Four Steps to Feeling Better Instantly
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
Six months into the Coronavirus impact and, like all of us, my life is not untouched. I am no doubt one of the lucky ones, as my family has remained healthy and virus-free.
I’ve had to make some sacrifices to my career, as like other psychotherapists, I’ve shifted to providing Telehealth sessions online, which is something I never would have seen myself doing. I’ve had to reduce my clinical hours and work from my ten year old son’s room during the evenings when my husband can watch our kids (and by watch I mean join them in eating take-out pizza and play their COVID-quarantine-initiated obsession Fortnite).
I am fully aware of the privilege that I hold in being mildly inconvenienced by the pandemic and having to make only minor adjustments to my life while remaining healthy, safe enough, and generally secure. The biggest adjustment and hardest part for me has been having to become a homeschooling Mamma - a teacher to fifth, third, and second grade students.
When I read Anne Cushman’s book The Mama Sutra last winter, and her mention of homeschooling her son, I remember thinking to myself that homeschooling my kids would be my worst nightmare. Seriously, “worst nightmare”.
Yes, that’s dramatic and life has come around to give me a reality check to my perception of drama - but it’s ain’t easy, that’s for sure.
Being pulled in three places at once (“Mom!!” “Mom!!” … “MOM!!!), navigating tech issues and twenty-seven passwords, forty-two Apps, and three different schedules whilst trying to keep everyone calm and quiet because “Daddy’s on an important call” has had its challenging moments, for sure.
So like everything in my life, I lean on my mindfulness practice to get by as unscathed as I can - and maybe someday, even enlightened.
In those moments of chaos, of multiple beings calling my name to help them with something (or let's be real Moms, do something for them), what I really want is to be doing yoga, going to my own office to see my clients, or write. Even cleaning something uninterrupted sounds dreamy. In these moments it's hard to not snap, let out a disgruntled sigh, or be what my kids call “grumpy Mommy”.
When that happens, and admittedly, it happens more than I’d like, I easily fall into self-judgment and disappointment in myself for not being “The Best Mom Ever”.
I consider how I’ve now set the course for my children's therapy down the road.
I notice envy arising towards the people who find themselves with droves of time to attend virtual retreats, write books, and re-organize their entire house. I'm resisting my life in these moments, which only leaves me feeling worse.
Maybe for you it's feelings of loneliness, stress of employment and financial security, or health related distress that's been brought on by our current circumstances. Whatever you're dealing with in this new pandemic world - whether you're a parent like me trying to juggle more things at once than you ever imagined, or a College student trying to plan your career and meet someone special, or an elder worrying about how you can stay healthy and safe while also missing the companionship of loved ones - it's likely there are moments when you are resisting what is and are experiencing difficult emotions, negative thoughts, and aversive reactions to things as they are.
Mindfulness meditation has been my go-to salve for years. But with the time constraints that prevent me from sitting in meditation for a half hour a day, I have come to rely on one of the shortest presence practices I’ve found that basically arose out of the depths of chaos, stress, and total resistance to reality in numerous moments of my COVID-19-inspired days.
This practice can easily be remembered in this ironically imperfect acronym: B-WLL.
The four steps in this quick Mindfulness and Self-compassion practice have the potential to help you feel better almost instantly:
1. Breathe - Take at least one or two deep breath into the lungs and exhale slowly out your mouth.
Why? Because focusing your attention on your breath helps you come out of your head (and the narrative it’s playing that’s feeding your body’s reactivity/stress response) and into your body, which is present in the now.
Breathing slow and deep breaths, letting the oxygen fill down into in the diaphragm (as opposed to the chest only) also helps the body move into a state of calm and relaxation (homeostasis), which is the opposite of the stress response (fight-flee-freeze). Some teachers refer to this as the “one breath meditation”. It’s that simple. It’s incredibly powerful and the best part - it’s free and always available!
2. Watch - Watch the narrative that’s been playing in your mind like a radio narrator or movie credits.
Pay attention to the thoughts of doom and gloom - complaining - self-criticism - or any general resistance to the moment that show up in thinking.
See without judgment what sensations are active in the body. Is there any tension or tightness? Where is it located, anywhere in particular (the chest, the belly, the neck and shoulders)? Just notice. Be the observer.
3. Label - When we name something we are using the area of the brain that’s responsible for emotion regulation, mindfulness, and compassion.
The pre-frontal cortex is our more sophisticated and progressive part of the brain, as opposed to our limbic system and hindbrain, which are typically in use when we lose our shit (i.e. when the fight/flee/freeze system is dominant).
Labeling gives us space to choose. It helps us slow down, center ourselves and calm our body in order to move forward with the wisest action.
We can label what we notice, for example, “chest tight, aversion, unpleasant, resisting” or categorize the thoughts you notice, “story telling” “critical thought” “future worry thought”. It doesn’t really matter what the label is.
