There are plenty of to-do lists and action principles that are said to lead to success and happiness. It’s said that the secret of success, whether material, emotional, or spiritual, is in following one or some of these to-do lists, such as making your bed, eating breakfast, making a schedule, breaking down tasks and practicing discipline, etc.. And they all work fine, until we stop doing them, and most of us often do. We typically initiate change either when we are in insufferable pain or when we are excited about change. But life is not a static thing: when we change enough to ease our insufferable pain, we have eliminated the very motivation behind our actions, so we become complacent and stop growing which can put us back where we started. Or if we begin a project out of excitement, we may face challenges or our hormones may act weird or seasonal depression might kick in, and then we lose the willingness to keep going.
So, even though the know what needs to be done, even though we have the exact to-do list for our particular brand of success, that’s not enough. The secret is to stick with it, to keep coming back to it no matter what. And I believe that’s the real secret for success. To do what needs to be done even though we don’t feel like it. And that brings us to the main hurdle: the unpleasant feelings. Besides unfortunate circumstances and catastrophes that can physically block us from moving forward, almost always we’re set back when we face unpleasant feelings.
We tend to avoid unpleasant feelings or stay with them due to an often unexamined belief that they are harmful and even fatal. Perhaps these beliefs are rooted in our survival mechanism and childhood experiences. One way to to tackle this problem is to explore and understand the underlying causes of these feelings, often done through therapy. It’s a useful method but when it becomes our only self-improvement method it can become counterproductive by perpetuating the idea that unless we resolve these feelings we can’t be happy or successful, that there’s something wrong with having these feelings.
A supplement to this method that has worked better and faster, at least for me, is to actually lean into the unpleasant feelings without trying to resolve them. It can help us overcome the paralyzing grip of these unpleasant feelings because merging with the apparent enemy ends up resolving the very opposition that makes us interpret an experience as unpleasant and avoidable. If I am on a boxing ring and pulling away from my opponent, it can only invite them to throw more punches to knock me out. If I can accept that there’s no escape from the ring, as there’s no escape from life except through death, then I might as well go into the opponent and hug them as hard as I can; then they have nothing to punch at, and if I make my hug more compassionate, they’ll loosen up and our opposition will fall away.
Leaning into the uncomfortable resolves the very opposition that makes us interpret an experience as unpleasant and avoidable.
The way forward into these long-rejected aspects of our experience is to become curious about them and gradually step into them; then, we can see for ourselves that as unpleasant as they are, these feelings are totally harmless. The courage and willingness to do so, even done a minute at a time, will gradually dissolve the belief that they signal danger and that we should avoid them at all costs.
We can stay with unpleasant feelings and survive them, maybe make friends with them and even become excited about them. By practicing this compassionate acceptance, we will see that there’s so much freedom and success beyond our unpleasant feelings if we give ourselves permission to stay with them without trying to get rid of them. We will gradually see that even the label “unpleasant” will drop away and we are left with a field of impersonal sensations that are neither good nor bad; they’re just there; they have actually nothing to do with us. The more we welcome them, the more tolerable they become. On the other hand, the more we avoid them, the more scary they will appear to us. It’s kind of like avoiding the dark basement; the more we avoid the unknown element, the more our mind will fill that unknown with scary stories and reasons to keep avoiding it.
Unpleasant feelings are like invisible electric fences we have put around ourselves for protection. The intensity of the shock we may experience in their presence is inversely proportional to our willingness to step into them. We have created the fence, and it’s made up of unconscious beliefs and narratives accumulated over time. It’s a fence made of mind, and all we need to do to cross is to make up our minds. All we need to do is to be open to step into them one step at a time and see if they’re actually harming us; we will gradually become stronger to withstand them and even welcome them, and at last to love and thank them for the protective roles they’ve played for us all our lives. We can allow ourselves to go beyond them and find a new level of freedom. Wherever we find discomfort in our lives, we have encountered an invisible fence between our familiar comfort zone and an unexplored aspect of ourselves. They are ports to unrealized potentialities that contain our success stories.
Unpleasant feelings are doorways to unrealized potentialities that contain our success stories
Here’s how welcoming unpleasant feelings worked positively in my own life: I struggled for a couple of decades to stick to a daily meditation practice. I would often get spiritual and excited about it, meditate for an hour or more everyday for a week or so, and then I would drop out because I lost the initial excitement or my sessions didn’t meet my expectations; for example, if I didn’t feel spiritual or at peace during or after my meditation. I went through these phases hundreds of times trying various techniques. I noticed that what kept me from sticking to a practice was my unrealistic expectations of meditation, that it should be peaceful all or most of the time, that I should feel better and not worse, and it should be smooth and not uncomfortable. A couple of years ago I decided to change my focus: instead of making my meditation about peace and comfort, I decided to make it about the very thing that discouraged me in my meditation, which was the experience of chaos and discomfort. So I started with a plan of a 5 minute daily meditation during which I practiced being open to and present with whatever discomfort I experienced; instead of navigating away from unpleasant sensations, I steered toward them, not with aggression but with an attitude of curiosity. Gradually I was able to build tolerance and increase my sessions to 30 minutes twice a day, and I have been committed to it since then. It’s no more a chore or just a routine; it’s now a date, an enthusiastic encounter with often rejected and disowned parts of me, i.e. the unpleasant feelings. I am actually more inclined to meditate beyond my routine when I feel uncomfortable or irritable. I would have an inner dialogue that goes something like “Hmm, this feeling and body sensation is unpleasant; I don’t want to feel it, but let’s see what it is and how bad it is.” It’s a challenge to myself, an invitation to become stronger. I now look forward to and enjoy meditation regardless of feeling peaceful or not in or after, simply because I have changed my attitude toward what I used to call “unpleasant.” Those rejected sensations were unpleasant only to the extent that I avoided them. Once I reintegrated them, I realized they were actually just me, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
This is quite similar to what I often experience at a physical level when I want to go into cold water. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I took a week-long vacation in the beautiful Island of Favignana off the coast of Sicily, Italy. The water was blue and beautiful, and cold! It was about 60 F which is very uncomfortable to my skin. Rarely people went into the water since it was still too cold for swimming in May. But I mustered the courage after an hour of mental debate and jumped in. It was freezing hard! The entry was as shocking as crossing an invisible electric fence. But within a few seconds, my body got used to it and I didn’t want to come out. However, whenever I stepped out for even a minute to get some sun, returning back was as difficult as the first time. I noticed that my mind would start a heated debate as to whether I should go in, or how I should go in not to feel the initial discomfort, maybe toe first, no jump, etc.
