“Understanding is the other name of love. If you don’t understand, you can’t love” — Thich Nhat Hanh.
In the political climate that we live in, it’s very easy to give in to feelings of frustration, despair and anger while simultaneously wanting the world to be a more loving and kind place. These seemingly two contradictory experiences — where we feel such strong, negative emotions internally and long for love to be the norm — are not as diametrically opposite as one might suspect.
Let’s start by looking at painful emotions. One of my more recent books, Love Hurts, is about the ways that heartbreak manifests in our day-to-day life. For many of us, this simple term, “heartbreak,” encapsulates all types of experiences (for example: the death of a loved one, a painful break-up, even the suffering of feeling bombarded by the news of our society) as well as the emotions that these experiences spark (such as betrayal, rejection, sadness, or loneliness).
When we feel heartbreak, be it because of something happening in our personal life or in the world around us, we often want to distance ourselves from these visceral experiences and strong emotions. We want to run away from them, grabbing something sugary to eat, alcoholic to drink, or someone warm to sleep with. We tamp the emotions down and hope they will go away. Or we act out on them in ways that are not particularly skillful or helpful to ourself or others.
Instead, we can learn to be with the emotions as they are. Through meditation, we learn to just stay with reality, as it is, as opposed to how we might want it to be or how it used to be. We train in remaining in the present moment, so that when strong emotions come up, we hold our seat instead of perpetuating the suffering we may experience around them. We get to know the emotions so well through meditation that when they come up in the rest of our life, it’s not this awful experience but more like greeting an old friend: “Oh, Angst. Nice to see you again. Hope you don’t plan on sticking around too long.” We acknowledge them, lean into them, and then ideally see our way through them as a result.
There’s some good news about working with our strong emotions: They make us more empathetic. The more we look at how we get stuck and suffer, the more we begin to notice the suffering of other people around us. This is the birth of empathy. We understand (there’s that word again) all the various ways that we experience pain, sadness, and the myriad…