Accompanying difficult emotions

As I have been deepening my mindfulness practice to become a teacher, one of the challenges for me has been that I’ve become even more aware of my capacity for sadness. Especially on a week like this one, when I am having painful conversations with my sister, one of my best friends is (again) diagnosed with cancer, I am struggling with self-acceptance with regards to work, and maybe as a result of all of this, I haven’t been sleeping well. There is simply, a lot of anger which is in fact sadness, a lot of frustration which is in fact sadness, a lot of self-doubt which is in fact sadness - it feels like all roads end in sadness.

I surely always had this capacity for sadness, but the problem is that I now see it better. I can and do sit it with it longer. I name the sensations attached to it much better. I look at it more carefully and curiously. I try to get out of it much less by doing “happy” things. I still do my self-care, I still do my “happy” things to lift myself but I don’t expect the sadness to disappear necessarily. I don’t resist the sadness; I know the sadness won’t go when I will it to go, it will go when it is time to go. Sometimes this means I do my “happy” things with a tint of sadness in them.

All this investigation and acceptance is great but I often panic: What am I to do with this much sadness? Is it going to kill me? Is it going to turn me into a miserable person? Are people sick of me yet? People don't like seeing constant sadness. I have been sad for days. Am I going into a depression again?

One of my teachers, Jack Kornfield, says to name emotions gently (“sadness sadness, restlessness restlessness, joy joy, desire desire”) as they come and go. Naming them helps put a bit of distance between yourself and the emotion. It gives you the permission to feel it without being caught up in it. He says the moment the emotion gets “too much”, you can stay curious as to what happens when there is so much of this emotion. You can say “Alright, take me, kill me, I will be the first person to die out of restlessness.”

And this is where you may find some humor because when you welcome the “too much”, what happens is something like: “Restless restless, oh I hate this emotion, hating hating, ugh it’s so bad I’m gonna die, dying dying…. hmmm, I am not dying, not dying, hmmm, what am I going to have for dinner? pride pride, I sat through that hard moment, celebration celebration…”

I’ve been practicing Jack’s advice this week with so much going on. But at times the sitting is simply too difficult. I don’t want to open social media, or watch a stupid movie, or puke my mind on a friend - no, I want to actively do something, but I want to do something adaptive and harmless.

So I asked myself: “Is there something I genuinely like to do when I’m sad?” Not “Is there something I can do to not feel sad?” but more like “Is there anything I can actively do to accompany my sadness, to give myself some soothing company as I feel this emotion, to feel this emotion in its full glory without scaring myself away?"

I searched for ideas on Google but I wasn’t lucky. What came up was mostly suicide hotlines, depression articles or meditation techniques such as the one I described above by Jack. So I made a list of things I’d like to do to accompany my sadness. And I am doing the items on my list as I write these lines.

Things I like to do when I’m sad to accompany my sadness:

  1. Listening to sad music
  2. Hugging a loved one (long long hugs if possible)
  3. Journaling
  4. Walking (especially if it’s rainy, gloomy, and I’m listening to sad music)
  5. Writing letters and not sending them (either to people I am sad about or directly to my sadness)
  6. Sleeping
  7. Crying
  8. Sipping tea
  9. Reading sad stories
  10. Burning incense or smelling essential oils

Hope this list inspires you to accompany your sadness (or other difficult emotions) next time you are sad. What do you do to accompany your sadness or other hard emotions? Write to me, I’d love to know!