Recently I hiked with my family to the foot of a majestic waterfall near the top of the Colorado Rockies. The melting snow on this blazing hot day yielded a roaring tumult that eventually wound down to a rumbling creek and then into an alpine lake. It was a spectacular scene- the raw beauty and force of nature.
Yet, as it wound its way down the mountain, the water had to make its way around large trees capsized by years of spring runoff. These strewn trees and car-sized boulders that clogged the waterway made the roaring river look like the aftermath of a demolition derby.
Because the detritus blocked the tumbling water, the waterfall spilled over into the adjacent slope. What was once a narrow mountain waterfall now consumed a broad swath of hillside.
This catastrophic cluster at the waterfall is what happens when you avoid dealing with disturbing or uncomfortable emotions over time. The water keeps flowing and spills over into other parts of your life. Every part of your life gets soaked by the unresolved rushing tide of emotion.
Your spiritual tradition or meditative practice might cause you to think of disturbing emotions as “bad” or wrong, and you deny or suppress them. Or you either spew your emotions all over people, as when you tenaciously cling to them because you have a “right” to them.
When you don’t allow your emotions to exist, and either deny or spew them, they clog your stream like a felled tree or huge boulder.
But, trying to “let go” of the emotion before you’ve processed it, as often happens in meditation, can also cause you to distance yourself from the emotion so that you become alienated from it, rather than owning it.
As Ken Wilbur notes in Integral Spirituality, when you push away or disown an emotion like anger, you may still feel it, but it now belongs to someone else or becomes an “it” that you cannot process. The suppressed or distanced anger becomes a car-size boulder that keeps your waterfall from flowing smoothly and then leaves you with an unprocessed emotion that will trigger the next tree to fall.
“Letting go” only works if you have begun to understand the anger as an indicator of what should come next, and allow the emotion to dissipate in a natural way rather than stuffing it. Stuffing the emotion because you are afraid of your reaction only ends up creating a ‘shadow’ self- your anger projected into others.
Pema Chodron, in The Places that Scare You, advises us to stay with an emotion in order to acknowledge it, “dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves about it, and feeling the energy of the moment.”
By staying with the emotion, rather than immediately trying to let it go, you get to see it as something you ‘own’, rather than separate and outside of you.
Only then can your body process it neurologically rather than allow it to get stuck. This “staying with” the emotional energy allows you to complete the neurologic cycle and let the energy dissipate, rather than react to it and do something you’ll regret.
When you “stay with” the emotion, you begin to clear the trees and cultivate compassion for yourself.
How do you “stay with” an emotion in a way that’s not harmful to you or to others?
Pema Chodron refers to a “touch and go” method in The Places that Scare You that allows you to acknowledge your distressing thoughts before you let them go.
But when the emotion is bigger than a distressing thought, Peter Levine in An Unspoken Voice suggests that by experiencing your somatic reactions, your learn to relax into the emotion, sense where it exists in your body, and let it process naturally.
This natural processing of emotion is our body’s preferred reaction. It’s only in our over-stimulated thinking brain that we’d rather than hang onto it or suppress it, as we do in meditation when we “let it go” prematurely.
Learning to face the emotion, and being still in your mind as your body takes on the sensation, allows you to be vulnerable in a way that doesn’t induce shame, guilt, doubt or the paranoia that the emotion will overtake you.
By allowing yourself to experience the emotion in its raw form, without the interpretation or judgment, you will feel the spacious emptiness and compassion you are seeking.
If you’d like to learn how to “stay with” your emotions, without the stories or judgment that keep you stuck, contact me for a Complimentary Phone Session to discover how our work together in Life Coaching or Somatic Experiencing can support you.
Holly Woods, Ph.D. is an Integral Life Coach who helps adults who are struggling with life’s ups and downs who want to stop pretending it’s all OK, and who want to have the life they’re meant to have. Im also trained in Somatic Experiencing, and work with people in-person, by skype or phone. Learn more about how to work with me. And forward to a friend if you liked this post!