(image courtesy of Michael Leunig)
Ever since I can remember people have told me ‘don’t be so sensitive’. And I’ve heard people say countless times ‘I wish I wasn’t so sensitive’. When I’ve been hurting I’ve certainly wished it for myself. I’ve always been someone who cries easily, who feels deeply the injustice in the world and the pain of others, who is easily hurt by judgement or by behaviours I don’t understand. I can be fierce, I am passionate, I am touched and impacted by others. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it breaks my heart open with joy. This is not unique to me in any way, although perhaps I share and show it a little more – having lived part of my childhood speaking French and Spanish living on the Mediterranean I don’t have quite so much of the natural British reserve.
The emotional ups and downs of this psycho-physical organism we inhabit can be overwhelming. We describe it as fragility, or maybe as weakness and it’s often what motivates us to explore mindfulness, looking for a way to feel a little less. We can have the idea that meditation will provide us with the sense of detachment and distance from those strong feelings we long to escape. We want our emotions to glide past us like water off a duck’s back – instead what we do is get caught up in resistance, avoidance and fighting what we feel in way that gets us more and more stuck. It’s not the feelings but what we do with them that’s the problem. Mindfulness and self-compassion help us cultivate the capacity to be with our sensitivity in a different way – but not to escape it. These approaches support us opening our hearts, to ourselves and to our world. Awareness and self-kindness resource us to hear the whole orchestra of our complex emotional life, and staying with the musical metaphor to conduct it with care and discernment. Which requires huge sensitivity doesn’t it?!
“We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are
when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved,
and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed
and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time.
Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world
but to unglove ourselves so that the doorknob feels cold
and the car handle feels wet
and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being,
soft and unrepeatable.”
Firstly, understanding our innately sensitive nature is important. Sensitivity is what we are, it’s what makes us human and alive. It’s how we make contact, and what makes contact possible. Our highly sensitive psycho-physical systems are constantly alert to the impact of temperature, sound, and any sign of threat. As Rick Hanson says this capacity is in our DNA.
‘‘The ancient ancestors that were casual and blithely hopeful, underestimating the risks around them – predators, loss of food, aggression from others of their kind – did not pass on their genes. But the ones that were nervous were very successful – and we are their great-grandchildren, sitting atop the food chain. Consequently, multiple hair-trigger systems in your brain continually scan for threats. At the least whiff of danger – which these days comes mainly in the form of social hazards like indifference, criticism, rejection, or disrespect – alarm bells start ringing” (Rick Hanson, The Buddhas Brain)
So our rightly named nervous systems are primed to scan for threat rather than dwelling in what’s ok. And without a sensitivity around others our ancestors would most likely have died – a feature of our survival oriented organism is that we need to worry about what others think about us, so that we don’t get left behind. Our tenderness is what keeps us connected to others, it is an indication of care. When we feel something strongly, often when we feel stress, it’s because we care, because it matters to us – do we really want to care less? Caring seems to be essential for our wellbeing, even when that means feeling stress:
“Stress happens when something you care about is at stake. It’s not a sign to run away – it’s a sign to step forward.” (Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It)
I rather like the refreshing poem below (apart from bit about going to sleep with the use of drugs!) that reminds us how normal and universal the discomforts and struggles involved in being a human being are…
If you can start the day without caffeine,
If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,
If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,
If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,
If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,
If you can conquer tension without medical help,
If you can relax without alcohol,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,
…Then You Are Probably ………..
The Family Dog!
So being sensitive is what makes us human. It’s then what we do with our sensitivity, how we relate to it, that makes the difference. Feeling isn’t wrong, it really is OK to feel, to ‘unglove’ as Mark Nepo puts it. We can learn to hold our vulnerable selves with tenderness and care, like a good friend, who says ‘I’m here for you, no matter what you’re going through’. In many respects practising mindfulness has actually made me more sensitive, more body aware. I am more attuned to what and how I’m sensing. I’m much more likely now to honour my need to minimise the amount of time I spend in a place that overwhelms my senses in an unpleasant way, or where the atmosphere feels heavy or unfriendly. I’m careful what I watch and listen to. When circumstances allow I make mindful wise conscious choices about what it is I need, rather than what’s expected. And if I have no choice I practice the self-compassion and mindfulness skills that support me riding the waves of fear, disconnect or discomfort that may arise. It becomes more possible, sometimes, to take things less personally, less about ‘me, myself, and I’ – there’s a bigger perspective, the awareness that’s behind the thoughts and emotions.
What mindful awareness training enables is a capacity to dis-identify from the emotions that arise when we touch or are touched by our world. Slowly we learn to recognise, through patient investigation and a willingness to be with our emotion-body, the difference between the emotion that’s passing through our system (which takes about 90 seconds) and all the ‘stories’ we tell ourselves about the emotion, the blaming, the judging, the trying to work it out that can go on for hours, days and years.
The first step is to acknowledge ‘I’m feeling’. A moment of self-compassion can help us so much – saying to yourself ‘this is tough right now, it’s hard to feel this way’. Then feel your feet on the ground, know that when you are swept up in a feeling you are also here and now – and sense it: feel the earth, the sounds around you, the light, the vast sky above if you can see it, the breath coming in and out of the body. If possible acknowledge what you’re feeling – being able to label an emotion (emotions are one word, if it’s more then it’s a thought) activates a part of the brain that then gives you a bit of space, you’re less ‘in’ it and more relating ‘to’ it. You might say to yourself ‘This is anger’ or ‘this is sadness’. Notice the difference between this and ‘I’ am angry, ‘I’ am sad. The inaccuracy of the language we use around emotions in English furthers our unhelpful and painful identification with the emotion, as if it’s who we are even though it’s more like a weather system moving through us. How many emotions move though you each day? From here you can then drop down into the body and, drawing on capacities that you’ve developed though meditation, you can slowly and gently move towards the sensations of this emotion in the body. Meeting these sensations with tenderness and kindness is essential – because we’re not trying to get rid of the feelings, instead we’re cultivating the deep unconditional friendliness towards ourselves that means we no longer need to push any feelings away, and what we discover is that emotions do move, just like storms eventually fade into the vastness of sky. Perhaps discover for yourself how long does the bare emotion actually last?
The saying goes that ‘if you can feel it, you can heal it’. Meeting our strong uncomfortable emotions takes courage, but is also incredibly liberating, because we are no longer putting so much energy into suppressing, avoiding or fighting them. A sense of inner peace can emerge, and in that space we might reflect on what we would rather be cultivating for our wellbeing, what states of heart-mind it feels good to feed and nourish…like forgiveness. Which is a wonderful gift to our sensitive selves…but that’s another blog 🙂