by Berenice Boxler.

“You did a great job once again!” This voice is well known to me. It speaks reliably without being asked, especially when it is already difficult for me. That is not helpful! But the voice comes again and again. Like an uninvited guest who consciously wants to irritate me. With it in the bag: anger, disappointment, and above all shame. This unpleasant, sticky feeling in the stomach area that simply doesn’t want to go away.

Emotions only come in a package

It’s Christmas coming up. I would like a pack of light-heartedness, a few bags of unrestricted joy, a branch of satisfaction and a barrel of acceptance. And if there’s still room, I’d also like to have a bit of patience. How beautiful it would be to only pick out the raisins…

Emotions are only available as a complete package: all inclusive. Anger, fear, happiness, boredom, sadness, pride, shame, and so on. As the poet Rumi says: “This being human is a guesthouse.” All emotions are paying guests to be entertained. It doesn’t matter how they are dressed, what their history is or how much luggage they bring. They are simply guests, one no better than the other. They come, they stay, and they leave again.

From the outside it’s very simple: all are equal. An emotion is an emotion. It is a phenomenon that comes and goes, like the weather. Some simple information about how we are doing right now. As the bearer of an unpleasant emotion, however, this is not quite so easy: there is often the feeling of standing in the middle of a storm, being pulled and pushed around, one cannot think clearly, there is only a waterfall of possible explanations, accusations or insults, and the body prepares for flight or fight. No wonder man has found some pretty clever ways to escape the storm: too much work, stress eating, TV or other media, going out, denying (“Everything is fine!”), looking away.

Unhealthy handling of emotions

This running away from the experience, however it may look like from the outside, is not healthy for the body, very tiring for the soul and most importantly: it is no help at all to protect us against the next storm. And it will come, guaranteed. It is a vicious circle: No matter how much we decide to do it better or differently next time, we will be overrun again, because see above: “one cannot think clearly.” Thus preparing and planning doesn’t help at all, because the brain doesn’t function in the storm. It runs completely on survival mode.

Allow, let through, let go

In my experience – and that of countless other people – the only thing that helps is to open the door of the guesthouse. Feelings are there to be felt. Emotions appear in the body, then we can perceive them as feelings. There is tension, stomach pressure, a knot in the throat, tears, a smile, etc… And then they go again. Just like that. An emotion lasts only a few dozen seconds, then it is gone. Like the cloud in the sky that is blown away by the wind. That the anger, the fear, or the sadness last longer, this is because our thoughts feed them. “I wish I had…”, “But he promised…”, “What if…?” We humans are masters in visualizing, in remembering, in thinking through alternatives, in turning the knife in old wounds. And with that we artificially prolong what biologically is actually just a wave that would quickly wane again if we would simply let it.

This noticing the wave, the approaching storm, is not easy – but we can learn it. And then we can prepare ourself to let the storm pass through. We can’t stop it anyway. Firmly rooted, trusting in ourself, and knowing that it will pass. The practice is in feeling the anger (the body is tense, the thoughts are racing, it gets loud in the head), recognizing that the anger actually only wants to cover up this damn unpleasant helplessness (amazing, how powerless one can feel towards children…), not to follow the first reactive impulses for action, but to consciously decide what is really helpful and necessary now.

Do not switch on your own storm machine…

So much for the theory. In practice, the storm knocks me out of my shoes over and over again. And then the second practice is vital for survival: when the situation is externally ended, not prolonging the inner storm with our very own rain and wind machines. We can learn that too. This practice could look like this:

  • First, not listening infinitely to the inner, often hateful commentator. “Thank you, I got it. Not helpful. I know for myself that this wasn’t good.”
  • Consciously not distracting yourself, but reflecting the situation once more and noticing where the turning point was, where it tipped over, and why you didn’t perceive it.
  • Allowing emotions, feeling shame and disappointment. – Yes, that is difficult, but crucial. The emotions are there anyway, even if we don’t want to feel them. But when they smoulder in the subconscious, they influence our mood and current condition without us noticing.
  • Being a friend to yourself. “I understand that you feel bad. It’s ok. This too will pass. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Or whatever a good friend would say to you. Maybe only putting a hand on your heart area. Whatever helps to open up for some kindness and compassion for yourself.
  • Then imagining how the situation would have gone with a mindful and kind attitude. If this feels good, then rest in this experience and imagination. And try again at the next opportunity…

Oh yes, and an honest apology is always helpful, no matter if after 2 hours or 2 days. Without blaming the other, without expecting anything. Simply because it feels right. And then letting go and starting again.


The Guesthouse

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks

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