I feel a tingling sensation in my legs; it feels so uncomfortable that I’m compelled to fold my legs or sit cross-legged. My breathing is so shallow I feel I am out of breath. It feels like there is a black-hole in my chest trying to pull me inside. All of this started out of nowhere and with no real threat around me. At the very onset of this sensation, I am already deep into my head and caught up in a story about something being wrong with me and my life, that I am in trouble and my worth and existence at stake; and I recognize this feeling very well: It’s the drama of abandonment. The sensation itself doesn’t present itself with the stamp “abandoned,” but it’s my immediate, unreflective, and habitual interpretation that reads abandonment into this sensation and perceives a non-existence threat to my sense of safety.
Partly by instinct and partly by living in a culture based on seeking pleasure, our first tendency is to avoid this, or any, unpleasant physical sensation. Depending on the intensity of this experience, we resort to a variety of means to avoid it: in its milder manifestations I start to change my physiology, sitting differently or squeezing parts of my body, perhaps raising shoulders or moving my hands; it is as if I am trying to distract myself from this sensation or channel it into different parts of my body in order to eject it from my body.
In case of more intense sensations, I do what we all do: we go into our own heads. We interpret the sensation, for all good reason and due to our survival skills, as a response to a threat; but since there is no actual evidence of a physical threat (of course we’re excluding here cases where a person is in physical danger), we go into a story to simulate danger and threat so to justify the existing sensation. Our mind instantly fabricates a jungle filled with predators (all this script running in split seconds and without us being even aware of the process.) This, obviously, is done through interpreting non-hostile events as hostile, i.e. by reading hostility into them. We interpret our situation, whether in relation to a job, relationship, or life in general, as an unsafe situation. We go deeper and deeper into our story looking for signs of unsafety. And this typically results in us taking actions to remove ourselves from those situations because we have already portrayed them as hostile in our head. In others words, we mentally abandon those people or situations before they abandon us, even though there no actual threat to begin with.
But what is really happening here, whether we simply change our physiological posture or go into our head to look for a threat, is that we are simply trying to avoid an uncomfortable physical sensation. In both cases, we are abandoning our own bodies; we are abandoning ourselves. We are doing to ourselves what we hate the most in that situation, i.e. to be abandoned.
A traditional, and to some extent successful attempt at overcoming the fear of abandonment is by reassuring ourselves, through various therapeutic means, that we are not truly being abandoned. This could involve psychoanalysis of our conditioned history and going back into the origin of traumatic events, reassuring ourselves that being abandoned doesn’t reflect on our self-worth, and then to improve the conditions of our life by self-love and compassion, by building self-esteem and stability.
All this is wonderful and certainly will help alleviating the uncomfortable feeling, but all of these methods, at their foundations, are still aimed at getting rid of the discomfort: they view this sensation as unwanted and problematic. And we all know very well that that which we resist persists. However, we can make this process more effective and wholesome by complementing it with some compassion toward our unpleasant bodily sensations. We can become open to investigating for ourselves whether this sensation is as bad as we make of it, to put our head into the dragon’s mouth. To become curious about unpleasant sensations, to actually step into them, is a liberating act that frees us at a much deeper level than merely eliminating the threat and reassuring safety.
Stepping into our uncomfortable sensations without interpreting them is an act symbolically represented by the sacrificial act of Abraham walking into fire, only finding that it’s actually cool and pleasant. By persistence practice of staying embodied when it’s the hardest thing to do, we will gradually realize it is not so much that we avoid sensations because they are threatening; rather, they appear threatening because we have kept avoiding them for so long. According to Bruce Tift, the author of Already Free, “It’s actually when we try to avoid our feelings that we tend to “solidify” them and make them appear significant.”
Discomfort is hellish only to the extent that we avoid it
The book by Bruce Tift, Buddhist and Psychologist, has a lot to offer in terms of theory and practice on this topic, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a spiritual experience of the human body. But I will just share here a brief practice which has done miracles for me:
When the uncomfortable physical sensation arises, whether related to your fear of abandonment or other anxieties, see and catch yourself running into your head and the interpretative story. Ask yourself: “what would it be like if I didn’t interpret this present experience right now?” Don’t ask for an answer but rather with curiosity. This allows you to become open to the possibility of staying in your body. To make things even more compassionate and easier, try telling yourself something like, “What would it be like not to interpret my experience for just a minute.” Practice with whatever duration you’re comfortable with. Look at this as an experiment out of curiosity. Then relax your awareness into the body and lean into the sensations and feel them where they are in the body, lean into them without any force. You’ll see that they will rise and fall on their own. Don’t try to label them as abandonment or anxiety because even that is an interpretative layering of what is.
Visualize yourself as if you are stepping into the cold water of the ocean; see how uncomfortable it is at first and how we naturally tend to contract our bodies upwards to avoid the touch of water on skin. But when we gradually let ourselves go in, our skin finds full acceptance of the temperature difference which will then naturally resolve that difference. And when we are fully immersed, the water is no more as alien and uncomfortable as it once was. It’s one with us or we are one with it. View your uncomfortable sensations as a field that is part of us, as an ocean into which we can step and in which we are fully safe. If the sensation becomes too intense or too much to handle, allow yourself to step back out and move to something else.
By consistent practice, it will become easier and easier to step into and stay with these uncomfortable sensations. There will be a day when we are not so much afraid of these uncomfortable sensations arising again, and when they do they won’t be as unpleasant as before. Much of their unpleasantness came from the frightening stories we had attached to them. Now that our sensations are free of our self-imposed stories, we too are free of our self-imposed fears. This will also help enhance our self-improvement efforts.
Stepping into uncomfortable sensations and accepting our bodies fully complements self-development with self-acceptance. What has happened is that as a result of consistent practice, the once invisible link between the sensation and the story is broken, and hence we don’t find the physical level discomfort being magnified by the simulated traumas in our made-up stories. Overtime, the self-victimizing stories will fade and we realize we are always already safe and free. We might be uncomfortable but it’s Ok! It is not as bad as we once thought. That’s when we know we have become stronger, for as Friedrich Nietzsche said, That which doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.