One of our dominant avoidant strategies is to go into our own head, because it distract us and keeps us from experiencing discomfort by buying time and eventually talking us out of it. But remembering it was all safe and ok to experience the sudden switch from warm to cold, I was able to jump in and tolerate the discomfort one more time, and every time I did that I had a blissful experience in that Mediterranean water. So, what initially stood between me and that blissful experience was an unfounded discomfort, for if the temperature was really uncomfortable in itself, I would still be uncomfortable in water even after minutes, which wasn’t true. The discomfort was in my resistance to the encounter; it was in the story I had in my mind, that the water will still be uncomfortable even after I am in; that it will always be uncomfortable and unbearable.
We are all familiar with this untrue but very common experience: that when we are in pain or discomfort, we somehow believe it will last forever despite our many experiences showing otherwise. But it is our continued resistance to change that prolongs and exaggerates the discomfort. For example, I spent an hour worth of uncomfortable mental debate and mentally simulating the cold water experience on my skin before actually going through with it, which lasted only 10 seconds. I could have done that jump right in the beginning and experience only 10 seconds of actual unpleasantness instead of 1 hour and 10 seconds of it.
Since that trip, I have incorporated that water experience into my meditation practice: whenever the unpleasantness in my daily experience intensifies and I find myself going into my own stories to avoid it, I visualize the unpleasant sensations as the cold water of an ocean; I ask myself “what would be like if I let myself in; what’s the worst thing that can happen? let me just try and drop myself into it, etc..” And to my surprise it’s all fine; the imagined hell and discomfort dissipates the moment I let go of my resistance narratives and fully drop myself into those sensations, doing so without adding any interpretations as to what they are or what has caused them. You might thing it shouldn’t be surprising after the second or third time, but it is, at least for me. Like the water experience, no matter how many times I crossed the threshold and jumped into that cold water, it was still uncomfortable to get back in after a short break. What changed was that I found more courage each time, knowing that first, everything would be alright and I would be safe, and second, that the blissful experience of floating in that water was worth the initial discomfort. So, we can let go of the expectation that discomfort and unpleasant feelings will someday go away; they won’t, but they don’t have to. Over time and with practice, we will develop courage and trust that unpleasant feelings are harmless parts of ourselves; that they are uncomfortable only when we resist or avoid them. They’re not our enemies; they’re forgotten friends whose company we can enjoy.
The tension and suffering of duality comes from our attraction to the pleasant and aversion to the unpleasant
The more we practice tolerating and welcoming unpleasant feelings, the more trust we develop in being ok with not being ok, that every time we cross our invisible fences, we access a new level of freedom and the opportunity to explore the unknown parts of ourselves that contain indefinite potential for growth and success. And being ok with unpleasant feelings is exactly what will keep us going through with our to-do lists when shit hits the fan of our motivation or mood swings.
To lean away from an unpleasant feeling polarizes our experience into a self to protect and an other to be protected from, hence increasing the tension in our experience. It intensifies duality. But to move into an experience, however difficult, tends to dissolve and ultimately transcend the uncomfortable duality. When we become one with an unpleasant experience, there’s no place left for unpleasantness to exist.
Consider you stretch a spring out of it’s relaxed position and hold it at a distance from its equilibrium state. If you pull the spring to the right, it’s going to pull back to the left. You might be compelled to think that if you keep pulling against the spring force you will dominate it and get relief. But the more you pull, the stronger is the pull back. Your own pulling is what energizes and strengthens the pull back. Pulling away only increases the tension.
Our life and experience works in the same way. Whenever there’s tension in our life and experience, all we need to remember is that pulling away from that tension or using forceful means to get out of it can only make the situation worse. We can trust that if we relaxed and were present with what is, things will naturally move back to the equilibrium point and do so quicker than if we resisted it. All we need to do is to practice openness and curiosity toward these unpleasant feelings in incremental steps, starting with less intense experiences and building strength and endurance over time.
This is the wisdom of nonduality: to embrace the apparently unpleasant other and become one with it, for a coherent and indivisible self can’t hurt itself. It’s only when we are divided against ourselves that we feel an external threat. If we accept that everything we experience is nothing but ourselves, then we can trust that we will always be alright, that pain and hurt come from the stories we tell ourselves about what is and not inherent in the nature of reality. Think about which hurts more and longer: when someone actually hurts us or when we hold onto that pain and story long after the actual cause has been removed from our environment!
So, lets invite unpleasant feelings and sensations as they arise, for they are the boundaries of our limited selves; they are open doors to unexplored territory and gold mines in our personalities.