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March 19, 2019

How we can Lean in to our Icky Feelings—& Kick our Ego to the Curb.

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I’ve had the good fortune to have many good teachers in my life.

My parents. A man named John. Another named Sam.

And, while I’ve never met them, Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, and Shunryu Suzuki have also been my teachers. I’ve tried, with varying amounts of success, to heed their words.

But I’ve also had some teachers who don’t—initially, at least—seem to be as kind as my others. Shame, fear, and anger are among them. Fortunately, the last few days have been full of opportunities to spend some quality time with those teachers.

When such teachers visit me, they seem to come with a compulsion to do something, like explain myself, flee, or even to lash out. None of which are useful. And their visitations mean I still have some growth ahead of me in terms of having the right view of a situation—of myself, really—and to continue on the path of using the right effort and right speech to respond to myself and others and to live mindfully.

Today, I got some feedback from someone who angered me. I felt misjudged. I felt taken for granted. I felt like the other person was in the wrong. In truth, I wanted to set him straight. But I paused. I looked for that interstitial space in which to acknowledge my feelings. They were real. But as I paused, I recognized my anger was coming from my ego—my need to be valued and appreciated and a fear of loss of control. Fortunately, that recognition allowed me the ability to regard my anger as my teacher.

When I did so, I stopped writing a story based on my feelings that I wasn’t qualified to write. I didn’t know the true motivations of the person who had wounded my ego. I didn’t know what that person was going through in his own life. I didn’t know if he was under an enormous amount of pressure or if maybe he was angry or frustrated. So I chose to welcome my anger as a teacher. I chose not to respond to my feelings. And in that, I found tremendous freedom.

In truth, life throws things at us that we don’t always deserve. People disrespect us. They betray us. And, sometimes, their motives aren’t pure. But when I pull back the curtain and try to see their pain, their own need for respect, or their own need for control, I find my shame, fear, and anger abating. And I breathe. I welcome anger as a teacher as much as I can in those times, because it points me—most of the time—back to myself, to my ego.

So, when you face these unwelcome teachers, what should you do?

First, acknowledge your emotions. They are real. But they are also discursive thoughts. Welcome your emotions a teacher. Offer yourself some compassion for the experience rather than chastise yourself for your failings or feelings. Just learn from them.

Second, notice how embarrassment, shame, and anger feel in your body. Just let yourself feel them and identify them as heat, trembling, heavy, or disorientation. Naming them, with practice, will help them disappear more quickly. Sure, they might return. But you can always send them on their way again. And rather than berate yourself that you haven’t grown enough to leave them behind, offer yourself some compassion.

Third, don’t write stories about your shame, fear, or anger that you are not qualified to write. We cannot fully know the intentions of others. We cannot know their shame, fear, or anger. Writing such stories is an act of self-flagellation in many ways—an act of self-inflicted violence that only stokes the flames of our emotions. And as you stop writing these stories, offer your offending counterpart some compassion as well. Chances are they are struggling with the same things with which you are struggling. And they long for happiness as much we do. We are all connected.

Finally, be grateful for your shame, fear, and anger. Because, perhaps, they can be our greatest teachers—if we let them be.

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