For the last several weeks, I’ve been in a funk. I’m facing a number of transitions and challenges in my life, not all desired and many out of my control. I have several close family members with serious medical challenges and needs, I’m going through the ups and downs of building a business, my daughters are in the throes of “teeness,” I’m distraught over what’s happening in the world, and, to top it off, my left knee seems to be permanently swollen. Consequently, my emotional demons of depression and anxiety and accompanying stomach upset have made their predictable presence. I’ve been here before and I know it’s temporary but it’s still a drag.
There is nothing “wrong” with me and my situation is not particularly unique. These are all part of life. Parents age, people get sick, relationships shift, and circumstances change. In fact, if there is one thing we can count on in life, it’s that everything ultimately changes. My current situation will change, my funk will lift, other states will occur, and so on.
I’ve developed a fairly predictable pattern of how I deal (or don’t deal) with physical and/or emotional rough patches. My first strategy is to try to “fix” any situation that I can by taking action, helping others, utilizing resources, etc. If that doesn’t work, I then get really busy or run endless errands in an effort to avoid the uncomfortable feelings. When these approaches inevitably fail, meaning my anxiety, sadness and lack of control are still there, I begin the slippery slope of identifying myself as being depressed or anxious.
It’s at this point (and as a last resort) that I typically “remember” what my 30 years of psychology and 12 years of Zen practice have taught me: I have to be present to my emotions. It sounds so simple and logical, but our egos are wired to do everything in their power to help us avoid facing our upsets. And society colludes with this. For every “unwanted” feeling, there is a medication, a food, an alcoholic beverage, a product, a trip, etc. to “fix” us. But feelings don’t need to be fixed; they need to be felt. And by feeling them, and not running from them or wallowing in them, they don’t have the same grip on us.
Lucky for me, I was registered to participate in one of my regular Zen meditation retreats this past weekend. In fact, I was the coordinator of this one, which squashed any fantasy of skipping it and doing something more enjoyable (i.e., avoidant of my feelings). I forewarned my teacher that I would be sitting in a chair instead of on a cushion, have an icepack on my knee, and a Kleenex box next to me. Her response was, “Perfect! See you there.”
During the course of the three days, I essentially sat in a chair, focused on my breath, and remained present to the myriad of emotions and physical sensations swirling throughout my body. At times, I would use a Zen tool of asking myself “What are my most believed thoughts?” and “What am I afraid of?” feeling into the answers more than thinking about them. To the best of my ability, I stayed present to my physical and emotional pain, exploring and accepting them rather than fixing or rejecting them.
It has now been a few days since the retreat ended. Nothing actually “happened” over the course of the three days. Much to my surprise, there were no tears, no waves of panic, and no urges to flee. Similarly, nothing in my external world changed. People remained ill, my business didn’t grow on its own and our political landscape is still a big, scary mess. Yet, my internal experience shifted dramatically. Ironically, by working to be present to my feelings and the associated bodily sensations, I cultivated more distance to my funk. Though it is not entirely gone, it has significantly lifted. I can recognize that I still harbor some sadness and anxiety but I stopped identifying myself as being sad or anxious. My attitude towards the uncomfortable physical sensations in my body became more accepting and loving, as opposed to rejecting and resentful. I also gained more insight and awareness into what was contributing to my emotional state and some concrete steps I could take after the retreat to address them. And all of this happened in silence without “doing” anything.
So much of what happens in meditation is magical. Though we do nothing but practice staying present (which, by the way, is a heck of a lot harder than it sounds), the effects are dramatic. Ironically, feeling what we instinctively want to run from sets us free. Thus the saying, “what we resist, persists.” Meditation also brings with it the gift of awareness. And awareness, in and of itself, heals.
The next time you encounter a funk, try embracing it. Gently explore you physical sensations, thoughts and fears rather than turning on the TV or getting lost in the social media worm hole. Turn to your breathe to be your guide. View what is happening with curiosity rather than resentment. And when you do that, you may be pleasantly surprised at what you discover.