting it be is about being who you are without being driven by your reflexive reactions to avoid or control distressing experiences. Over time, your inner experience can become like a river that moves through your body. Adding a negative judgment or hopeful expectation is like throwing a huge boulder into the river that diverts the flow and creates a dam that obstructs the natural course of your emotions. Remember that rivers flow towards an ocean that is deep and wide—an ocean that has the space to contain many life forms.
Tending to your Pain
Letting your emotional pain be as it is does not imply that it’s not worthy of attention. The type of attention you give to your pain can mean the difference between softening to it or suffering from it. Attention is the antidote to distracting yourself from emotional pain. While distraction can provide temporary relief, it reinforces a false sense of control through a strategy of avoidance. This can lead to a constricted life that’s pushed and pulled by the normal stresses, strains, and pains of daily living. And tending to your pain is again more about you than your discomfort. It’s about your willingness to metaphorically hold your pain like a loving parent would hold a small child in need of tenderness. This can take many forms, such as:
Place one hand over the center of your chest, and the other hand over the first while generating a sense of softness, openness, and acceptance towards what you’re experiencing.
Moving with your pain
Sitting with your pain
The ability to sit with your emotional pain while letting it be is an acquired skill that many practitioners of mindfulness meditation gradually develop over time. This ability might require guidance from a trusted teacher or therapist, and is a process that can be initiated in small ‘doses’; you can begin with one minute and work your way up to sitting for twenty minutes or more.
The mind is constantly working—or overworking—to solve problems. If the ideas and methods described here activate your problem-solving mind, please know that it’s normal. However, if your problem-solving mind uses these skills with the hope that your emotional pain will soon be gone, don’t buy into it. That sort of strategizing implicitly dishonors your capacity to embrace the full range of your humanity. Instead, go back to allowing whatever is there to be there—let it be. The invitation is to drop the problem solving and just be present, open, and accepting to your mind, body, and emotions as they are, even in pain and discomfort. Trust that the river, eventually, will find its way to the ocean.