by Oori Silverstein
Our lives are made up of a constant stream of moments, one after another. Some are easy and some are difficult. Some are fun and some are quite unpleasant. And some are joyful while others are filled with grief and loss. Moments of all types rolling onward one after another.
Most of us live our lives thinking the key to our happiness is to maximize the pleasant moments and minimize the unpleasant ones. This is natural and sounds easy enough in theory. But life is filled with all kinds of moments, and it’s part of being a human being that we will experience moments we like and moments we don’t like all the time. Try as we might, there is no way to stop difficult moments from happening. Through Mindfulness practice we can find greater joy and meaning in the moments we like, as well as greater ease and connection in the moments we don’t like.
A happier life
Mindfulness practice can help us relate to our moments in new and useful ways, to show up more fully for whatever is happening regardless of whether we like it or not, and research shows this leads to a happier life. Specifically, research shows that how we relate to the moments of our life impacts our happiness more that than what we are actually experiencing or doing. In other words, our level of being present, of engagement in any given experience, impacts our happiness more than what it is we are doing.
So how do we show up for difficult moments without being overwhelmed?
The first thing we need to do is determine whether the moment is too overwhelming to try to meet fully. When an emotion or an experience is difficult and strong, often the wisest thing we can do if we are lucky enough to notice it, is to direct our attention to some other aspect of our experience that is not as overwhelming. For example, we can direct our attention to something simple and easily accessible, like the sensations in the soles of our feet, or the sensations of breathing, or listening to sounds around us with curiosity and gentle attention. In this way, we can sometimes find some calm and ease in the midst of difficulty.
Other times, when unpleasant feelings or experiences are not overwhelming, but we simply don’t like them, it can be very useful to try some simple steps to help us be more present with the actual difficult moments.
Feel the feeling
One of my favorite ways to practice meeting difficult (but not overwhelming) moments is to “drop the content and feel the feeling”. What this means is to stop focusing on the story, or the thing that is bothering us, and to look inside to see what the actual experience is in our body. For example, when I feel anxious and I notice it, I stop trying to solve or fix the situation, and instead I turn inward and ask myself the following questions while trying to notice the answer in my body:
- Where specifically do I feel this in my body?
- How big is the area where I feel it?
- What shape is it?
- Does the area where I feel this have defined edges or are the edges fuzzy?
- Is it more towards the surface near my skin or more inside towards the center of that area?
- Can I notice any particular sensations (examples include tightness, pulling, pinching, heat, cold, buzzing but the possibilities are endless) or is it just a general feeling?
- When I bring my attention to these sensations, do they increase in intensity, decrease in intensity, stay the same, or change into something else?
With practice, engaging with unpleasant experiences in this way changes our relationship to the experiences, and gives us more space and freedom. And it works with any experience, as long as we go slowly and don’t try it when we feel overwhelmed. These practices can also give us confidence in our ability to meet difficult moments more easily, and then they don’t escalate into overwhelm as often.
For me, these practices have had a powerful impact on my life, as they helped transform anxiety from something that knocked me off balance all the time, to something that is much more mild and manageable most of the time. And these practices can be beneficial in meeting all kinds of difficult emotion or experiences, so I offer them in case they may be of benefit to you. Just remember to be gentle, be patient, be curious, and be kind.