Photo by Anaya Katlego on Unsplash
Before getting into the finer points of this practice, I want to clearly articulate and define just what we are doing when we practice ‘being with what is’.
Often when conversations around mindfulness, introspection, and subjective human experience occur, the conversations tend to be fluffy and philosophical which in the context of daily life and everyday experience is not helpful.
When we feel strong emotions that have a strong sensory experience in our body, it is useful to be able to have tools to deal with these experiences—this is the whole basis behind this blog post.
So…. what does it mean to ‘be with what is’ and why is it a radical practice?
‘Being with what is’ simply refers to the practice of acknowledging our internal experience just as it is. We’re not trying to change the experience and we’re not trying to push the experience away; we’re simply observing the experience and acknowledging its presence.
Perhaps a picture imagine will better articulate this process practically speaking…
Imagine a scientist looking into a microscope and observing some phenomena occurring between cells. In this instance, the scientist has the mindset of curiosity and simply observes the phenomena as it happens.
When practicing ‘being with what is,’ you are the scientist and your thoughts, emotions, reactions, feelings, and bodily sensations are the cells in the petri dish being observed.
Now… why is this a radical practice?
This is a radical practice because asking us as human beings to become intimately in-touch with our unpleasant experiences is extremely difficult.
It is hard for us to just observe our internal experience without immediately reacting to it and without trying to make sense of it. Secondarily, when we have unpleasant experiences and are dealing with strong emotions and the sensory experience of those emotions, our natural tendency is to avoid it and to push it away. In fact, it is often our reaction to the sensory experiences of our emotions that we’re reacting to and not the actual emotions themselves.
Something that happened in my life recently will serve as a perfect example of this.
I recently traveled to visit family in a different state about six hours away from where I live. Going into this particular situation, I was fully aware that some issues may arise during my visit; though, I had no idea that they would play out in the way that they did.
The family member with whom I was staying enables certain behaviors of another one of my family members that is just not healthy for this particular person. After having to confront this family member about their behavior, I had to completely remove them from the situation entirely. As I drove off, away from this situation, I was extremely angry. In all honesty, I haven’t felt this level of anger in a very long time. While I experienced this anger, I could feel that my muscles were tense, my heart was racing, and I felt some pain in my back—this is the sensory experience that I am talking about.
As all of this was festering during my drive home, my reactions to my internal experience were making me even more angry which then intensified the sensory experience once again.
As I noticed this happening, I consciously decided to take a deep sigh and start by bringing my internal awareness back to the present. I started with acknowledging each inhalation and each exhalation. As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.”
This is where the magic of ‘being with what is’ can become a transformative practice…
Rather than avoiding it and pushing away the anger that I was feeling, I consciously choose to become intimate with it. Trying to be as non-judgmental and compassionate to myself as possible, I tenderly acknowledged in my mind…
I feel you, anger.
I feel you, back pain.
I feel you, muscle tension.
I feel you, racing heart.
Soon thereafter, the intensity of this emotional experience began to settle and soften.
This process is so simple but often it is the simple things in life that we so easily overlook.
See, the thing is...the sensory experiences of our emotions serve as a wake-up call; they are there to grab our attention. They are like a crying baby shouting to get their mother or fathers attention. However, rather than allowing ourselves to be with the intensity of our emotional experiences in a compassionate/non-judgmental way, we push them away and internalize them; then when these experiences arises back into our awareness, we push them away again and it becomes this vicious cycle.
To break this cycle, we can learn over time to become radically intimate with the sensory experiences of our emotions. This is why frequent mindfulness practice is so important.
Maybe taking a deep dive into your unpleasant emotions or into the unpleasant circumstances of your life is a bit overwhelming right now—that is okay, I understand completely!
There’s no need to start with the most unpleasant emotion that you can find, work with something that doesn’t have such an emotional charge at first; there will be plenty to work with. There are everyday life situations that even though they may not be emotionally charged, they still cause some sense of unpleasantness or discomfort. Here are a few examples…
Maybe you’re out on a walk and accidently step in dog poop.
Maybe you’re washing dishes and the one pan that you’re washing has a lot of food residue caked on it and you’re struggling to get it fully clean.
Maybe you’re in the middle of doing work at home and your kids keep yelling for you even though you tell them that you’ll be done in 10-minutes.
Maybe you’re driving home from work and someone cuts you off.
As you can tell, all of these examples have some level of unpleasantness, discomfort, and unsatisfactoriness.
Learning to work with these types of everyday life situations overtime can be of tremendous benefit when it comes to working with experiences that are more emotionally charged. This is exactly why mindfulness is considered to be a practice—it takes a lot of patience and persistence.
For some of you, depending upon your individual needs, this process may be better facilitated under the guidance of a qualified therapist. For others, you may just want to work with these things on your own. Either way, the challenge is yours.
So…are you up for the radical practice of being with what is?
I would love to hear your insights and feedback—don’t hesitate to reach out!