MSC and being with difficult emotions

tree twised branchesSession Details - July 18th, 2016 - Strategies for meeting difficult emotions. Thoughts from Joanna Macy and the Soften-Soothe-Allow informal practice from MSC.

When first learning mindfulness, one of my biggest blocks was creating space to be with difficult emotions – my resistance to this was huge. As I too am a result of numerous causes and conditions by my late 30s I had some pretty ‘firm’ beliefs running, one of which was that I could be consumed by difficult emotions – like the witch from the Wizard of Oz was from water – gone!!!

Now days I see it as my ticket to freedom, but in saying this, I still have that palpable memory that gives me such empathy when I am teaching MSC practices of learning to turn towards and make room for the difficult within our warm awareness – part of creating unconditional friendliness with ourselves, and ultimately the world that we are part of. In this session we re-visit the Soften-Soothe-Allow practice, share some Native American wisdom from Joseph Marshall, and then discuss an article from Joanna Macy. 


'A young man asked his grandfather why life had to be so difficult sometimes. This was the old man's reply. "In life there is sadness as well as joy, losing as well as winning, falling as well as standing, hunger as well as plenty, badness as well as goodness. I do not say this to make you despair, but to teach you reality. Life is a journey sometimes walked in light, sometimes in shadow."

"You did not ask to be born, but you are here. You have weaknesses as well as strengths. You have both because in life there is two of everything. Within you is the will to win, as well as the willingness to loose. Within you is the heart to feel compassion as well as the smallness to be arrogant. Within you is the way to face life as well as the fear to turn away from it."

"Life can give you strength. Strength can come from facing the storms of life, from knowing loss, feeling sadness and heartache, from falling into the depths of grief. You must stand up in the storm. You must face the wind and the cold and the darkness. When the storm blows hard you must stand firm, for it is not trying to knock you down, it is really trying to teach you to be strong." From the book by Joseph M. Marshall lll, Lakota American Indian, 'Keep Going, the art of perseverance'. 

Drawing on the wisdom of Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, she has created a theoretical framework for personal and social change. Pivotal to this work is learning to be with difficult emotions, in particular those that arise due to problems our world is facing.

Cracking the Shell 

It is good to realize that falling apart is not such a bad thing. Indeed, it is as essential to transformation as with the metaphor of the cracking open of an eggshell. Anxieties and doubts can be healthy and creative, not only for the person but for the society, because they permit new and original approaches to reality.

What disintegrate in periods of rapid transformation is not the self, but its defences and assumptions. Self-protection restricts vision and movement like a suit of armour, making it harder to adapt. Going to pieces, however uncomfortable, can open us up to new perceptions, new data, and new responses.

In our culture, despair is feared and resisted because it represents a loss of control. We’re ashamed of it and dodge it by demanding instant solutions to problems. We seek the quick fix. This cultural habit obscures our perceptions and fosters a dangerous innocence of the real world.

Acknowledging despair, on the other hand, involves nothing more mysterious than telling the truth about what we see and know and feel is happening [within ourselves and] to our world. 

Belonging to All Life

Sharing what is in our heart-mind brings a welcome shift in identity, as we recognize that the anger, grief, and fear we feel for our world are not reducible to concerns for our individual welfare or even survival. Our concerns are far larger than our own private needs and wants. Pain for the world—the outrage and the sorrow— breaks us open to a larger sense of who we are. It is a doorway to the realization of our mutual belonging in the web of life.

Many of us fear that confrontation with despair will bring loneliness and isolation. On the contrary, in letting go of old defences we find truer community. And in community, we learn to trust our inner responses to our world—and find our power.

You are not alone! We are part of a vast, global movement: the epochal transition from empire to Earth community. This is the Great Turning. And the excitement, the alarm, even the overwhelm we feel, are all part of our waking up to this collective adventure. 

Great Uncertainty

Let’s drop the notion that we can manage our planet for our own comfort and profit—or even that we can now be its ultimate redeemers. It is a delusion. Let’s accept, in its place, the radical uncertainty of our time, even the uncertainty of survival.

In primal societies, adolescents go through rites of passage, in which confronting their own mortality is a gateway to maturity. In analogous ways, climate change calls us to recognize our own mortality as a species. With the gift of uncertainty, we can grow up and accept the rights and responsibility of planetary adulthood. Then we know fully that we belong, inextricably, to the web of life. Then we can serve it and let its strength flow through us.

Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: not the outcome, but the motivation you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you choose to follow.

Our intention and our resolve can save us from getting lost in grief.  When we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts, we discover our true dimensions, for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole universe. We discover how speaking the truth of our anguish for the world brings down the walls between us, drawing us into deep solidarity. And that solidarity with our neighbours and all that lives is all the more real for the uncertainty we face. When we stop distracting ourselves, trying to figure the chances of ultimate success or failure, our minds and hearts are liberated into the present moment. And this moment together is alive and charged with possibilities. 

3 Components of compassion:

1.Mindfulness Vs over-identification
2.Kindness Vs criticism / judgements
3.Common humanity Vs isolation

I hear Joanna speaking of the courage that comes from compassion. As a great deal of our pain can start as an ‘inside job’, so to speak, we need to start this process from the inside out.

Stages of acceptance:
As we turn towards difficult emotions, even with MSC our pain may temporarily increase – so we incline gradually towards emotional discomfort. The stages below may be a guide:

Exploring – becoming curious, dipping our toes in
Tolerating – perhaps using single focused mindfulness practices 
Allowing – an open awareness style of letting feelings come and go – like the weather
Befriending – gaining greater perspective, trust in all things in transition – all things being part of inhabiting a full life. Able to ‘attend & befriend’ all parts of life. 

Strategies for meeting difficult emotions:
Noticing and noting emotions (in a kind and friendly tone to your inner voice)
Finding emotions in the body (dropping the story – dropping into the body)
Softening the body is physically compassion
Soothing ourselves is emotionally compassionate
Allowing discomfort is mentally compassionate

To bring the SC component in it may be helpful to connect to our physical anchor (soothing touch), feel the body grounded and ask the question what do I need? Or what would love do?

Comments from participants

“I have found mindfulness a key to coping." 

“Learning to be still and kind to myself." 

“Tina, you create a safe, warm, kind and comfortable environment."

“I could not think of a better way to start my week." 

Go to top