Sometimes small things agitate me; today it was forgetting to bring my health insurance card to a medical appointment.
As soon as I walked in to the lab, I realized my new insurance card was at home. The sign in the receptionist’s window said cards were required for service. I hoped they’d let me email them a copy when I got home; I feared they’d tell me no card, no service, and I’d have to go home and get it.
This would be an unexpected change in my plans; a change I didn’t want. Unmet expectations are not uncommon in life; they are what they are. But sometimes those unmet expectations—things not going the way I want them to go—can trigger an inner reaction.
When that happens, I’m trying to pay attention to how my body reacts; because my body usually sends me signals before anything else.
Today I felt an inner agitation arise; an unpleasant sensation. In an effort to not have it grab hold of me and produce a reaction I didn’t want—snapping at the receptionist or criticizing myself for forgetting my card—I took a breath and focused on the physical feeling of unpleasant agitation.
The idea of focused awareness is one I’m learning from my meditation program. It provides a space in which to separate the physical response of unpleasantness, from the potential ego-reaction of anger or blame. It helps me imagine being inside a warm dry room—calm and still—while looking through a window and observing a potential storm brewing outside.
As I focused on the physical sensations, I became aware of inner self-talk; voices that wanted to express anger and judgment; an approaching storm. I recognized that the voices were separate from the physical sensations. There were two things happening: the physical and the emotional. Between those two things there was space, however small; space in which I—as a person with agency—could choose how to respond.
Part of me wanted to resist the physical sensation; to deny I was even experiencing physical distress. Part of me wanted to jump to one of the emotional responses bashing around in my head, while another part wanted to push the angry and judgmental inner voices away; to resist and eliminate them.
As I continued to breathe and experience my physical sensations, I was able to avoid jumping to an emotional reaction. I could see a character who wanted to get angry at the receptionist and another character wanting to blame me for forgetting the card, but by staying present to and aware of the physical sensations—and observing what was going on—I stayed balanced. I was witnessing a possible storm brewing, but I remained on the dry side of the window.
The receptionist called me forward. No card? No service.
I headed to my car to drive home; the physical agitation was still present, but diminished. I was aware I had felt anger and blame within, but I hadn’t expressed them outwardly. I allowed their existence; accepted them without expressing them. I kept paying attention to my breath.
As I started my car, my meditation app started to broadcast the day’s lesson through my car’s speakers. If I wanted something on-point for that moment, life delivered. I listened to these words, on a recurring loop, as I drove home to get my card.
“When confronted by a challenging emotion, rather than touch it, rather than get involved, simply watch; as if watching from the eye of a hurricane, a place of complete and utter stillness. With this analogy we’re not denying the emotion, we’re not negating it, we’re still allowing room to feel the emotion, to understand the emotion. But we’re not getting swept away by it, we’re not getting caught up with it. That idea of a hurricane, that place right at the heart, where there’s complete and utter stillness, there’s permission for the emotion to exist, but there’s a witnessing of it, from a place of clarity, which is really unusual; typically, we’re just swept away by it. In those moments, use that moment of stillness to understand the emotion, to get a sense of how we relate to that particular emotion in our life. The more we do that, the more clearly we see it, the less power it has over us. And in time, we begin to develop a healthier, happier relationship, not just with that emotion, but with all of our emotions.” [Headspace meditation app]
Addendum: The relationship between the physical signals our body sends us and how we interpret them—the emotions we ascribe to those sensations—is being studied. For a different perspective on emotions, check out this blog post, a good overview of an Invisibilia podcast on emotions.