Those of us who have been in therapy probably all know very well the phrases, “you must be able to sit with the emotions.” Or, “there is only going through the emotions.” Or some variation on the same theme. The idea that we have to stop avoiding our emotions, stop dissociating from them if there is to be any hope of healing. But, the thing is, the delusions (those pesky cognitive distortions) make this incredibly difficult; they’re so convincing.
I’ve been reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, PH.D, at the recommendation of the almost therapist, R. In the book, she tells the story of Siddhartha. Of course, having read Wake Up by Jack Kerouac and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, I am familiar with the story of the Buddha; however, Brach mentions a concept I was not familiar with: mara, which is represented by the god Mara. It represents the “shadow-side of human nature.” She states that, “in Sanksrit, mara means the ‘delusions,’ the dreamlike ignorance that entagles us in craving and fear and obscures our enlightened nature” (60). She talks about the many forms which mara takes, a temptress, a fanged monster, etc. Basically anything that distracts us from the present moment. This, to me, led to the conclusion that mara in my life is the cognitive distortions I talked about in Daring to Explore the Cognitive Dissonance. And, it is my depression and anxiety and nightmares. Mara is the thing that steals my happiness. Sometimes, mara is probably even my meds. If you want to know what mara is to you, ask yourself, “what is the delusion that imprisons me in suffering?”
According to Brach and others, the Buddha discovered that he could face mara by being “mindfully opened to the [emotions] he felt, without fleeing or trying to fight back.” Ultimately, this is what mindfulness based therapies try to teach us, how to sit with the emotions, remain open to them, feel them, resist the urge to fight back or run away (dissociate). They teach us to be grounded and in the moment. In the story of the Buddha it always appears so easy to “defeat” the shadow-side of our human nature. But, reality for most of us, proves that isn’t necessarily the case. It is hard to sit with the feelings and not try to do something about them. It is hard to stay in the present moment. Even with all the tools given to us by skilled therapists. I read blog after blog about people struggling with their own shadow-side. I write blog after blog about my own shadow-side. I have sat with therapists who denied their own shadow-side. Authors upon authors write at length about the shadow-side of the wounded healer. So, if it were really all that easy to handle suffering in such a way, then why do we have so much writing on the topic? All of this, of course, makes me wonder, what makes this task so difficult? Why do even the most trained practitioners struggle so much with something the story of the Buddha presents as so easy, once he discovers the secret (because, yes, before that point he struggled deeply against his own struggle).
So, what do we do, how do we stop struggling against our own struggle? Do we, as the Buddha, approach our struggles with a “tender heart?” If we do, how do we come about this tender heart, when the voice inside says such cruel things? How do we become awakened and free? According to Brach, “the practice of Radical acceptance begins with our own pause under the Bodhi tree” (61). What she means by this is that we make ourselves available to whatever life is offering. But, then, what does she mean by that? What does it mean to make oneself available? When I think of that, I think of what I would do for a friend who is in crisis. I sit, I listen, I withhold judgement, I offer validation/encouragement/assurance. I offer myself to my friend as a vessel of love. So, why can’t I do this with myself? What am I afraid will happen?
I know the answer to the above question, for me, is fear. I’m afraid that if I lean into the feelings then I will never come out of them. I’m afraid they’ll hurt so much that I will be destroyed. I have years of blanks in my memory. Years of something my brain feels is bad enough to protect me from. What happens if I open up that Pandora’s box? Does it prove to me that all of my cognitive distortions are true? It certainly means facing some ugly truths but I’m afraid the ugly truths won’t be the ones I think they are. I am afraid of sitting under the bodhi tree and “facing the arrows of Mara.” I fear I don’t have the courage and the resolve needed to practice “the art of pause.” But, maybe, if I ease into it gently it will be okay.
I was told an analogy recently, the person compared leaning into our emotions to the pushing inward of a Chinese finger trap. The harder we pull away, the more we try to run, the more trapped we become. If, instead, we lean into it, trust that by moving forward we will be freed, then we stand a chance with our emotions. The person was sure to reiterate that we aren’t ever free of our emotions but we can get better at “pausing” and leaning into them and that becomes less scary than trying to run, as evidence begins to prove that leaning in has better results than running or fighting.