Amber Hatch is a mum of three, a childminder, meditator, and author of newly published Mindfulness for Parents (Watkins). The following post is adapted from her chapter ‘Managing Challenging Feelings in Ourselves.’
Not long ago I lost a person whom I loved. The loss absolutely struck me down, and I was astonished by the raw intensity of my feelings. It had not been wholly unexpected – in fact it had been preceded by several months of fearing the worst. However, no amount of anticipation could have prepared me for its devastating effects.
I felt as if I had been ripped apart and left to be swept about on tides of helpless anxiety, anger and despair, sometimes so engulfing, that I literally couldn’t hold myself upright. Sometimes the pain in my chest was so tight that I could barely answer my children’s questions, and I found myself sneaking away so that I could hide in my bed and cry. I had no idea how I could look after myself, and at the same time ‘be there’ for my children.
WEATHERING STRONG EMOTIONS
These kinds of difficult feelings – anger, depression, anxiety and grief – to a greater or less extent, come to all of us at times. When they do, they can be frightening and overwhelming. This is where a mindfulness practice can be invaluable in helping you weather the storm – and, eventually, to heal. In fact, challenging times met with mindfulness can be an opportunity for growth – and the bigger the challenge, the more the potential for insight. My struggle to come to terms with what had happened, and the deep feelings that it aroused, taught me a huge amount about myself, my mindfulness practice and life in general. It was as if I had been unexpectedly enrolled in a crash course on dealing with difficult feelings – but there wasn’t a teacher or textbook.
But it can be extremely difficult to navigate such strong emotions at the same time as trying to look after your children. Our thoughts may be so engrossed by the subject of our anguish that we can’t concentrate on our children, or we may be so sapped of energy that even the simplest of tasks seem insurmountable. Over time I came to learn what strategies for coping helped me to ease my own pain, and enabled me to function as best I could as a parent.
MAKING TIME TO EXPERIENCE FEELINGS
Before experiencing grief, I had previously thought that the phrase ‘time to grieve’ meant that one would heal in time – i.e. over several months, or whatever. What I hadn’t appreciated is that grieving is actually time-consuming. That is, you need to allow actual minutes in the day for experiencing the pain. I came across an article recently that suggested scheduling in an hour a day for mourning. Although I was amused by the business-like approach, it still made sense.
It can actually be quite hard work grieving. And, as I found, if you don’t acknowledge your pain, it can mutate into something else. For me, that was most often anger or irritation. If I felt an unpleasant sensation arise in me, but I didn’t recognise it as grief, then I would look for explanations or solutions (‘this house is so messy’, ‘we’re going to be late’, ‘we aren’t earning enough money’).
I didn’t schedule set periods, but after a few weeks, I noticed that there were certain periods in my day – quieter periods – when I let down my defences and allowed painful feelings to surface. Perhaps the most regular of these was while I put my son to bed at the end of each day. As I lay down with him and cuddled him to sleep, and the room was quiet, then I was able to ‘touch in’ to the tensions in my body, and investigate them.
I often found it difficult – frightening even – to allow myself to experience the pain in its pure form. I suppose I was frightened that it would be too much for me. I found that becoming very aware of the physical sensations – often a tightness in my chest or sometimes an ache, or a pain in my stomach – would help me to experience it without over-intellectualising it. The trouble with thoughts is that they often led down distressing alleyways, generating more anxiety or anger. Eventually I learnt to use mindfulness to allow me to welcome the pain when it came, recognising that embracing it was the only way to move through it.
Meditation practice: Taming the Horse
When I was going through a period of particularly high anxiety, and I felt that I was spiralling out of control, I found it very hard to maintain any mindfulness that I was able to conjure, instead my self-awareness would quickly slip into self-judgement at my own inability to be mindful. Finally I came up with a strategy that was slightly off the wall.
When I notice that my mind has become very agitated, and the simple noticing of the fact is not enough to calm it down, I call to mind a horse. I imagine that the horse is acting out my feelings and agitated mind state. Somehow I find it very easy to imagine a big stallion rearing up, snorting and frothing at the mouth. And I imagine myself as the horse’s keeper, standing next to it, sometimes waiting patiently, sometimes calling out to it, sometimes whispering soothing words, pressing my fingers into its flank, stroking its thick oily fur.
I find this visualisation very powerful and effective. It redirects the mental energy away from the troubling chain of thoughts and into the creative activity of imagining the horse. It also allows me to rouse the helpful feelings of compassion, love and equanimity – or whatever is needed toward the horse, instead of self-criticism and judgement. When the horse is a little calmer, I can draw closer, and eventually encourage it to nuzzle my shoulder and I can bury my face in its neck.
INTENSE EXPERIENCES AS A MAGNIFYING GLASS ON LIFE
When we go through very intense experiences, it is as if someone is holding a magnifying glass up to our challenges – not only are they are blown up to extreme proportions, but also, we are forced to look at them.
Actually, we face these types of challenges throughout life, though normally on a much smaller scale. Because when we are feeling harassed or stressed or anxious or depressed, aren’t these just reactions to a deeper underlying fear that we’ve lost our footing somehow? That somehow our inner selves are not being recognised or validated – either by people or by circumstances? So we try to assert ourselves – and regain our footing. But we tend to do that by denying the reality of what’s around us and working at odds with it.
Just as with the bigger events, it is our fear of surrender – of allowing life to be how it actually is, that creates stickiness and conflict. So instead we complain, or snap, or retreat into ourselves. And this strategy can go unnoticed much of the time. But when we are faced with something bigger – some major challenge, then we have to reevaluate how we interact with reality, because fighting it will cause such exhaustion and pain that it will no longer be viable as a strategy. Mindfulness can offer us a fresh way of responding to difficult times.
Find out more at www.amberhatch.com
Amber’s book is available to buy at amazon and all good bookshops.