- Flickr / Catface27
In her 2003 book, “Radical Acceptance,” Tara Brach writes about an encounter with her friend Carl, an Ivy League graduate with an MBA whose business had recently failed.
Brach, a psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher, went over to Carl’s house one day to check on him; predictably, she found him looking dejected.
At some point she asked him: “Carl, what’s happening right now?” “What inside you most needs attention?”
“He glanced up at me, perhaps a bit surprised, but then said simply and clearly, ‘I feel like an absolute failure.’
“He went on to describe the anxiety that was taking over his body and mind – the racing thoughts, cold sweats, the sudden gripping around his heart. …
“After a few minutes of talking he thanked me for being interested. ‘It just helps to say this out loud.”
If there’s a lesson in this anecdote, it’s not that everyone should hope they’re visited by a psychologist/meditation teacher during their lowest moments.
Brach goes on to explain how you can apply this same strategy of inquiry – which is a product of modern psychology and ancient Buddhist wisdom – on your own, and why it’s generally so effective.
One way to use this strategy is to figure out what you’re feeling physically. Scan your body and note the different sensations. Ask yourself: “What is happening?” or “What wants my attention right now?”
What you’re really doing when you use this technique is naming your emotions. As Brach writes, “Mental noting, like inquiry, helps us recognize with care and gentleness the passing flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations.” It’s a core component of traditional mindfulness practice.
In other words – and this idea might sound familiar if you’ve ever sat through a guided meditation– you want to acknowledge your current experience without judgment.
Psychologists have known for a while about the power of labeling your emotions. When you give a feeling a specific name – say, fear, or sadness, or frustration – it starts to release its chokehold on you.
It’s why Harvard psychologist Susan David often asks her clients to come up with two other options for whatever they think they’re feeling. And it helps explain why one study found that participants who described their emotions in greater detail did a better job of regulating their negative emotions.
Brach is quick to note in “Radical Acceptance” that “inquiry is not a kind of analytic digging – we are not trying to figure out, ‘Why do I feel this sadness?’ This would only stir up more thoughts” (emphasis mine).
That is to say, you’re not leading yourself through an hourlong psychotherapy session – though that could, in other circumstances, be helpful. You’re simply opening yourself to the full range of your emotions.
This is, of course, much harder than it sounds. Brach acknowledges that “it may take some practice to learn how to question ourselves with the same kindness and care we would show to a troubled friend.”
She also shares a simple exercise she uses when she’s anxious before giving a talk:
“I often pause and ask myself what is happening or what wants my attention. With a soft mental whisper I’ll name what I am aware of: ‘afraid, afraid, tight, tight.’
“If I notice myself anxiously assuming that my talk will be boring and fall flat, I simply continue naming: ‘story about blowing it, fear of rejection,’ then, ‘judging, judging.'”
It’s sort of counterintuitive. When you stop resisting the emotions, or pretending not to feel them, they start to dissipate.