I suspect that when people get older, they become creatures of habit, and my Dad is no different. Since moving to a town near the ocean he has developed a daily morning habit. Every morning, he puts on his towelette poncho and sandals and trundles down to the ocean baths in front of his house. He gets in, swims a few laps, says hello to the same three other guys who swim at exactly the same time he does ever day, gets out, walks home, and has breakfast with his wife.
When I’m staying with him I try to join him, more as an exercise in sensation tolerance than anything. Because at 6:30 in the morning, the Pacific Ocean is fucking cold.
There are a few ways you could approach getting into the water. The first is to jump in, shiver, and refuse to pay attention to the sensation until it becomes reasonable enough to handle (or you realise you’re never going to be able to feel your feet). This is my Dad’s preferred option, and more power to him; he certainly gets in the water faster, and he’s generally swum a few laps before I’ve even been able to dock my head under.
But my approach is different. I use entering the water each morning as an opportunity to practice my approach to extreme discomfort. And because of this, I don’t want to be shut off from sensation. I want to dial it up as much as possible.
When I enter the water I do so very slowly, and I bring my attention to my feet as I wade down the steps. My instinct is to tense up and push the feeling away; to distract myself. The game is to relax into that feeling; the feeling of extreme discomfort. As I take each step I get another opportunity to face the icy pain of the cold water, the muscle twitches, and the ripples of the felt-sense of suffering.
Practicing not flinching away turns acceptance into a superpower.
In western cultures, so many of our social problems come from an unwillingness to touch our emotional responses directly. We have been conditioned (and have conditioned ourselves) to hide emotional responses away for fear of them having an impact on others. The stereotype of this, the avoidant-attached type, infests social environments in the Bay Area and so many other cities. Everyone buzzes around flinching away from their own emotions and everyone else’s.
And yet, having an impact on others is precisely what emotions are for. So why don’t we trust them enough to let them speak?
A friend asked me what my favourite tools were for addressing conflict, and I realised that by far my most powerful strategies had to do with the same kind of acceptance of discomfort I had been developing in the ocean baths at 6:30am. Mediating conflict requires first seeing it.
And being able to fully feel your emotions requires not running away from them.
Over the last few years I’ve been developing the following personal growth heuristic – Do what scares me. And not in the cutesy ‘go pet a spider’ way, but finding growth areas by systematically inventorying my fears, and then devising and enabling situations in which I can run headlong into them.
I would find the people who annoyed me, and deliberately spend time with them. They were likely a reflection of my shadow self, as what I despised in others was truly a reflection of what I hated about myself. I sought out situations where I had to adopt the kind of mundane normality I was afraid of – working in an office, researching health insurance, having people rely on me.
But this heuristic turned into a powerful compass direction when turned towards my emotional reactions. First while journalling, then while doing a somatic meditation practice, then in arguments with people I trusted, then finally in all high-stakes situations. I would tune into the experience of fear and investigate the feelings hidden behind it even more, much to the chagrin of the part of me that was doing the deflecting.
Everyone has their own menagerie of emotional defense mechanisms. Some of mine: bragging or demonstrating my knowledge of something, making the other person seem unreasonable, shutting down and becoming small and quiet, and occasionally, falling asleep.
Learning what these were, what it looked like when my personality was trying to protect itself from pain or attack, gave me a cheat sheet for finding the things I was afraid of. Suddenly become sleepy in the middle of a tense conversation? Whatever you were talking about just before the sleepiness – time to poke at that!
It has become a game to notice the defensive shells the moment they arise, and before they harden, in an attempt to tunnel underneath them into the squishy bits.
Recently I spent nine months without seeing my partner. When I finally returned to his city, I felt cold, and distant, and wanting him to go away all the time. There’s one way of looking at this that would see this as a sign that the relationship was over. I saw this as a sign that something was wrong, but that I didn’t yet know what it was.
For the first two weeks I was with him again, I did nothing except commit to being open to what I was experiencing, and refuse to let myself do something I didn’t want to because I thought it would make things less awkward. No papering over feelings with politeness, white lies, or people-pleasing – doing what he wanted at the expense of what I wanted. But also, no running away, ‘cutting people out of my life’ that don’t serve me, or trying to figure everything out alone.
And man, were things awkward.
I looked at his face and it seemed old and grey. Everything he did irritated me. I didn’t like the way he smelled. All of this was new and weird, and instead of moving away or ignoring the feelings, I simply experienced them again and again and accepted them the same way I accepted the pain of the cold water in the ocean baths. And, as I explained what I was choosing to do and why, something happened that I’m eternally grateful for – he did too.
And slowly, the feelings started to tumble out. The anger, that he hadn’t come to see me when he promised to visit. Even though my logical brain knew he was being reasonable; even though at the time I had agreed to the plan because I knew how important it was that he stay home for his work. The resentment that we had let some many niggling problems build up and yet on Skype papered them over with smalltalk. Many of the feelings I felt were things I felt I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to feel – and yet the person forbidding them; suppressing them, was myself.
As each previously closed-off emotion tumbled out, and as I accepted it like icy shooting pains in cold water, I found my perceptions literally change in front of me. The most striking change happened in such a short time it blew my mind. Over the course of less than half an hour, I released months of pent up resentment about the abandoned trip, and he accepted it, adding his own sorrow and fear. And in a few minutes I watched my physical senses change.
Smells suddenly became sweet. His mouth, which had seemed crooked and jagged, suddenly seemed warm and inviting and I wanted to kiss him for the first time. His face seemed a decade younger, and much healthier than it had just minutes before.
In each moment, I had a set of choices. If I felt an emotional defense arise, I could let it overtake me, I could rebel against it, or I could renew my desire for connection and openness and trust that the shell would fall away. And when I felt an emotion I was scared of, I could let the fear carry me away to somewhere safer, or I could, with his safe and open support, open it up and unravel the knots of sensation inside. It felt a lot like I imagine an exorcism might. Many times I felt myself grow silent, only to feel into it deeper and discover a new layer of pain.
Eventually, after weeks, it all shook out, and I was left with openness, presence, and love. So much love and gratitude for the soul who had come with me, scared as he was at the time.
This process changed him irrevocably too, and a handful of defense mechanisms that were previously fundamental to his identity became permanently loosened and dropped away. It didn’t create a personality change overnight, but it was abrupt enough that others noticed, and from that seed of defenselessness he uncovered with me, he was able to let his new, unadorned self grow.
Over the space of a few weeks we dropped into a relationship that was so much deeper than it had ever been previously, backed by deeply entwined layers of mutual trust. And we’ve stayed there, even through more time apart and some hardcore external challenges. We know, at a gut instinct level, that we have the capacity to heal even very deep rifts – because each chance to practice gives us further evidence it’s possible.
Having been recently through this destructive metamorphosis, I now have a keen eye for the flinching defenses of others. I see where one person’s shell butts up against another person’s, and it pains me to watch conflicts unfold that are created entirely by the combatants’ respective mechatronic selves. When you are able to be truly present with your emotions, your feelings and lived experience in the moment with someone, and they are able to be present to theirs with you, you cannot be in stupid conflict with them. Even yelling at them in anger is done with extreme compassion.
This takes more than just acceptance and the courage to run towards fears; it also takes trust, and ideally trust that is earned. It’s misguided to try and build this kind of connection with everyone. It is definitely worth building with yourself. It is probably worth seeking out people who you trust enough to build it with. But it is possible, it is glorious, and it is oh so worth trying to build.
Even just once.