Many people think that meditating leads to a state of bliss and, practicing mindfulness means being present in a state of calm. These are misconceptions. A quick review of what mindfulness and meditation are: Being mindful literally means being awake and present in each moment of your life, no matter what’s going on. Meditation is taking time out to practice being more mindful, and is not a goal in itself, but an exercise to help you be more present in your life. And because many moments of our daily life are anything but blissful and calm, people find meditation a good practicing ground to get more intimate with the workings of their minds. When the mind quiets down, by using the breath as a point of concentration, we develop a greater capacity to sit with strong emotions without having to do something about them. We develop a conviction that even the most intense, unpleasant feelings pass if we don’t entertain them. A wise Yogi once said sometimes we not only entertain feelings that make us feel bad, but we invite them to have dinner with us and then woo them into bed and into our dreams.
How do we manage very intense, painful feelings? A client of mine described a situation that is a beautiful example of how to cope in this situation (This client has approved my using this vignette and her name has been changed for purposes of confidentiality.) Kathy reported receiving a call on her cell phone as she sat in her car between errands. This call brought up an experience from the past where she had been betrayed in a profound way by her business partner. It had happened a few years ago, but the intensity of the pain, a literal feeling of being stabbed in the heart, was sometimes as strong as the day it happened. Kathy described how her friend had called and during the conversation had casually mentioned how well her former partner was doing in her new business. Her friend seemed unaware of the reaction that Kathy was having to this information.
Here is Kathy’s description (as read to me from her journal), “Physically I found it difficult to breathe and the physical pain in my heart was unbearable….all those techniques about working with my emotions were far away and useless. Finally I got off the phone and I’m embarrassed to admit it but I let my feelings have their day and I sat in my car crying and pounding on the steering wheel….overcome with rage. I did manage to drop the storyline of who did what to who after a bit…. Then I started breathing directly into the betrayal. …which felt like a raging fire….I could barely catch my breath, but I stayed with the feeling. The stories would flash through and I’d get into it a bit…. I started having images of what I would do or say if I saw this person. Eventually my concentration let the images float by, but the intensity of the fire roared on.
Finally I couldn’t take it anymore….I just had to get the anger out…I imagined myself ripping her to pieces like I was a wild animal…and then I became sated almost like I was a tiger who went on a rampage killing and eating everything in sight….I guess I got full…sated and I noticed that my breathing came back to normal, the stabbing pain in my heart subsided, and the storm passed. I closed my eyes and took some deep breaths and regained my balance. I was too upset to finish my errands and had to go home, but I did feel like I could let it go.”
Kathy has been meditating for several years and when she got home she wrote this experience down in her journal. After reading the journal entry at our next therapy session, she said,“ I feel like I cheated or failed by giving into the rage and becoming the vicious killer tiger…I know you’re going to say I was a mindful tiger, but it still gripped me and made me hateful”
I was thinking exactly what Kathy said, that at least she was a mindful tiger. How much more can we ask of ourselves than that? Is meditation supposed to make us robots that remain detached and in control at all times? The answer is No! To remain passionate human beings is to feel hurt and vulnerable and react if we’re betrayed or abandoned. Staying present just means that we don’t get completely lost in reaction, that there’s some small observing part of the mind that watches as the rest of us rages. I believe there is such a thing as being mindfully enraged. Sometimes, when overwhelming emotions surprise us, it’s the best we can do.