Monday, July 20, 2015

Emotional Avoidance

Mindfulness and Avoidance
An issue closely related to control is that of avoidance. There is now strong evidence that a lot of unhappiness and mental health difficulties are linked to what is called emotional avoidance: avoiding or suppressing feelings, fantasies, or memories because when they come into our field of awareness, they trigger bodily feelings that can be overwhelming. Indeed, for all kinds of reasons, our present-moment experience can be so painful and conflicted that we don't want to be there. We feel that if we stay there too long, collapse, implosion, or emotional eruption might occur. This might not be the case in the beginning. When we start meditation practice and have our first experience of stepping back from the repetitive story lines that continually run through our minds to just watch them float by, there can be a feeling of joy and release as we see firsthand how we do not always have to be carried away by our thoughts.
But this can be a honeymoon period. In Choden's experience of mindfulness training, it is when we start running into the deeper levels of emotional resistance that mindfulness practice risks sliding into a process of thought management in which we subtly promote certain ways of thinking and feeling and reject others. It is like having a nice, tidy desk with everything in its rightful place, and constantly rearranging it so you have a sense of maintaining control. Very quickly meditation can be hijacked by this process— certain things are allowed in but others are not. You can tell this when people say, "I've been practicing mindfulness for eight weeks now, but I still can't stop feeling anxious or getting irritable," indicating that right from the outset, mindfulness was understood as a way of getting rid of painful emotions rather than being more fully present with them and learning how to hold them with compassion and thus to tolerate and accept them. Behavior therapy works in exactly the same way. For example, you would take an agoraphobic out into the streets so that they can experience anxiety more fully, learn to tolerate and work with it, and so be less frightened of it. In the case of the agoraphobic, avoidance is obvious, but for the mindfulness practitioner, it can be far more subtle.
According to Rob Nairn, one of Choden's mindfulness teachers, this process of avoidance and suppression happens subliminally, and before we are even consciously aware of it, we may find that we have already bought into attitudes of identification and avoidance— almost as if some shadowy doorkeeper to our subliminal world says that "this" is permitted entry but "that" is not. And then an even more subtle voice of authority follows quickly behind and says, "This is the way it must be."
Gilbert, Paul; Choden (2014). Mindful Compassion: How the Science of Compassion Can Help You Understand Your Emotions, Live in the Present, and Connect Deeply with Others (p. 147-148). New Harbinger Publications.