Dealing with Difficult Feelings & Petty, Frustrating Crap – Loving-kindness Practices
Ever wonder why negative thoughts and feelings about other people – hurt, resentment, irritation, anger, frustration, etc. can camp out in your head for a long time while positive feelings don’t stick around the same way? Or how about self-critical thoughts and feelings – those are really sticky and can go on looping endlessly. Why do we do this?
Psychologist Rick Hansen, writing about “The Neuroscience of Positive Emotions” describes it like this – negative thoughts and emotions tend to persist due to “…the brain’s negativity bias - as our ancestors evolved, avoiding “sticks” was more important for survival than getting “carrots.” The brain’s default mode is like “Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good experiences.”
This means the brain treats every day hassles, a.k.a., petty frustrating crap, as important, responding the same way it does to serious threats, focusing and re-focusing attention on them. Our attention is drawn preferentially to what’s wrong; the mind assumes that the possibility that something bad is going to happen is way more likely than the possibility things are basically safe and okay. The mind’s automatic setting is ‘I-am-the-center-of-the-world’, so if I get what I want it’s all good, and if I don’t it’s all bad. Little kid meltdowns are good example of this point of view – and we all still have our little kid selves inside. Thus, the small stuff can feel really big and the truly big stuff can feel overwhelming.
So what can we do about this? Are we doomed to view each day through the filter of our brain’s negativity bias, like looking at the world through a pair of really crappy shades? And, if we were to somehow not assume the worst, wouldn’t that leave us exposed and vulnerable - unprepared if something bad really did happen?
Like everything else, when you’ve got some awareness of what’s going on in your head there’s a chance to choose being mindful rather than mind-less. Everybody’s had experience with the clarity (and relief!) that comes when you see the big picture and can put things in perspective. But to see the big picture you have to get past that ‘I-am-the-center-of-the-world’ autopilot, which can be tough to do.
Here’s the connection with Mindfulness Training and this week’s practice – Loving-kindness. Building from the foundation of focusing-refocusing attention on the breath and non-judgmental/non-reactive awareness of the moment to moment thoughts/feelings/sensations stream, Loving-kindness practice involves intentionally evoking feelings of compassion and appreciation by turning your attention to thoughts and memories of being loved and feeling loved, deliberately thinking kind thoughts towards yourself and others (whether you believe those thoughts or not is unimportant) and thinking about the fundamental connections we all have – we all want to be happy, to be safe, to love and be loved. It’s like a reminder to the deepest part of you that things can be okay, counterbalancing the 24/7 data stream of drama and pain.
And guess what? Practicing Loving-kindness doesn’t make you a sucker or wussy and it certainly doesn’t mean that every day is actually going to turn out peachy – painful, profoundly unjust and heart-breaking things do occur all the time. It’s just that it doesn’t help to try and prepare by focusing on the bad stuff. Loving-kindness practice makes you bigger inside, cultivating resilience - the strength, flexibility and endurance to deal with whatever difficulty, pain and heartbreak that comes your way.
Our instinct-driven minds need a regular reminder of this, a quick dip into the pool of compassion, gratitude and appreciation.
This week, try a couple of Loving-kindness practices. They might feel good in the moment or they might not, but hang in there – you’re going for the big picture.
From the MT Resource list (with a few extra thrown in)
Guided practice - audio only
If you’re interested in learning more about Lovingkindness and Metta meditation, two highly regarded teachers are Pema Chodoron and Sharon Salzberg
A brief overview of recent research on the benefits of Lovingkindness practices, ‘18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness Meditation’