A few minutes in the hospital lobby

I arrived a little earlier than expected at our local pediatric hospital last Friday. I have spent plenty of hours there with my son, both inpatient and outpatient, or visiting friends whose children are also patients, providing plenty of opportunities for a lot of suffering.

On this day though, I’m here in a more neutral role, as a student participating in a fellowship on developmental disability. Relishing the few extra minutes and the chance to get centered before a day of lectures, I grab a private seat in the lobby to slip in a few minutes of meditation.

I’m a pretty straightforward vipassana meditation gal, usually just “gentling myself” (thank you, Jon Kabat-Zinn, for this tender phrase) myself toward awareness, moment-by-moment, on purpose, using sounds as my anchor. But on this day, with a delightful kinetic lobby sculpture clanging away, along with the murmurs of pacing parents on cell phones updating friends and family on about another long and probably sleepless night, sound is too challenging a focal point.

Leaning into the palpable emotions that surround me, I make a quick adjustment to instead try out a few minutes of tonglen meditation. Tibetan for “sending and receiving,” tonglen meditation is one in which one breathes in the pain of others and breathes out the means of their relief. Setting my handy iPhone timer, I close my eyes, put my feet on the floor, and welcome whatever pain shows up. In this place, there is plenty to be found.

On each inhalation, I draw on my own experience of my past suffering in this very space, and breathe in hot and sharp pain — not just my own but what I imagine the children, healers, the administrators and the other parents, might be feeling right at this moment. On each exhalation, I breathe out a cool relief.

I don’t know if this really helps anyone but myself. I hope that on some level this intention manifests itself as some peace in the world, some real and specific release from pain, but I can’t be sure. I do know that in being willing to open myself up to the suffering of others, I open myself up to all emotions, even good ones, peeling away the layers that create a barrier between me and the rest of humanity.

Breathing in pain, I breathe out comfort.

Breathing in fear, I breathe out ease.

Breathing in anger, I breathe out openness.

Breathing in impatience, I breathe out patience.

Breathing in impulsivity, I breathe out steadiness.

Breathing in pride, I breathe out humility.

Breathing in resignation, I breathe out perseverance.

Breathing in isolation, I breathe out connection.

Breathing in confusion, I breathe out clarity.

Breathing in despair, I breathe out strength.

Breathing in pain, I breathe out love.

May all children be free from suffering and harm.

May all families be free from suffering and harm.

May all staff be free from suffering and harm.

May all beings, including you and I, be free from suffering and harm.

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What goes down must come up

I flopped into my therapist’s leather couch last week and asked, “So…what should I cry about this week?” It’s become our little joke that these sessions follow a template that always ends in tears.

Like a fencing champion who deftly maneuvers and makes contact with their opponent’s chest, each week she skillfully reveals some tender point in my heart that needs processing. With her guidance to locate and stay with whatever I’m feeling, I crumble, have a cathartic cry, re-apply my lip gloss and head on home. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but since my father’s death several weeks ago, it’s been incredibly efficient.

Last week though, when she asked how I was doing, I scanned my body for an answer and couldn’t recognize what I was feeling. Was it numbness? Wistful sadness? Exhaustion? No, none of the usual suspects. Finally, after a few moments, I pondered aloud that I thought I might be feeling…happy?

For so many years there was a lot to be angry, afraid, confused and sad about in my life. Whether I was missing the tool required to handle these overwhelming emotions or because I simply believed I was missing it, my mind (or heart?) kept me safe by pushing this pain away with the occasional help of food, mindless screen time and general busy-ness. My body soldiered on, putting one foot in front of the other, keeping calm and carrying on.

Suppressing emotions, however, has one major drawback as a defense mechanism: you don’t get to choose which emotions you push away. Special thanks to my friend Debra Woog who helped me realize this by sharing a quote from PhD-level licensed social worker Brene Brown, who so aptly puts it this way:

The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the
bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment — I don’t want to feel these.

Eventually, you start shutting off the desirable feelings too, the joy, delight and happiness.

Despite my father’s illness and passing, this past month has brought some amazing progress: the switch to a more appropriate school for my son and the hiring of a much-needed PCA, among many other positive resolutions to some painful obstacles. But after so many years of inadvertently numbing all of my feelings, the well deserved sense of relief and happiness which had eluded me for so long still escaped me. Even when some joy did manage to work its way to the surface, a small demon discounted the experience by pulling forth some new obstacle and asking, “How can you be smiling when you’ve got THIS to contend with?”

Ironically, I ended last week’s session with tears too. But these were happy tears, because I was completely overcome by the realization that the happiness which I had been seeking for so long was there, but it just needed to be seen and felt.

It’s been a full seven days since I left my doctor’s office with the marching orders to simply let myself feel happy when I feel happy. It’s been a week of transcendent moments, lots of dancing while I unload the dishwasher and some long, hard runs. Even some creativity and playfulness is seeping out, which is unexpected. Gratitude has shown up too, which is also welcome.

So to all you fellow stiff-upper-lippers out there, I encourage you: Question your tendency to push away the negative emotions. Find a safe way to let the feelings come out, one at a time and with support. I know it’s scary, but you can do it. With time, the good feelings start coming out, too.