Breathing Through The Discomfort

Having recently given birth to my first child, I am fresh from the experience of a physical transformation, the expansion and birthing and shrinking, that is unique to growing a child. Something which I discovered during this time is that pregnancy and motherhood are rich with metaphor. We expand physically, taking up more room everyday, and often are faced with intense discomfort. Swelling, nausea, heartburn—the woes of a pregnant body are commonly known, but the internal journey can be just as raw and uncomfortable. The inundation of thoughts: “I don’t like this”, “I don’t feel good”, “I am out of control”! But the life keeps growing, the body keeps expanding. “I can’t possibly get any bigger”! And we do. It was in these moments that I found over and over again that just when I felt I could not stretch any more, I did. Not unlike holding a yoga pose, arms outstretched and burning, wanting to collapse. It was in those moments that I found my breath, some small part of me that had the capacity to exhale a little deeper, deepen the pose so to speak, sink down into it, and find some room to stretch where before there was none.

In my practice I work with what I call the uncomfortable emotions: grief, irritability, anxiety, rage, depression, despair. The reaction to these emotions is not dissimilar to the physical and emotional discomfort of pregnancy- we want out! And many of us go out of our way to avoid these emotions whenever possible. We distract (TV, devices, substances) or stuff away, often afraid that if we let ourselves feel the feelings, they would consume us. Our culture is perfectly geared toward such avoidance as our pace of life is quickening, and sense of community, dissolving. It is no wonder that many individuals seek the quiet hour of a psychotherapy session to be listened to, and to begin to listen to themselves. Here in this space my clients begin sitting with the uncomfortable emotions. Taking a pause, talking about the emotion, being curious about them, feeling them- even if just for a moment. What is it like when we make the brave choice to be present with the uncomfortable emotion rather than push away from it? Can we find more space?

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and peace activist says:

The practice is to go to the anxiety, the worry… [the] fear. You embrace it tenderly and look deeply into it. And as you embrace your pain, you get relief and you find out how to handle that emotion. And if you know how to handle the fear, then you have enough insight in order to solve the problem. The problem is to not allow that anxiety to take over. When these feelings arise, you have to practice in order to use energy of mindfulness to recognize them, embrace them, look deeply into them. It’s like a mother when the baby is crying. Your anxiety is your baby. You have to take care of it. You have to go back to yourself, recognize the suffering in you, embrace the suffering, and you get relief. And if you continue with your practice of mindfulness, you understand the roots, the nature of the suffering, and you know the way to transform it.

When an uncomfortable emotion arises, can we make a little more space for it to be there? Can we take a pause and acknowledge that we are scared? What will happen if we breathe into the fear rather than contract against it? Imagining the pregnant mother, swelled and stretched, bigger than she ever thought she could be, submitting to the discomfort and finding that she can hold more than she knew possible.

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