Sometimes, when our carefully constructed lives seem to be falling apart – when we get a divorce, lose a business, or are laid off, for example – we can torture and berate ourselves with stories about how we’re failures, what we could have done better, how no one cares about us. Yet, this response of course only digs us deeper into what I call “the trance of unworthiness.”
Distracted by our judgments, we are unable to recognize the raw pain of our emotions. In order to begin the process of waking up, we need to deepen our attention and touch our real experience.
One tool of mindfulness that can cut through our numbing trance is inquiry. As we ask ourselves questions about our experience, our attention gets engaged. We might begin by scanning our body, noticing what we are feeling, especially in the throat, chest, abdomen and stomach, and then asking “What wants my attention right now?” or “What is asking for acceptance?” Then we attend with genuine interest and care, listening to our heart, body and mind.
Inquiry is not a kind of analytic digging—we are not trying to figure out “Why do I feel this sadness?” This would only stir up more thoughts. In contrast to the approach of Western psychology, in which we might delve into further stories in order to understand what caused a current situation, the intention of inquiry is to awaken to our experience exactly as it is in this present moment. While inquiry may expose judgments and thoughts about what we feel is wrong, it focuses on our immediate feelings and sensations.
It’s important to approach inquiry with a genuine attitude of unconditional friendliness. If I were to ask myself what wants attention with even the slightest aversion, I would only deepen my self-judgment. It may take some practice to learn how to question ourselves with the same kindness and care we would show to a troubled friend.
Naming or noting is another tool of traditional mindfulness practice that we can apply when we’re lost. Mental noting, like inquiry, helps us recognize with care and gentleness the passing flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations. If I am feeling anxious and disconnected before giving a talk, for example, I often pause, ask myself what is happening or what wants my attention. With a soft mental whisper I’ll name what I’m aware of: “afraid, afraid, tight, tight.” If I notice myself anxiously assuming that my talk will be boring and fall flat, I simply continue naming: “story about blowing it, fear of rejection,” then, “judging, judging.” If instead of noting I try to ignore this undercurrent of fear, I carry it into my talk and end up speaking in an unnatural and insincere way. The simple action of having named the anxiety building before my talk opens my awareness. Anxiety may still be present, but the care and wakefulness I cultivate through noting allows me to feel more at home with myself.
Like inquiry, noting is an opportunity to communicate unconditional friendliness to our inner life. If fear arises and we pounce on it with a name, “Fear! Gotcha!” we’re only creating more tension. Naming an experience is not an attempt to nail a unpleasant experience or make it go away. Rather, it is a soft and gentle way of saying, “I see you, fear, anger, etc.” This attitude of Radical Acceptance makes it safe for the frightened and vulnerable parts of our being to let themselves be known.
The practices of inquiry and noting are actually ways to wake us up to the fact that we are suffering. Caught up in our stories, we can effectively deny the truth of our experience. I sometimes spend days being impatient and judgmental towards myself before I stop and pay attention to the feelings and beliefs that have been disconnecting me from my heart. When I do pause and look at what’s happening, I realize that I’ve been caught up in the suffering of anxiety and self-doubt.
I have worked with many clients and students who reach a critical gateway when they finally register just how much pain they are in. This juncture is very different from feeling self-pity or complaining about our lives. It is different from focusing on how many problems we have. Rather, seeing and feeling the degree of suffering we are living with reconnects us to our heart.
Recognizing that we are suffering is freeing—self-judgment falls away and we can regard ourselves with kindness. When we offer to ourselves the same quality of unconditional friendliness that we would offer to a friend, we stop denying our suffering. And, most importantly, as we figuratively sit beside ourselves and inquire, listen and name our experience, we can begin to open our heart in tenderness for the suffering before us.