Suffering is part of the human condition—especially for those of us living out our dharma in the fast-paced, urban trenches of Los Angeles. Sometimes, when we are highly emotional about something, we say we are “really in it”, as if we are submerged in the suffering itself. The most powerful—and perhaps, essential— ways to navigate emotional suffering is to develop the ability to be simultaneously SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE—to observe ourselves in this state without judgment. In other words, we can have our feelings, but we are not our feelings.
The greater our ability be our own witness, the more adept we become at acknowledging, recognizing, understanding, accepting, and releasing our suffering.
Here are 6 ways to cultivate your witness:
1. Slow Way Down
Stillness is the prescription for bringing consciousness to anything. Rushing through the experiencing of anything, including feelings, means that we miss subtleties and nuances that feed our understanding of it. The first step in separating ourselves from our drama is to slow down and be with it. Resist the urge to DO. Simply BE.
2. Invoke Your Third Person
It may feel silly at first, but when you are in the middle of an emotional reaction, stop and say, “This is Zoë having an emotional reaction.” Or, “This is Zoë feeling angry.” Work your way through it until, “This is Zoë accepting what is and knowing that all will be okay.” If you don’t get all the way there, don’t worry. This is a practice in distinguishing yourself from your emotions, first and foremost.
3. Checkpoint: Mindfulness
Set an alarm at regular intervals four times a day. When the alarm sounds, do a brief mindfulness practice. Notice your physical presence in its environment. You might articulate it like this: “Feet on the floor. Feet on the floor…Hands on the keyboard. Hands on the keyboard…” Repeating it twice gives the mind and extra beat to become fully present and objective.” Interrupting the flow of the day with Mindfulness develops our ability to discern between emotional and physical experience.
4. Take a Nature Walk
The muscles we use to observe the world around us are the same ones we use to witness ourselves. The way the clouds drift in the sky, the palm fronds rustle in the breeze, or birds fly in formation, gives context to our suffering, by reminding us that we are one small part of something much greater than ourselves.
5. On the Arc of a Rainbow
Just as connecting with nature can set a context for a difficult moment, stepping back and considering how that moment fits into your life story can set a different, and equally powerful context. We tend to assign undue urgency or importance to our experiences—especially when they are emotionally-charged—when they are really just one small chapter in the arc of our entire story.
6. Lighten Up
There is a not-so-fine, and fairly blurry line between pain and self-pity. Denying or burying our emotions can be hazardous to our health. At the same time, so can taking ourselves too seriously. Holding things lightly can go a long way in cultivating grace in the dancing with our feelings.