Updated: Jun 14, 2020
In the centuries-old story of Milarepa, the great poet-saint of Tibet, one day he returns to his cave in the mountains to discover that some demons with eyes the size of saucers have moved in. Seated on his bed and refusing to leave, they torment and mock him for days on end. Milarepa tries chasing them out, reasoning with them and even giving them Buddhist teachings, but fails in every attempt to get rid of them. The demons continue to revel in persecuting him. Finally, he tries a different response. He unreservedly welcomes them to stay as long as they want and make themselves at home. He even invites them to give teachings to him. With a swoosh, the demons instantaneously disappear.
Treatises have been written on the psychological truth contained in this story: attempts to get rid of unpleasant experiences, for example anxiety, anger and aversion, often just don't work. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, allowing - even welcoming - can be surprisingly effective in loosening the grip of difficult emotions. This 'allowing' embodies a genuine spirit of curiosity. It is not a psychological trick we might play on ourselves in what, really, is a cleverly disguised attempt to get rid of unwanted feelings!
Our typical response to aspects of life that we don't like is to try to push them away - or, perversely, to fixate on them with obsessive thoughts and stories. Both of these are attempts to avoid simply experiencing our emotions as they are. What is it like to feel hurt, fearful or angry? Is it possible to gently explore how this affects sensations in the face, jaw, chest or belly? Can we metaphorically step back and notice what sort of thoughts arise: are they judging; critical; fearful? What happens when we explore these responses with openness, patience and kindness? Could it be that it is our very resistance that is the most uncomfortable thing of all? If you have been on a mindfulness course, you may have begun to explore what happens when we stop trying to manipulate experience to try to avoid the unpleasant parts, but rather open to our reality, just as it is. Responses to this different approach of 'allowing' are often surprising and sometimes liberating. The very act of allowing what we deem to be unpleasant changes our relationship with experience: a possibility of real transformation opens up that is not available when we avoid our difficulties. Avoidance tends to leave us the opposite of where we would like to be: stuck.
On compassion courses (MBCL) we explore a Compassionate Breathing exercise drawn from the Tibetan practice of 'Tonglen', which means 'receiving/giving'. We are invited to imaginatively breathe in any sense of difficulty or pain and to breathe out the opposite, healing qualities of ease and wellbeing. Inhaling smoky grey light, we exhale bright, white or golden light. Breathing in heaviness or tightness, we breathe out lightness and ease. It can be helpful not to feel that we have to 'manufacture' these healing qualities: they already exist in the world and in oneself, so it's more a case of gently tuning in.
This practice may seem a strange, counter-intuitive thing to do! While it's true that not everyone immediately takes to this practice and sometimes it may not feel like the right occasion to work in this way, many people find it an unexpectedly calming and energizing experience. Part of the power of this practice of welcoming the difficult - imaginatively breathing it in - is that it is the opposite of our normal response of resisting: trying hard to keep out the parts of life - including ourselves and the others around us - that we'd rather were different. Embracing life as it actually is, not how we wish it was, we may find that we truly can let go into a healing, easeful exhalation, in the face of the many challenges life brings to our door.