When we experience deep emotional pain our first impulse is to get away from the feelings as quickly as possible….just make them go away. Escape is accomplished in a variety of ways. We may, for example, distract ourselves through TV, books, or movies. Or….when the pain is particularly acute and pervasive, we might find ourselves seeking out the help of prescription or non prescription drugs. Alcohol can also become an effective means of escape. In truth, the culture supports all of the above mentioned activities as ways of coping when life gets hard. And…lets be honest, these coping mechanisms do work. Furthermore, we sometimes do need some temporary relief from unbearable emotional states. The problem is, in my view, that the relief is often just temporary. If no time and energy is invested into discovering the source of the pain, it will keep on coming back…and back…and back. To make matters worse, the pain can resurface with more intensity…like a splinter that has lodged itself under the skin and now has become infected. So…what can we do? How can we face intolerable emotions such as anxiety, fear, shame, and anger without becoming overwhelmed with the emotion itself?
In his book, entitled “Emotional Intimacy”, the relational psychologist Robert Augustus Masters suggests that the key is to gently move “toward” our pain, rather than away from it. We must find a way to get close enough to the pain so that we can observe it in great detail, and yet we need enough distance so we can feel that our pain is only a part of us…not the whole of us. Dr. Masters advocates that we become “intimate” with the feeling and texture of our emotions, as a “participant observer”. This is different than merely talking about emotions, which keeps the experience up in our heads…to be analyzed over and over..to no avail
Becoming a “Participant observer” is a skill that we can learn from the teachings of mindfulness meditation. In this meditation practice, the meditator learns to step back from his experience and “observe” what is going on in the physical body as emotions are experienced. For example, during the anxiety state, my pulse is racing, my palms are sweating, and I can’t breathe. If we can “drop down” into our bodily sensations and simply “be with” them, without judgment, we are automatically not “in” them in the same way. We have created the necessary separation to feel them, and yet place them more into the background of our experience rather than the foreground. With the feeling more in the background, we can turn it around in our mind and examine in from all sides. Where does this feeling come from? When did I first have it? Can I bring some compassion to myself so that I can begin to heal?
Developing the “participant observer” stance to your emotions does not mean that you won’t still have challenging emotional episodes where you will feel overwhelmed. Dr. Masters cautions against believing that we can somehow ”transcend” emotional states and wipe them out from our experience. He calls the attempt to do this the “spiritual bypass”. We are, after all, not gods, only very flawed human beings doing the best we can..and that isn’t a bad thing.