I’m usually weary of articles headed “X number of steps to…”, and you certainly get enough of them, not just all over social media and adverts on websites, but in the yoga world too.
If only it were that straightforward to lose weight/find your soul mate/increase your wealth/do a handstand/change your life. Either the “steps” are too simplified, or the situation and conditions we are dealing with are never that cardboard cut-out.
But… when I learnt a “3 step strategy to meeting a difficult thought or emotion” during my mindfulness teacher training course, I found it so helpful, and that it worked insofar as being a tool to steady myself and get through a difficult moment.
Since learning it, I have (when I’ve remembered) called upon it when in need and I’ve adapted it along the way. That is, through practice and real-life engagement with the strategy, I’ve learnt my own ways of meeting difficulty.
These steps are a mindful way that take us from automatic reactivity, or resistance, or fear, or aversion, and into a place of deep trust of our own inner resource to meet what it is there. It may not change the difficulty (immediately), but it will change how you meet it, and how you view life itself.
As with everything, through practice things become more natural and less contrived.
So, here we go…
Step One: Acknowledge
You know that feeling when you know you’re facing something difficult, right there and now in your life, or in your body as a thought or feeling, but you are not facing it precisely because it is difficult? Well. Step one is to clearly acknowledge it.
To acknowledge here means to pause, and see and feel it and name it.
I know, I know, why would you want to willingly feel and see difficulty? That’s exactly why it’s tricky, it’s counter intuitive. So at first, it’s very deliberate. You are doing it as a practice – treat it as practice. Frown or grimace all you like. When you’ve done it a few times, you will see and feel why it is helpful.
Why does it help? (You may well legitimately ask). Well, firstly, because it’s there and being with the truth of how things are has its own integrity. Secondly, when you choose to see something for what it is, you already remove or lessen its hold on you. It becomes a thing, an object to deal with, rather than a festering energy that takes over your life, perspective or your emotions.
In pausing and acknowledging, you are doing the opposite of bottling it up or pushing it away. You are already taking a step to dealing with it. You can name it, e.g. “This is xxx happening”, or “I am thinking xxx”, or “I am feeling xxx”.
By the way, if you have the kind of personality that turns away from difficulty, or doesn’t dwell on it and seems to get by, this step is really important! You don’t want to “just get by” do you? We can each be brave mistresses/masters of the situations we are confronted with – but first we have to acknowledge it in the first place.
Step Two: Breathe Consciously, or Count, or Both
Try your best to connect to your breathing, even if it’s just for a few moments, and feel your breath as it moves up and down in your body, or as it feels like it comes into and then out of your body.
Then try and stay conscious and present with the breath, following it in and out, or up and down. (Note: breathing is normally involuntarily, and what we all naturally do; just by bringing attention to your breath it becomes a mixture of involuntary and voluntary, and that very switch helps us be more in the moment).
In difficult situations, our breathing can get stuck or it’s tricky to follow our breath. In these cases, try counting. Deliberate, slow conscious counting. From 1 to 3 or more, and back down. Again, this can be just for a few moments, or longer.
Counting and/or deliberate focus on our breathing grounds us, brings us into the present and… (drum roll) helps to re-regulate our nervous system which tends to get de-regulated by difficult thoughts, feelings and situations.
Step Three: Remind yourself everything is impermanent
You what? You might ask.
Yes. You know it is! Nothing lasts forever.
And reminding ourselves of this fact when in difficulty is, well, helpful!
Now, it’s true that difficult situations vary in their severity, and some are long standing, others are just really intense or severe. We are not dismissing this, or trying to fool ourselves, when remembering that the particular situation we are dealing with or feeling is impermanent, we are simply noting it as a fact of life.
Nothing stays the same, for however long it seems to or however strong it feels.
Things that are even more short lived are our emotions. However deep or overpowering they are felt at the time, they will lessen, or pass, or evolve into something else.
As for thoughts – that’s the absurdist one in all this. We have around 90,000 thoughts a day (that’s a rough estimate of course). A thought comes – and then, poof! – in a blink of an eye, it’s gone. Although we are so so good at holding onto a thought and repeating it over and over. (That’s another topic).
When we remember things come and go, that everything has a beginning and a middle and an end, however long or short, this sends a message of comfort to our mind and heart. That comfort in turn helps to stabilise us and we are better placed to deal with or meet the difficulty.
There are a tonne of other strategies like this in my book Finding Peace in Difficult Times (published by Watkins).
-picture credit: feltmagnet