Sunday, September 27, 2009

Random Thought: Dealing with distress


Over the years, I've developed a 4-step plan to deal with my distress.  I hope this would be helpful to you too.

My 4 steps are:
1. Know when you're not in pain.
2. Do not feel bad about feeling bad.
3. Do not feed the monsters.
4. Start every thought with kindness and humor.

1.Know when you're not in pain.

When you're not in pain, know that you're not in pain.

This is a very powerful practice on multiple levels.  On one level, it increases happiness.  When we're suffering pain, we always tell ourselves, "I'll be so happy if I'm free from this pain", but when we're free from that pain, we forget to enjoy the freedom from pain.  This practice of constantly noticing the lack of distress encourages us to enjoy the sweetness of that freedom, and thereby helps us to be happier.

On another level, I find that even when experiencing pain, the pain is not constant, especially emotional pain.  The pain waxes and wanes and there are times (perhaps short intervals of minutes or seconds) when a space opens up where one is free from pain.  The practice of noticing the lack of distress helps us abide in that space when it opens up.  This space gives us temporary relief and it is the basis from which we launch our recovery and find the strength to face our problems.

2. Do not feel bad about feeling bad.

We have the tendency to feel bad about feeling bad ("meta-distress", I call it).  This is especially true for good people.  We would berate ourselves by saying things like, "Hey, if I'm such a good person, why am I feeling this much anger?".  This is even more true for good people with contemplative practices like meditation.  We would scold ourselves by saying, "Maybe if you're actually a good meditator, you won't feel this way.  Therefore, you must be a lousy meditator, a hypocrite, a useless piece of [insert context-appropriate noun]".

It is important to recognize that distress is a naturally-arising phenomenon, we all experience it from time to time.  Even Thich Nhat Hanh, the very symbol of enlightened peace in the world, once got so angry about someone he almost wanted to stand up and slug him.

Also recognize that feeling bad about feeling bad is an act of ego.  It's a reflection of our ego's image about itself, and the net result is the creation of new distress for no good reason at all.  The antidote is to let the ego go, with good humor where possible.

And remember, meta-distress is really bad economics.

3. Do not feed the monsters.

Let's pretend our distress are monsters that arise from and occupy our minds, wrecking havoc in us.  What can we do to stop them?  They seem so overwhelmingly powerful, we feel so weak at stopping their arising, and we are powerless to make them leave.

Happily, it turns out that our monster need us to feed them.  If we don't feed them, they'll just get hungry and maybe they'll go away.  Therein lies the source of our power.  We cannot stop monsters from arising, or force them to leave, but we have the power to not feed them.

Not feeding monsters is very good economics.

4. Start every thought with kindness and humor.

In every situation, distressing or otherwise, it's useful to begin each thought with kindness and compassion.  Kindness both for oneself and others.  The practices most useful for cultivating this quality of heart are Metta Bhavana (Meditation on Loving Kindness) and Tonglen.

In my experience, the most important quality of kindness is its healing effect.  Imagine taking a rough, spiky brush and repeatedly brushing it hard and quickly on an area of your skin.  Eventually, your skin will become inflamed and painful.  Kindness is the quality of gently stopping that harmful brushing action, and if you do that, eventually, the skin will heal.

I also find it very useful to see humor in my own failings.  Everytime I lose my anger or arise a thought of greed or spitefulness that doesn't go away for a while, it's like I've fallen off the wagon again.  I can interpret falling off the wagon as a painful, humiliating, embarrassing experience, of course.  However, I found it much more fun to think of the experience as a scene in an old black-and-white comedy.  Guy fell off wagon in the context of fast, playful music, makes a funny face, dusts himself off, and then climbs back up the wagon in awkward, jerky, quick motion.  It's all very funny.  So everytime I fail, it's a comedy.

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