I am attending a conference on Buddhism, Mindfulness and Mental Health. The speakers so far have been a mix of academics, monks and social advocates. Having come from twelve weeks of pretty intense therapy in which self-awareness was the central theme I was finding myself landing on the more skeptical side of the equation. I do think the benefits of meditation are real, and that mindfulness is important but I was finding having it presented as a “let go of your emotions” to be taxing.
A researcher on pain management explained that pain is measured in two ways, the actual stimulus itself and how unpleasant the experience is to the person. Simply put: how I perceive pain is different that you based on the unpleasantness factor. Then they put up a slide in which people in MRI machines were measured as they experienced pain both before and after getting coaching on mindfulness. Rather than running from the pain, avoiding the feeling or stuffing it, the participants were coached to focus on it, be mindful of it and really be aware of it. The results were over time the pain unpleasantness decreased however immediately after receiving the coaching in mindfulness they reported an increase in unpleasantness, an overwhelming increase for some people.
Basically it got worse, a lot worse, before it got better.
This was my experience in therapy. At about the six week mark of the program, things were not good, the facilitators told me to expect this, gave me tools on self care, helped me talk about what I was feeling but it was hard, harder than anything I had ever done. I understand why people don’t get help, I understand why people turn to drugs, alcohol or other means to deal with issues, and I understand why I floundered for so long in my fantasy world. Mindfulness is a ten on the unpleasantness scale, everything inside you screams to quit, run, or find another alternative.
For me, it was grappling with the question of “why do I hate myself so much”, I didn’t want to face this reality. Looking at my deepest most destructive behaviours: lies, and deceit, shame and peeling away every layer until I got to the core of why I felt what I felt. The process was horrible, at times it’s still horrible, the shame is painful, but overall the results have been incredibly fruitful.
On of the strangest bi-products of this journey has been my physical appearance, I have lost weight, I dress better, I wear make up and I do my hair rather than just tying it back. I have a shoe collection, and not just steel toe books and hiking shoes an actual collection. All of this: signs of someone who cares about themselves, all of this self-care comes easy now, before not so much.
It wasn’t for lack of trying having done the self – care books, the dieting, weight watchers, the biggest loser challenge at my local gym, the personal trainer, workout CD’s, meditation podcasts, I did 200 hours of yoga teacher training and all of this produced results that would inevitably not be sustainable. Why? For me, it was a physical impossible to care for myself long term when I hated myself.
I get it, I understand how people can become hoarders, I understand how someone’s life can be turned upside down by addictions, I know that had my circumstances been somewhat different, if the right people hadn’t landed in the right places on my way to the bottom that things would have been different. I also know that I can slip down that slope at any time, if I don’t practice, if I don’t continue to use the skills I learned in therapy, if I don’t pay attention to my anger, if I don’t express my feelings, if I stuff my frustrations deep down all of that leads to a path of self destruction.
Emotions, feelings, open communication is what helps me connect on a real level with people around me. So I won’t be letting go of my emotions, I will be feeling them, expressing them, talking about them and being honest with them.