July 12, 2021

How Practicing Unconditional Friendliness can get us through Dark & Confusing Times.

Midlife is an interesting and sometimes devastating experience.

My life looks nothing like I thought it would (and should) when I was younger.

There is nothing I can change about certain choices I made and paths I chose, and oh, the things I would do differently!

I’m sure many folks could say the same.

It’s shocking how unfulfilled I feel, especially after 42 years of working, living, loving, and surviving.

As I speak to friends about this, I am comforted by the affirmations of similar feelings, observations, and, dare I say, disappointments.

I still feel lost at times, even with years and years of spiritual counsel, study, and adherence. I still wake up in the middle of the night completely terrified about how I am going to get through the next day—knowing how tired, depleted, isolated, and lonely I feel. There are certain aspects of life that continue to feel challenging for me, even with all these years on my belt.

In my quest for direction (yet again), I began rereading Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. I forgot how much I enjoyed this book.

Tara Brach is a practicing Buddhist and psychotherapist. Her books meld practical application of therapy and spiritual application of Buddhist principles.

In one part of the book, Tara speaks about practicing unconditional friendliness with ourselves. It spoke to me on a deep, deep level.

It’s no secret that suffering can be defined as “the resistance to what is.”

We can break this down in a few ways:

1. I am resisting the fact that something feels off and I am not acting on it or allowing myself to acknowledge it; therefore, I am suffering.

The “what is” is a gut feeling.

2. I am resisting this change or situation because I want it to be a different way; therefore, I am suffering.

The “what is” is a life circumstance out of your immediate control.

3. I am resisting expressing myself due to conditioning (or other people’s conditioning); therefore, I am suffering.

The “what is” is your truth.

This is where unconditional friendliness can help us out.

When we don’t feel great, the first action we usually take is to judge ourselves and make something about our reaction wrong. This is especially true for women.

We’ve decided we aren’t quite up to snuff, and therefore, we need to punish ourselves further. I mean, we’re such a sack of losers to feel yucky to begin with, so the thought of compassionately dealing with it can feel foreign. This is what we tell ourselves.

But punishment never works, or if it does, the results are short-lived and usually feel terrible.

Tara Brach suggests the following approach: saying yes to everything we are feeling and creating space for it to move through us.

While this is not a new concept, it’s often forgotten when we are in the throes of an emotional meltdown. That sensation is so strong that we feel drunk, out of control, and like we are speeding down a highway after drinking one too many espressos.

The life of an emotional neurotransmitter in the brain is 90 seconds. That’s it. The reason we stay stuck in these reactions is that our ego steps in and starts telling a story about it. It starts associating and comparing (which is its job to keep us alive) our current feelings to something in past or projects into the future. Once we are in the grip of the story (or the trance as Tara referees to it), it’s like a strong undertow—we have to consciously work to get ourselves out of it.

Here’s how it works.

Whatever is bothering you, say yes to it, without judgment or the need to fix it. The yuckier the feeling, the more we want to accept it.

“Yes to my jealousy.”
“Yes to my anger.”
“Yes to feeling terrified.”
“Yes to my loneliness.”
“Yes to my fear about this.”
“Yes to my disappointment.”
“Yes to my confusion.”
“Yes to my resentment.”

Here’s the thing. Saying “yes” to what is going on inside your body and psyche is the gateway to allowing the energy to move through you. Remember the 90-second rule.

Some people have a fear that if they say “yes” to something low vibrational, they will get stuck there. But it’s quite the opposite.

By saying “yes,” we honor what is truly going on. We witness ourselves and our experiences. We accept that we have these feelings and the power to shift them. We let ourselves off the hook.

Feelings come up to come out. When we shove them down and slap a fake smile on our faces, we feel worse.

When we say “yes,” we start the process of breaking the spell. We witness the trance we are in. We become our own best friends, standing outside of the pain and consoling it.

And what’s really awesome is this new space to explore why these feelings are coming up.

Saying “yes” to jealously allows us to shine a light on where we aren’t giving ourselves what we desire. Saying “yes” to anger can uncover our deep hurt. Saying “yes” to feeling terrified can force us to break down exactly why we are terrified, so we can look at it plainly and with a really bright light, finally noticing that maybe we’re being a bit dramatic.

Conversely, we can use unconditional friendliness for all the stuff we love about ourselves.

“Yes to my competitive nature.”
“Yes to my talents.”
“Yes to my work ethic.”
“Yes to my creativity.”
“Yes to my ambition.”
“Yes to my goals.”
“Yes to my contagious spirit.”

Ahhhhh, it feels so good to say yes! It feels good because we have been deeply conditioned to immediately fix “not-so-nice” feelings. Therefore, we practice self-rejection over and over again, without even realizing it.

A little over 10 years ago, I was savagely betrayed by someone. I remember going over the relationship in my mind, looking for clues as to what I had done wrong for her to treat me this way. Talk about self-rejection!

Back then, I didn’t even consider the fact that this was just who she was because she had done it before numerous times. If I had known about unconditional friendliness back then, my processing of the betrayal would have been a lot different. Instead of self-blame, I would have accepted my feelings of loss and moved through them (even with the pain) with more self-awareness. I wasted a lot of time thinking it was my fault.

In Buddhism, the demonic, celestial king Mara represents death, rebirth, desire, selfishness, greed, anger, fear, doubt, and shame. Mara attempts to seduce Siddhartha (Buddha) in many ways to throw him off his path to enlightenment.

Buddha responds by acknowledging Mara’s presence and then takes it a step farther—he invites Mara to share some tea with him. He doesn’t shy away from dealing with his fears, insecurities, and the unknown. He straight-up lets Mara know that he (Buddha) sees him and is ready to have it out.

Brach explains that when we bring compassion, friendliness, and wisdom to a situation or circumstance, we can dissect what is really bothering us. We can get to the heart of the matter.

We can accept that we are also brave like Buddha and invite Mara to tea. We can sit with what’s going on, without trying to fix it or make it go away. We can witness our own internal journey and stand outside of it.

We can put the kettle on, pick out the best cup and saucer, and open the door to Mara’s incessant knocking.

And as we sit, witnessing where we have created separation, we can ask, “Okay, Mara, what are we discussing today?”


Read 26 Comments and Reply

Read 26 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elizabeth Gordon  |  Contribution: 60,405

author: Elizabeth Gordon

Image: Dr. Matthias Ripp/flickr

Editor: Lisa Erickson