Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Metabolizing Emotions in Real Time

     This helps explain why in mindfulness meditation we practice physical processing: 'leaning into' challenging physical sensations with curiosity, interest & equanimity and watch how what seemed like solid aversive objects unravel into their harmless constituents.

     “Most people don’t maintain a continuous mindful relationship with their subjective thoughts and feelings, so most people do not have the ability to experience anger, fear, sadness, shame, and confusion without suffering. When an objective problem presents itself, it produces uncomfortable subjective mental and emotional states, and you suffer. A salient feature of suffering is that it distorts behavior. You cannot perform the delicate act of threading a needle while somebody is holding a flame to your body. Your whole body shakes; the objective functioning is distorted because of the internal suffering. In the same way, the delicate act of human interaction is frequently subjected to the distorting influences of (perhaps subliminal) suffering. Because of this subjective suffering, our objective responses to objective situations are often less than optimal, and sometimes horribly distorted.

     When objective responses are nonoptimal, they sow the seeds for new problems – new objective situations that cause distress. Then we respond suboptimally to that new situation. This can create a feedback loop that has the potential to spin out of control at any time.
     Even in situations where the suffering appears to be quite small, the distorting influences can add up. For example, a current cultural norm in the United States is to go from passionate love to acrimonious divorce in just five or ten short years. How does this happen? It happens in dozens and dozens of small daily interactions, some of them a little bit emotionally charged and a few of them charged in big ways. When interactions that are unpleasantly charged are not experienced completely in the moment, they are not metabolized. They leave a ghost, a remnant suffering that haunts the cellar of our own mind. That remnant suffering sinks into the subconscious and distorts our subsequent responses. We make cutting remarks when we merely need to reply. We yell when we merely need to be emphatic. We bite when we merely need to bark.
     The same cycle destroys a relationship here, a career there; leads to a war here, a rampage there; a repressive dictatorship here; an ethnic cleansing there. That is the basic pattern on this planet: People do not understand how to experience pain fully, that is, without suffering. Suffering distorts their response to the source of the pain, and this distorted response can easily lead to more pain and, hence, more suffering.
     Here’s a diagram that sums up the problem.  


     So where does meditation come in? Meditation allows us to experience pain without suffering and pleasure without neediness. The difference between pain and suffering may seem subtle, but it is highly significant. When physical or emotional pain is experienced in a state of concentration, clarity, and equanimity, it still hurts but in a way that bothers you less. You actually feel it more deeply. It’s more poignant but, at the same time, less problematic. More poignant means it motivates and directs action. Less problematic means it stops driving and distorting actions. I appreciate that merely hearing these words may not be enough to clarify the concept. But look back; perhaps you’ve experienced something like this in the past. If not, having read these words here will help you know what to look for in the future.”

       Shinzen Young. “The Science of Enlightenment. How Meditation Works.” Sounds True, 2016.
       *** HIGHLY recommended ***

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