"Later Lake George: Storm Over the Hill, 1921" by Alfred Stieglitz, used with the permission of Philadelphia Museum of Art: Alfred Stieglitz Collection.
“Later Lake George: Storm Over the Hill, 1921” by Alfred Stieglitz, used with the permission of Philadelphia Museum of Art: Alfred Stieglitz Collection.

The feeling that things are out of sync and that there is too much to do is not new. As Buddha pointed out over 2,600 years ago, we’ll always have to deal with the fact that life entails pain and suffering. Perhaps it’s that we don’t really want to have any problems that makes Our current time seem so full of distress.

Many people come to meditation practice with the expectation that it will calm them and relieve their stress. Certainly meditation can do this to some extent; even the most superficial meditation practices can induce feelings of calmness. However, when we’re knee-deep in emotional distress, we’re fortunate if we can remember to practice at all.

When the clarity of practice becomes obscured by the dark and swirling energy of emotional distress, it is useful to have some clear and concise reminders to bring us back to reality. The first reminder is to awaken aspiration. On an elementary level, to awaken aspiration means simply that we remember to practice. Once we remember to practice, to awaken aspiration means that we see our particular distress as our path. Instead of seeing our distress as the enemy, as something to get rid of; instead of giving it juice by solidifying the thoughts around it into the heaviness and drama of “me,” we learn to view distress as our opportunity to see and to open. We relate to it as our path to awakening.

When we find ourselves in a mess, we might have the thought “This isn’t how life is supposed to be.” When life doesn’t fit our picture, we usually feel that something is wrong. But it is not so much that something is wrong as it is that we’re relating to life from the narrow, fear-based perspective of “I want.” What we want is to feel good, and when our emotional distress does not feel good, we almost instinctively move away from it. Our discomfort generates fear, and in that fear there is even more discomfort. No wonder we tend to see distress as the enemy, as something to get rid of.

We have to turn our upside-down view right-side up to understand what it means to see difficulties as our path. The main issue is no longer just about whether we feel good, or whether we like what is happening. The main issue is to be more awake, to learn what we have to learn to stop holding back our hearts in fear. This doesn’t mean that we have to like what is on our plate-what it means is that the willingness to open to life’s difficulties is not dependent on having to like them.

The second reminder is to awaken curiosity, asking the practice question, “What is this?” This is not an expression of idle curiosity, nor is it an analytical exploration. It’s awakening the desire to know the truth of the moment through experiencing the physical reality of our being. We cannot experience physical reality as long as we’re blaming, wallowing in “poor me,” trying to escape, or giving credence to powerful thoughts such as “This isn’t fair” and “I can’t do this.” The thought realm is where we stay stuck; it’s where things become solid, dark, and unworkable. In awakening curiosity, we return over and over again to the bodily experience of the moment, to the physical “whatness” of our experience, which is movable, light, and workable.

Several years ago, I was faced with an alarming reading on a screening test for prostate cancer. After further testing, I felt a great deal of fear while waiting for the results. I practiced staying with the body, asking over and over, “What is this?” The combination of fear and self-pity was powerful, as was the desire to escape, but my continuous effort to return to the physical reality of the moment began to undercut the solidity of my fear. The question “What is this?” worked like a laser in focusing on the experience of fear itself. In a moment of insight, I realized that none of what I feared was happening now, nor had it ever happened! There was no real pain other than that generated by my thoughts. This realization effectively burst the bubble of my fears. The insight came not from thinking, but from staying with the “whatness” of the moment. It came from being curious about reality.

The third reminder in working with distress is to awaken humor, or at least some wider perspective. Any time we’re obsessing over something that’s happening mainly in our thoughts, it is helpful to remember Mark Twain’s words: “I’m a very old man. I’ve had lots of problems. Most of them never happened.”

One way to broaden our perspective is to see the difficulties as just another aspect of our conditioning playing itself out. When we remember this we can say to ourselves, “Here it comes again; what will it be like this time?” This is not a trick to avoid facing our issues; rather, it is a means of getting just enough perspective to be able to enter the difficulty without being overwhelmed by it. Once when my Pandora’s box was opening wide, I went to my teacher, Joko Beck, to describe what was happening. I felt dark and grim, and was embarrassed to reveal that I was experiencing so much fear. She smiled at me and said, “That’s pretty interesting. Let’s look at this.” I got the sense that it wasn’t me we were talking about, but just “stuff.” Here was a wider perspective. It’s not that the fears were an illusion and could therefore be ignored, but that they were simply my particular conditioning. Putting them in this context allowed me to look more lightly at “my fears.”

The fourth reminder is to awaken lovingkindness. This is the ability to bring nonjudgmental awareness from the heart to the unwanted aspects of “me.” This reminder can’t be overemphasized. It’s so natural to want to confirm what is most negative about ourselves that we don’t even think about activating compassion or kindness. In fact, much of the heaviness of our distress comes from the belief that we should be different. Especially after practicing for a few years, we think we shouldn’t still be so reactive. We think we should be beyond our conditioning. But practice doesn’t work that way. Yet when we soften our self-judgment with lovingkindness, the sense of drama and heaviness lightens considerably.

Sometimes when emotional distress is particularly powerful, nothing we’ve learned about practicing with distress seems pertinent. Dense and intense emotional reactions can leave us feeling confused and overwhelmed. In these darkest moments, the practice is to bring awareness to the center of the chest, breathing the painful emotions, via the in-breath, directly into the heartspace. It’s as if we’re breathing the swirling physical sensations right into the heart. Then, on the out-breath, we simply exhale. We’re not trying to do or change anything; we’re simply allowing our heart center to become a wider container of awareness within which to experience distress.

Fear takes us to that point beyond which we think we can’t go. Breathing into the center of the chest, taking that one breath directly into the heartspace, opening to the pain that feels like it’s going to do us in, teaches us that it won’t do us in. We begin to experience the spaciousness of the heart, where our harshest self-judgments and our darkest moods lighten up. We begin to understand that awareness heals; and to open to this healing, one more breath into the heartspace is all that is required.

To willingly reside in our distress, no longer resisting what is, is the real key to transformation. As painful as it may be to face our deepest fears, we do reach the point where it’s more painful not to face them. This is a pivotal point in the practice life.

Feeling the limitations of our fears and breathing them into the heartspace allows us to penetrate the protective barriers that close us off. As we begin to move beyond the artificial construct that we call a “self”—the seat of all of our emotional distress—we enter into a wider container of awareness. We see that our emotional drama, however distressful, is still just thoughts, just memories, just sensations. Who we really are—our basic connectedness—is so much bigger than just this body, just this personal drama.

Seeing this bigger picture one time, two times, or even a dozen times, doesn’t mean we’ll no longer have emotional reactions. But keeping the bigger picture in view does help us keep from getting lost in our distress as quickly, as intensely, or for as long a time. We finally begin to understand and even believe that all of our stuff is workable. ▼