Grandmothers, Babies, and Dogs
What do grandmothers, babies, and dogs have in common? Read on to find out...
I love feeling Inspired. Excited. Healthy. Strong. Beautiful. Invincible. Loving. Happy.
I wish I could say the same about depressed. Anxious. Angry. Sick. Unattractive. Irritable. Defensive. Unhappy. If you are a human like me, you are wired to dislike these feelings, and have an ingrained (and sometimes, unconscious) tendency to try and avoid them and/or get rid of them at all costs. In this blog post, I'll discuss how, when we intend to to get rid of our pain, more suffering results. I'll also touch on how, when we practice equanimity (that is, not pushing away negative experiences nor grasping onto positive experiences) more enjoyment of life results. Gil Fronsdal, a meditation teacher, equates equanimity to grandmotherly love. He describes how, "...the grandmother clearly loves her grandchildren, but, thanks to her experience with her own children, is less likely to be caught up in the drama of her grandchildren's lives". Babies, dogs, and most other animals are also masters of equanimity, mostly because their nervous systems are not complex enough for obsession, identification with thought, proving a sense of self and chronic worrying/distress - all things that plague us adult humans and prevent us from experiencing the full spectrum of life beyond who we are on the surface.
I am not a dog, baby, or a grandmother (yet), but I have had glimpses of this thing called equanimity. And with practice, I think we all can live more satisfying lives by relating to our circumstances with more equanimity. I believe I have gained more wisdom from crappy times than from happy times, and am of more use to the world because of the crap. I try and remember this when I'm feeling lousy (AF), and to practice three steps that I learned several years ago from Kristin Neff, self-compassion researcher and psychologist. It goes like this: When I'm down in the dumps for some reason or no reason at all, I see if I can 1) first acknowledge my pain, because if I don't clearly admit that I am suffering, it's hard to change my reaction to it. When shit hits the fan, I bring my attention to all the other shits that have hit other people's fans, and let that fill me with compassion and the realization that 2) I'm not alone, this is part of the human experience (AND I let it fill me with gratitude that there is [usually] no literal shit involved). And when all I want to do is escape or distract myself in some way, I 3) challenge myself to put my hand on my heart and send some grandmotherly love to my struggling heart.
Here’s the thing though. This way of relating to discomfort is not easy at all. It goes against human nature. It is much easier to numb ourselves through immediate means such as overeating, undereating, drugs, overexercise, work, seeking validation, etc. These are certainly effective ways of getting rid of pain, and I know I have my go-to methods. But these ways of "getting rid of" pain are also excruciatingly temporary and do not work in the long run; they make the pain worse. I argue that the pain of trying to avoid pain needs to become greater than the original pain itself (try saying that 10 times fast) in order to realize an alternative route to managing the strong emotion might be healthier. At least this was the case for me - my old ways of relating to my emotional world needed to get in the way of my relationships with others, strain my relationship with myself, and get in the way of work and school in order to get my attention. There came a time when I had to learn another way of coping that didn't involve depriving myself of normal human feeling and emotion.
When I first was introduced to self-compassion and equanimity, I felt like a fish flopping around on dry land (what do you mean I shouldn't try and get rid of this anxious feeling?! Why wouldn't I?! This $&%*ing BLOWS). Attempting to access equanimity and mindfulness only when I was upset didn't work. So, just like how athletes put in their hard work off of the field so that during competition when the stakes are high, their technique is effortless and automatic, we who aspire to live a life with more joy, ease, and in alignment with our values can practice when we are feeling good so that when emotional intensity inevitably emerges, we can more naturally respond in a compassionate manner toward ourselves and others. This is why yoga, meditation, and other contemplative practices are so great, but that's a blog post for another time.
Next time you feel lost, like you wanna scream into a pillow, or like you wish you were a pillow, give yourself complete permission to feel that way and not have to do anything about it except be with it. If it feels safe to do so, find the feeling in your body. See if you can let the feeling open you up and present its teachings (without trying to get rid of the feeling!). And then, ask yourself: is there anything I can do to truly support myself (as I would a dear friend or a child) in this time of suffering?
So, here’s to the crappy and the happy, and here's to finding your inner dog/blobfish/aye aye/kakapo/pink fairy armadillo (yes, these are all real animals. Seriously Google them, you're in for a treat)
Excerpt from a dharma talk with Gil Fronsdal
Kristin Neff and the Self-Compassion Break exercise
Buddha's Brain - Rick Hanson