One creative client I worked with personified the part of him that crept in and wreaked havoc on his mood and sense of self-esteem with self-critical thoughts. He called it Barbara. When he noticed this part arising through tracking his feelings of shame and the incessant narration of all the things he was doing wrong, he paused and said “Oh, Hi Barbara!”. As soon as he did this, the negative thoughts dissolved. Instantly!
Labeling what you notice will help to give you the space you need to see what is arising outside of your awareness in order to bring it into the light of mindful presence. From here, you’re more able to choose a wise and skillful response to what you’re experiencing.
Keep in mind, this is a practice, so you will turn to it again and again.
But with practice, over time, it’s possible that you will change the neuro-pathways in your brain and eventually notice this reactivity arising less and less.
4. Love - The most powerful practice I’ve found to ease moments of strong resistance, difficult emotion or distress is self-compassion.
As Tara Brach explains in her most recent book Radical Compassion, “when I get stuck in painful emotions, it brings me to a repeating realization, an insight that has profoundly changed my life: I have to love myself into healing”.
Recommendations to “love yourself” is often met with resistance, confusion, or maybe even repulsion. What does that actually mean? How can I possibly “love” what I’m experiencing that feels awful?
True, seems like a tall order. Love might be too big or too much, but I include it as a key element of the practice that can transform what feels uncomfortable, stressful, or unbearable. It may not be possible to access LOVE in the moment, but think of it as the Northstar or as the eventual goal. After all, isn’t unconditional love the elixir we all long for?
The idea to love myself into healing and to moving through resistance in difficult moments - and to not shy away from using this recycled and cliched word - comes from reading Matt Kahn’s poem, the title of which I’m not even sure. As you read this poem, I invite you to notice sensations or emotions arising in your body.
Poem by Matt Kahn
Instead of trying to silence your mind chatter, simply love the one who wants to chat.
Instead of trying to shift your emotions, just love the one who can’t stop feeling.
Instead of trying to resolve each fear, simply love the one who’s always afraid.
Instead of trying to let things go, just love the one who still holds on.
Instead of trying to not take things personally, simply love the one who makes life personal.
Instead of trying to prove your worth, just love the one who feels worthless, lost, and alone.
Instead of trying to leap forward in evolution, simply love the one who feels left behind.
Instead of having something to prove, just love the one who came here to play.
Instead of bossing yourself around and measuring your progress through spiritual obedience, simply love the one who refuses to listen.
Instead of trying to believe, just love the one in doubt.
Instead of trying whatever you attempt, simply love the one needing permission to be.
Whatever arises, love that. This is the way of an awakening heart.
What did you notice as you read this poem? Any particular emotions? Sensations? Thoughts? Warmth? Or perhaps resistance?
If you noticed resistance, doubt, or judgment in reaction to this poem, that’s perfectly fine. It may mean that there are barriers within you to loving yourself or offering yourself compassion. Sadly, bringing an attitude of love to ourselves, and our challenges in particular is not commonplace.
This doesn’t mean the practice is not possible for you, it just means that’s where you are starting from. It may be more helpful to bring in an intention or invitation to learn to love your experiences. Adding “May I learn to….” As opposed to jumping right to “I love the part that feels anger/resistance/doubt/fear”.
Another gateway to bringing love into a difficult experience is as the Watcher. To see the pain and offer compassion as though it’s coming from someone else, or to someone else.
Imagine how you’d feel if this pain or difficulty was being encountered by your child, best friend, or loved one? Compassion tends to arise much more easily towards those we love than ourselves.
The practice might need to begin by imagining how you’d bring love and compassion if your child or friend were the one experiencing this distress in the moment. Or what it would be like if it came from an unconditionally loving being, a person who loved you dearly but might have passed, or even a white light of some omnipotent energy of love and acceptance.
Eventually, over time and with practice, you will be able to extend your love and compassion directly towards your Self.
It’s helpful to remain realistic about our expectations of how practices, tools or strategies can actually help us feel better. Sometimes we will experience things that are unpleasant - that’s part of being a human being. Emotions, tension, stress in the body are not going to instantly disappear like magic.
Practices take time - there’s benefit from accumulative effort.
Also - using a practice like this might be helping to prevent things from getting worse.
So don’t quit. Keep trying. Keep practicing. Eventually you will begin to notice a shift in your experience.
Using this technique hasn’t taken away my frustration or helped me be zen with being a homeschooling mom …. But it’s definitely helping me interrupt automatic patterns that would not serve me or anyone else in my family. My proclivity to snap, yell, avoid, or curse (sometimes even out loud) is circumvented and I connect with my capacities to ride the waves of ‘dislike’, see it for what it is and choose to breathe, have compassion for myself, and accept the reality in the moment.
Wanting things to be different than they are is the recipe for suffering. Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion in these difficult moments is a game changer in transforming suffering into acceptance…and maybe even opening to joy that’s available when we stop resisting reality.
We all need more tools in our toolkit than we ever imagined. Hopefully you’ll find something in this
B-WLL practice that will help you in your difficult moments.
May you be well.
May you learn to love yourself wholly and without conditions.
May you flow with the winds of life.
May you know yourself as the eternal loving presence that you are.