The single most useful tool I have found for emotional regulation is mindfulness. For many years I resisted meditation because of a traumatic incident in my childhood. In this memory, I am quietly observing the morning come in from behind the curtain of the sliding glass door, and my father interrupts me in a deeply disturbing way. For years I associated being still and quiet with trauma. In my thirties I was lucky enough to have a loved one support me in meditation by holding me while I meditated. This totally changed my life and I meditated steadily for over a year. I fell out of practice for a few years, but then picked it up again, and my current practice is to meditate for about an hour each day. There is a Zen proverb that suggests that it is good for one to sit in meditation daily for 20 minutes a day, and that if you don’t have the time, you should sit for an hour. I meditated for 15 minutes a day at first, then 20, then 30…. A friend told me she was meditating an hour a day and I committed to doing that for a year. When that year was up, I decided the benefits were worth the time investment. I have noticed that meditation has increased my distress tolerance, and have read research that indicates that regularly paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, increases emotional regulation (mindful brain). The research shows that it helps people go toward, instead of retreat from things that feel difficult.
In our busy world, it seems the pace of life is speeded up, and at the same time we are dulled to life’s richest pleasures. This is because get in the habit of conceptualizing what will be before we fully experience events in our lives. Let me explain. Our brains are pattern making machines. Have you ever noticed that we say we “usually” do something a certain way even if we have only done it once or twice? This is actually a survival mechanism; familiar is good, unfamiliar might kill you. There is literally thousands of years of evolution in favor of familiar. Through a micro (personal) lens, what we eat, the routes we take to familiar places, the way we bathe or brush our teeth help us feel safe in the world. Through a macro lens, the unfamiliar in terms of colorism, ableism or any other social justice issue you might name, keep us separate from others who are perceived as different, so that we can continue to feel safe. Even if it’s dysfunctional or bad for us, we tend to hang on to the familiar over discomfort because our brains give us signals that it’s safer that way. A gentle but critical look at our patterns can help us determine if we are clinging to safe patterns that no longer serve us.
Once we realize that it is ok to notice good things, and that when we can “hold our seat” during the so called bad things, we can go on to another layer of mindfulness that I call waking up. The desire to wake up has its roots in mindfulness, and one might say that being awake at all times is enlightenment. Most of us do not aspire to enlightenment, but there are few among us that don’t have a desire to be more present. After all, being present implies that we are actually alive to the details of our existence. Mindfulness is one of many aspects of mind training available in this day of literature and internet access to ancient teachings.
One extremely useful teaching comes through Pema Chodron. She is an American Tibetan Buddhist, and in some of her teachings she passes along a series of lojong slogans aimed to train the mind (Chodron, 2003). One of them is called three objects, three poisons, and three virtuous seeds. What are the three objects? The things you want, the things you do not want, and the things that you feel neutral about. Encountering any of these are opportunities to be mindful. Do you find yourself really wanting something? Use this as your chance to be fully aware that what you want puts you in a state of wanting. And to realize once you have it (should you achieve your desired object) you will simply want more. This isn’t just objects, this can be circumstances: you want your children to do the chores, you want the light to stay green and so forth. The same can be said for what you do not want. You don’t want to lose your job, to step in dog poop, or mindlessly repeat negative patterns. How about neutral? Neutral input is the stuff you don’t care about. Noticing the stuff you don’t particularly notice can be especially challenging because it can fly under the radar. What are the three poisons? The poison you want falls under the category of craving. This isn’t just addiction to substances, but addiction to the internet, or rock climbing, or any activity you do to escape and avoid being fully present for your life. The poison you don’t want is any kind of aggression or anger and includes gossip and violence. The poison that is neutral is apathy, numbing out, or disassociation. Again, it’s the neutral prompts that are especially hard to catch. Pema Chodron teaches that any of these experiences can be a tool for waking up, for being fully present and mindful in our lives.
Mindfulness helps us lean into that which does not feel safe. Distress tolerance is an important concept here. The more we can accept that we do not feel comfortable, but we can still stay present, the more we can be mindful and helpful to ourselves and others. How do we learn how to lean in, kiss our monsters, tolerate, or even welcome our distress? Curiosity is key to allowing things to be as they are. Why am I having this particular response? What about it is bothering me? What does it remind me of? Is there anything about it that is interesting? Can I recognize that this is just a part of being alive, and at least celebrate life in this moment? Can I open enough to acknowledge that other human beings have felt this way, and that someone is feeling this way right in this moment? Knowing that others are feeling the same way you are feeling in this moment can open the space up, it can help you not take it so personally, as others also feel this way at times; you are a human being, having human emotions.
Our relationship with ourselves as a human being, having experiences that other human beings have can be very freeing. We don’t have to take everything so seriously. This perspective can open up your being in a way that can improve your relationship with yourself, and it can also improve your relationship with others.