A few months ago, I was flooded with a tidal wave of feelings. Feelings that caused such severe discomfort that I just wanted to run away. I felt like an ant on a burning stove, scurrying around in circles, looking for a way out. My then husband had just informed me he was not coming back that night—he would be spending the night with his new girlfriend.
Wanting to escape was not a new experience for me. Over a decade ago, I found myself stuck in a deep pit of despair. At that time, I did not yet have the tools to lift myself out of my predicament. I was so attached to my suffering that I reacted unwisely. I so desperately wanted the excruciating pain to stop that I tried to end my existence.
Fleeing or escaping is not an uncommon reaction when we are in a state emotional anguish. After all, it is only natural that we don’t want to feel bad. But while that desire is automatic and understandable, it often leads to actions that do not serve us. There is a famous adage: “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” We will have negative feelings in life—it is indeed inevitable. Medical research shows that one-third of a healthy, normal person’s emotions are negative. “Pain” cannot be avoided. We all, at some point in our lives, get sick, get hurt, or lose a loved one. But how we react to the pain is up to us. “Suffering” is the result of our mental and emotional response to pain. Suffering only enters the equation when we reject reality; when we forget that everything is impermanent. When we forget that feelings come and go, we end up identifying and fusing with the pain, believing we are ‘stuck’ with it.
I had been trapped in suffering before, but this time, I was able to give myself the space to be—and not to react. Instead of looking for a useless external escape route, I settled into my breath. I would simply count my breath to center myself when my monkey mind, or manas—the part of the consciousness that processes the thoughts and lives our experiences—was leading me astray by conjuring up distracting thoughts that prevented me from accepting the present moment. Often, the familiar thoughts, such as “why is this happening to me?” trigger the negative emotional loops that trap us in the corner. But my intelligence, buddhi—the part of consciousness that is aware and makes objective discernment—recognized the difference between my initial raw pain and the subsequent suffering that was caused by my reactive thoughts to the pain. It was my buddhi that brought me back to my breath, time and time again.
As the urge to flee the pain subsided, I allowed myself to feel the physical sensations brought on by uncomfortable emotions, and started to explore where I could feel them in my body. What did all this actually feel like? Did it have a shape or temperature? Did it move to other places? This practice of welcoming feelings fully without identifying with them, knowing their impermanent nature first hand, is the essence of a mindfulness practice—intentional, experiential, and non-judgmental.
The difference between the “me” from a decade ago and now can be explained by the concept of neuroplasticity—the idea that our neural pathways and networks can be changed through repeated thoughts and actions. In other words: what we do and think can actually reset our brain. Numerous scientific studies have shown mindfulness practices such as yoga can, over time, restructure the brain to become more joyful and at ease. Bringing the mind back to the breath time and again boosts the neural pathways that allow us to be present. By staying in touch with our feelings and the associated physical sensations in a non-judgmental, compassionate way, we can actually reshape our mind.
I believe I was able to reconnect to the breath, the body and the present with relative ease, because my own brain had been rewired over the years to do just that. Yoga calls it tapas, translated by the recently departed Yoga Master, B.K.S. Iyengar as “sustained courageous practice”. Even though the past few months have been some of the most challenging times in my life, I was delighted and grateful to experience this tapas in action. It has encouraged me to embrace my life as it is, and see my trials and tribulations as an opportunity for further transformation.
Last year I had the opportunity to help a friend who was suffering from years of deep depression. She helped me to realize that everyone, in some degree or another, struggles with emotional suffering. Eleven years ago, when I was in my own black hole, I fervently wished there had been someone by my side to let me know there was a way to break out. Now I realize it is my dharma (calling in life) to be that someone and let you know there is a way out. It takes self-love and dedicated practice, but the first step towards freedom is very near. It starts with your breath.