It's easy to forget that we are all perfect in our own design. Sometimes we muck it up with habits and choices that do not serve us.
I was visiting a friend in New York City this past weekend as we discussed various elements of all things spiritual. Discussion of teachers, techniques, paths and so forth culminated into some personal and candid sharing with one another. She knew some of my past but not all of it. She’d never heard the stories of my self-inflicted cutting, or that I used to sleep on a dozen sharp knives because it gave me a sense of being alive in an otherwise empty and fleeting day to day reality. Then there was the suicide attempts, numerous trips to emergency rooms, rehabs and psych wards, all of which she took in stride.
As I went to sleep in my friends cozy guest bed, I reflected on those dark times and how truly transformative the following technique taught by Thich Nhat Hanh has been in turning my life around. I also thought that since it’s worked so well for me, it may work well for you too.
The following is my translation and is not verbatim. As Hanh teaches, however, it’s not the words that matter but our commitment to, and intention behind the practice.
So with that being said, I’ve broken it down to seven simple steps for you.
1. Whenever you become aware of negative thoughts and emotions arising, rather than ignoring them, or setting them aside for later, identify, acknowledge, and honor them.
2. Become very clear on what the specific upset is by identifying the exact thoughts that are bothering you. Are they self-judging, bad memories, or anxiety about future events? Any thought that causes dis-ease in you, regardless of past, present or future is applicable.
3. Next, identify the specific emotions that arise in you as a result of said thoughts. What do they feel like? Is there tightening in your chest? Is your stomach turning or is there a throbbing sensation in your head? Again, any emotion that causes dis-ease is applicable.
4. Once you’ve clearly identified the thought(s) and emotion(s), close your eyes and explore the imagery they subsequently create in your mind (once you’re familiar with the practice, you won’t always need to close your eyes—i.e., if you’re driving, or in public you can still do this.) Do the thoughts and emotions create colors, shapes, figures? Are they abstract or clear? The important thing is to let your thoughts and emotions create the imagery while you simply become aware of what they are.
5. Breathe. We’re at the half way mark and I’d like to offer you a sincere congratulations on completing the first half! Our natural tendency is to suppress these uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, often telling ourselves that we’ll deal with them later—but honestly, does later ever come? Unfortunately for most of us, it never does. So even just by taking the time to become conscious of, and identify these unpleasant thoughts and emotions is a huge step! Let’s not stop there however, because here’s where the really good stuff starts to happen.
6. This step is where everything begins to change! Once you have the mental images of what your thoughts and emotions look like (and even if there’s no image at all, this practice still works), picture yourself holding the image (or lack thereof) in the same way a mother holds a newborn baby. Picture the image of your painful thought and emotion wrapped in a warm blanket, being held with very loving care closely to your heart, your chest, as you extend it very sincere compassion from your heart center. (You can also use the imagery of wrapping the thought/emotion in a warm blanket and placing it in a baby carriage, and rocking the carriage back and forth.)
7. Next, mentally (or verbally) say to the image that you know it’s there and you promise to care for and hold it with compassion until it’s ready to go. Do your best to say these words from a very sincere place in your heart.
Through bringing our attention to the image of our painful thoughts and emotions, and tending to it with an open heart, we’re doing the most natural thing we can—expressing love. Instead of ostracizing our uncomfortable thoughts and emotions and their unpleasant effects, we show them pure, complete and inclusive love. It’s a love they’ve never known before, and a love many of us have never known before either.
The thoughts and emotions will often subside very quickly. Sometimes, however, they aren’t ready to go so fast, and that’s fine. When we initially told them we’d be with them as long as they needed us, we were sincere in that intention. So if/when the thoughts and emotions call us on it, we honor our words and hold them dearly in our heart for as long as it takes.
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