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The Absurdity of Fixing Purple

June 18, 2012

Angela took me aside after class recently and guiltily shared: “I’m really growing to dread meditation practice, and I had really hoped I would like it and take to it in the way I’ve seen other people take to it. But I’m finding that almost every time I practice, I will be going along just fine and then I will be almost flattened by these intense feelings of anger and resentment that come out of nowhere. I try, I really try, to stay with them and be present with them, but they’re just so intense! I find my heart pounding, my face getting hot and tears rolling down my face and I try to figure out what triggered them. I can’t figure it out, and then I find myself getting frustrated because there’s absolutely no peace in what I am experiencing, and this is starting to seem like every other thing that I have tried to deal with my out-of-control life: something that seems promising and turns into crap when I actually try it.”

The word “disheartening” comes to mind as I contemplate your experience of these intense and unpleasant feelings, and that’s rather ironic since emotions are typically associated with the heart, so an overdose of feelings like this would seem to be the opposite of dis-heartening. Maybe “over-heartening” if I could coin a phrase? Nonetheless, it hurts, and why would anyone want to engage in something that hurts?

To paraphrase William Shakespeare from Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in our frontal lobes …” Consider the possibility that these (admittedly painful) emotions are simply phenomena that arise as part of our experience of meditation (and elsewhere) but only that. That’s not easy because we have these infernal frontal lobes that love a good paradox to analyze or a problem to solve, and like the man with only a hammer who sees everything as a nail, our brains tend to see every emotion as a fresh fault to repair or a leak to be plugged.  And it doesn’t help that these emotions hurt and we don’t want to hurt!

But stop for a moment and contemplate the arising of the feelings. What if, when they began to arise, you could begin to meet them with some degree of patience and even, dare I say it, good will? What would that be like? You’re doubting my sanity now, right? “I don’t like those feelings one little bit and hate the fact that I’m having them. Why in the world would I want to be kind to them when I really, really want to get rid of them?”

Well, let’s step back from this for a moment and consider that these are emotions that are arising in you out of a certain set of “causes and conditions” (as the Buddhists say) that are comprised of our past experiences, temperament and brain activity that we have only just begun to sort out, and we can’t control whether or not they arrive at our heart’s doorstep. They are simply what they are. They’re kind of like colors, which simply exist, rather than faults to be repaired. Would you consider trying to “fix” purple? Kind of ridiculous, don’t you think? Of course you may or may not prefer purple as the hue for your living room walls, but what are you going to do when your beloved Grandma Esther knits you an eggplant purple scarf for Christmas? If you love her as much as you say you do, you’ll accept her gift lovingly and graciously and, while noticing your distaste for the grape-hued accouterment, wrap it around your neck and proclaim “thank you SO MUCH for giving me this, I needed a new scarf!”

So what did you do with the purple scarf that you could do with these much more real and painful emotions? (And no, you can’t bury it in the closet under your barely used Thighmaster.) You could work with your relationship to them rather than the fact that they have arisen and are here. You noted the presence of your aversion to purple, but chose to honor your love for your granny (and her love for you, expressed through yarn and the occasional $10 check on special occasions) over that and just let the aversion be while you expressed gratitude for the gesture and tried it on.

Those feelings you experienced in meditation arose through no particular intention or action on your part, so could you possibly say to yourself: “It’s OK for me to feel this because it’s already here1.” You could even go so far as to place your palm on your chest above your heart and feel the warmth and kindness in this gesture. You might say to yourself (out loud or in your mind) the phrases offered by Kristin Neff in her book on self-compassion2: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”

When we recognize that experiencing emotions (of all sorts) is simply a part of being a member of the human race, and when they arise in us we are experiencing a moment of suffering, then we can begin to practice that which usually comes much more easily to us when others are suffering: compassion. In this case it is self-compassion. We pause and take a moment to consider what we might need in that moment of suffering and offer it up to ourselves. It might be the simple gift of touch or a soothing phrase as noted above, or it might be something else. The opportunity is to connect with ourselves and see what is called for in that moment and meet ourselves with kindness because we are suffering.

