Acknowledging how things are is a key to reducing stress. When we experience difficulties in our lives, so often our default mode is to say NO, NO, NO! to them. We decide that our difficulties shouldn’t be happening, look for someone to blame (often ourselves or people we dislike), and find any way we can to distract ourselves from our problem. Yet denial only leads to stress and dis-ease. However, when we say YES to our experience, honestly acknowledging what’s here without judging ourselves, our difficulties often lose their power to overwhelm us, and we can start to breathe easier. Often enough, saying yes to our challenges is the first step to resolving them.
We spend so much of our time during our daily lives on automatic pilot. We race around getting things done, forgetting to tune in to the felt sense of what’s actually happening inside of us. But while you’re pumping gas or waiting on line at a store or cooking a meal for your children, how often do you ask yourself, How does my breathing feel right now? Does it feel good, or is it uncomfortable? And how often do you ask yourself, How does my body feel right now? So often we don’t have a clue about how our breath or body feels, about whether we’re holding tension or discomfort. What sensations are present as you cook for your children? Are the sensations pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? And how’s your state of mind? Is the mind clear and still, or is it agitated and cloudy? And what emotions are present? Sadness, happiness, anger, calm, fear, joy, anxiety, jealousy? And what thoughts may have accompanied the emotions?
Sometimes we can spend days, weeks, months, or even years in a state of denial about what’s really happening inside our hearts and minds. Without this simple ability to acknowledge what’s true, our moments become a blur, we lose touch with our bodies and minds, and our challenges and sorrows stay submerged. We lose contact with our own suffering. But we also lose contact with our joy. In a sense, we are only half-alive. The forces and compulsions that drive so much of our behavior sink beneath the surface of awareness. Unknown and unacknowledged, these forces have their way with us — we allow ourselves to become manipulated by their unexamined agenda. Since our unacknowledged thoughts and emotions are hidden beneath the surface of our awareness, they exert remarkable control over our lives. Because these painful things inside us need to be recognized, they will do everything they can to make themselves known to us — but they’ll do so unconsciously. And this is why they are dangerous.
Instead of acknowledging our fear that we don’t have enough money to make a living, we get a panic attack and wonder why it’s happening to us. Instead of allowing ourselves to grieve over a departed lover, we go to the corner bar or spend hours online. Instead of recognizing that we are jealous of a colleague, we find ourselves bad-mouthing him and alienating others. These are all ways that we hurt ourselves by refusing to recognize what is actually here in our own direct experience.
The good news is that we can transform these negative patterns of thought and action. When these challenging experiences are denied, they have a destructive effect on us. When they are acknowledged, the truth they reveal begins to have a healing effect on us. When we hold strong emotions, judgments or mind-states in awareness, we can investigate their nature with a kind attention and see that they do not define us. If we observe them long enough, we’ll also see that they are impermanent. That they often wax and wane depending upon external triggers in our environment. When we have trained ourselves to step back from these difficult experiences, we realize that we are less identified with them, and that there is a larger dimension of our experience — our awareness — which isn’t touched by them at all.