Glasses are clinking in the background and there is a soft chatter as I sit and chat with my friend at a local restaurant. There’s a warmth of soft bread-like smells coming from the kitchen and all the voices of the staff sound familiar by now.
We’re having a perfectly fine conversation about typical events and it’s going smoothly, but as his expression changes from a smile to irritation, the filtering begins. The filtering of the entire experience. I’m there cognitively, but emotionally I’m using a sort of a mental tourniquet to minimize emotional flow rather than blood flow.
I have learned to stay present through meditation, but where I am during that experience, perched at the edge of my chair or relaxing and hanging back, is something else. I have found that I can be as present as I want, but feeling emotion is something else.
I have become aware that there is a sort of computer anti-virus filtering that my brain does where the moment I sense anything painful or even pleasantly overwhelming, I start filtering and putting experiences into quarantine to be experienced later. An hour later or a day later, intense love, disgust, criticism, and all forms of shame unfold with detailed memories as I re-experience the moment in a safe place at home. The unpacking can last for hours, and with some experiences even years.
Filtering every experience like this is quite exhausting and it comes with another problem: If I can’t fully experience the moment with all the emotion, pain and love, then how do I respond to what I’m facing? Usually blankly. Hours or days later it hits me, “I should have said that! Why didn’t I?” And it all makes me wonder, how do I make decisions like this in the moment?
Recently, as I was about to bolt out of a meditation retreat—that I had been waiting for months to attend—after ugly crying for half of it because of all the quarantined emotion hitting me at once, a dear friend advised me, “You know the first step is just holding your seat.” Somehow that changed everything. For me it meant fully occupying my space and staying with whatever was there, externally and internally, and just observing it, and letting it be there.
It occurred to me that presence is a big deal. Not running away is a big deal. Yet I have heard and known all this before, but as she said it, I really felt it. It sunk in. After all, during a protest that is what is happening. A group of people are just sitting there keeping their seats no matter what, and yet that can be quite powerful.
Holding my seat means that I literally just stay. I stay on the cushion and continue to experience whatever I’m experiencing. It also means I exist. It means I have influence over my own space and beyond. I’m not an empty receiver of things done to me; I’m an observer, a breather, and an emitter of my own energy in the world.
Often in life, I feel like I’m merely imitating the actions of others, of what is accepted or expected of me to say and do, but at what point does all this cultural inscription become my own? At what point do I release it to others slightly changed so that it may change them? I don’t entirely know, but I am changing everything around me, however subtly. Rather than getting pulled by others’ influence, I’m creating my own.
Over the years, I have found that practicing avoidance and accommodating my needs too much by doing things like painting my walls in all neutral colors and keeping the house very quiet is really not working for me. Filtering every moment doesn’t allow me to be responsive. It may feel safe, but it really isn’t and makes for a half-lived life.
So how do we hold our seat? How do we not run from ourselves and our emotions no matter how urgent or terrifying they are? Recently I came across a quote by Eckhart Tolle that seemed to have some inkling of an answer, “Forgive yourself for not being at peace. The moment you completely accept your non-peace, it is transmuted into peace.” That seemed quite helpful.
But it is practicing tonglen, breathing in difficult and painful emotions while breathing out calm, healing relief, that really worked for me. The part about breathing in what hurts most was particularly powerful. I have found that it is the negative energy that I really have to cuddle with. As odd and counterintuitive as that feels initially, I find that if I get closer to the pain, it evaporates. There is nothing there. Like experiencing a bad dream, I wake and only hear silence and feel my own heartbeat.
There is a story I read about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was with a group of people as a big dog ready to attack was running toward them. He looked at the dog and fearlessly ran straight for it, and so the dog ran away. Holding my seat feels very much like this at times. I have to run at the dog of anger and fear. I have to cuddle it and make friends with it. I have to confront it and sit with it, otherwise it will gnaw at my ankles till they are raw. More often it’s a quiet, small choice that I make every moment of sitting practice not to leave—because I know it means choosing life over death, not abandoning myself to my nightmares.
The exact opposite of holding your seat is codependency. It is loss of identity. It’s wanting to obliterate ourselves to fit the world. It’s not having a presence and wanting to be invisible and to crawl under wallpaper. It’s apologizing for existing and having a voice. Holding your seat is not that. Often it is so tempting to get wrapped up in what is going on “out there” in the political world, in our social circles. I start to think, “If I slam my fist on the table, then I will exist and be heard. If this one thing could be fixed, it will all be okay.” Then I’m pulled off my seat and into a tornado of forces again.
So holding my seat at many times has also meant not only sitting with my own anger and bewilderment, but also sitting with disapproving looks and others’ anger and expectations, because if I’m going to have a voice and walk my own path, take up space, someone is bound to be offended or made uncomfortable. Like in tonglen, I have to breathe in their disapproval, drink it in, and bring it in close like my winter blanket. It can just be there—disapproval, anger. It’s just loose and there with me, looking at me. And that’s fine. I just keep sitting.
In real life interactions, this kind of preparation can make quite a big difference in how we talk to each other. It means really using social skills, yet this practice melts the edges quite a bit. At best, that’s where real conversations begin. When we are fully present with others, even their anger and disapproval, we can move beyond it, compromise, find resolution, and really listen to each other.
Toni Morrison, in her essay, Strangers, noted that she was drawn to an oddly dressed fisherwoman because she reminded her of herself. She constructed a whole story about the fisherwoman who she had only spoken to for a few minutes. Her boots, clothing, and mannerisms resonated with her. And so mentally she planned on becoming friends and feeling connected and the conversations they might have, but when the fisherwoman was nowhere to be found days later, she was sorely disappointed.
She felt betrayed. Only after some reflection did she notice how much of herself—her desires, definitions, and hopes—she projected onto the strange fisherwoman. She noted in that realization that really there are no strangers, just pieces of our estranged selves that we are unwilling to accept. Others’ anger and need for acceptance is similar to ours and others’ pain is our pain. The problem is that our emotions can create such a convincing illusion that we think we have to do something. We need to “fix it.”
Last week I was walking my dogs at night and a neighbor screamed at me because he said my dog pooped on his lawn. I inspected his lawn with my flashlight, every inch of it, crouching down to make sure to check between grass blades in the wet, cold grass and there was nothing there. But the jolt of the yelling was grating at me when I got home.
Immediately, I kept justifying to myself that there was no poop. No poop! I kept feeling justified in my anger, because after all, really, there was no poop. Yet repeating that to myself didn’t make me feel any better. Calling him names, proving how right I was—none of it made me feel any better. After all, I walked a few blocks from there a few months ago and made a harsh comment to a few boys who I perceived were trying to kill a squirrel with a stick. How accurate were his perceptions or mine? I realized we weren’t so different.
Holding my seat has taught me that I matter and that what I do matters. For that reason alone, staying and understanding what I’m really dealing with is most important. It has also taught me that as counterintuitive as it is, responding to aggression with kindness, and love, yes love, is the only sane choice. Like with tonglen, holding aggression close makes it evaporate. I’m not angry at my neighbor any longer and so I’m no longer angry at myself.
Author: Annette Novak
Image: elephant archives
Editor: Travis May