So what do you think? Could you practice a little self-compassion when your suffering arises in the form of these emotions and your resistance to them? Give it a try and share what you notice. And don’t forget to bring Grandma’s scarf when you go over the river and through the woods to her house next winter!”

1 The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Williams, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn; Guilford Press

2 Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Neff; William Morrow

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Margit Bojstrup permalink
    June 29, 2012 7:22 pm

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for inviting me inside this forum for cont. edu. in mindful living.

    Even a purple-lover can have plenty of prickly stuff that gets in the way of good intentions. I for one look forward to learning more while having fun.

    Best wishes,


  2. June 30, 2012 1:07 pm

    I love Kristin Neff…I do her guided meditations several times a week.

  3. Steve Pashko permalink
    July 2, 2012 9:05 am

    When (my own) suffering arises … it comes in the form of thoughts. These thoughts are often like Post-It Notes – reminders that the last time this “problem” arise I dealt with it this way or that one must take quick action in response to a certain “problem.” I seem to keep those Post-It note-like thoughts around on purpose. I believe they help (or may just help even a little) to solve problems.

    It seems that only when I come to believe the “solutions” offered by those thoughts don’t work, do I get to relax back into reality.

    • July 2, 2012 9:57 am

      Thanks Steve, I like the visual of thoughts as Post-It Notes. My friend and colleague Allan Goldstein and I have a good-natured debate about the relative merits of Post-Its versus whiteboard. He is a Post-It Note man from way back 🙂

      What I like about the Post-It analogy is that we can more easily recognize it as “that same old thought that I thought before” rather than some shiny new gem that we have just formulated on the spot, that is worthy of our utmost attention, and not only that but we ought to seriously consider adopting it as truth! I read somewhere that Ezra Bayda, a Zen teacher, like to ask people to consider “What is your most believed thought?” I love this question because it helps remind us that thoughts are just thoughts, and not facts. When we can begin to see that there is a difference between a thought and a fact (by shining the light of attention in between) the thoughts lose their grip on us. Kind of like poking your finger between the Post-It and the surface to which it is affixed. It just flutters effortlessly to the floor and leaves a clear space.

  4. July 2, 2012 11:16 am

    Hello Steven,
    I can’ t agree more on your article, but there are exceptions I think. When you have been locked up for a year in a psychiatric hospital because of very serious mental problems and these problems and the thoughts that triggered them are arising again in a very firm way, I also tell people to try to become friends with their thoughts if possible, but I also advise to loosen a little on their formal practice and try to be more mindful in an informal way. Just because I feel that in certain situations formal practice and trying to befriend can be too demanding. For me it is enough if people can recognise and acknowledge. Perhaps the next step can be becoming friends with what is. What is your opnion on this?

    • July 2, 2012 12:25 pm

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments Carin. I agree with you, especially in cases like the one you described (and in cases of trauma of various sorts) that a gentle, patient and self-compassionate approach is especially important. Borrowing from Kristin Neff and Chris Germer’s Mindful Self-Compassion program, I would encourage people who are meeting great difficulty and struggling with “befriending their thoughts” to pause and ask themselves “What do I need right now?” and that may simply be a mindful cup of tea or a short mindful walk in nature, rather than dutifully “soldiering on” and meditating on the cushion.

      Befriending a painful or shameful thought can seem pretty overwhelming (or even counter-intuitive) so the path of just practicing “peaceful co-existence” with the thought may be Step One. And maybe Step Two and Three as well! There need not be a rush to moving toward ease. As a matter of fact, no moving is needed sometimes, just being will do, letting go of striving to get anywhere else.

      • July 2, 2012 4:28 pm

        Thats’ great Steve. I will use the cup of tea thought in my next course. The person that was in trouble fighting her thoughts did solve her problem by just doing practicle things like gardening, installing a new programm on her computer, going for a good walk etc.. She is ok now.

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