Friday, April 29, 2011

Cradling Our Feelings

Hush little baby, don’t you cry
Mama’s gonna sing you a lullaby

When I moved to the Northwest, my son had just turned four. I knew something was not right, but I didn’t have a word for it yet. After lots of diagnostic testing, I had a word. Autism.

Suddenly I was in a new world, a world I did not want to be in. A world I didn’t know how to navigate. A world I only wanted to escape from.

There were lots of people to meet that I never would have crossed paths with. Experts. Parents. Doctors. Teachers. Specialists. Support groups. I was flooded with way too much information. I couldn’t begin to sort it out. I was numb. No time for feelings. I had to function. I was alone with a son I loved who had a problem. I had to fix the problem. That is what I knew how to do and I did it very well. Fix problems. Find a solution. Make everything all right.

Someone said I should talk to Sherry, a mom/expert. Sort of the mother superior for all the novitiate moms. I took James to her house. She was so friendly. I thought she was so happy because she knew how to make this all go away. She was going to share the secret cure with me. She had this great big smile on her face as she exclaimed, “I love autism!” Wow, I thought, will I ever love autism? I was pretty sure I wouldn’t.

We sat at her kitchen table while James played with her son. She was so perky as she laid out the future, my future, and told me what I needed to do. I stared out the window, wanting to be anywhere but there, like the guy in the commercial for Southwest Airline when the narrator asks, “Want to get away?” At one point she was talking about another family. She sighed, shaking her head, and confided that they had not even grieved yet. Grief. Now there was a concept I had not thought of. She seemed to think that it was important. I filed that away for another day, another year, another decade.

Feelings can be so scary. Grief, anger, shame, sadness. Sometimes they are too scary to even name. But acknowledging our feelings can help us accept them. Labeling them brings them into the light. Tara Brach describes the following example in her book Radical Acceptance. An elderly Buddhist teacher named Jacob continued to teach even though he had mid-stage Alzheimer’s. He sat down to teach a large group one time and suddenly couldn’t remember why he was there. He began to panic. His training kicked in and he started labeling out loud what was happening – afraid, confused, shaking, lost.... Gradually, he relaxed and he labeled that, too. Relaxed, safe, okay, calm. The students were moved to tears by this deep teaching. By simply labeling, he stayed grounded and didn’t get sucked into his agitation.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us to cradle our feelings, all our feelings, like a baby. If you are agitated or overwhelmed by whatever you are feeling, you can label it like Jacob did. Then hold it gently in your arms and rock it like a baby. You can even rock your fear to sleep. (I just had this image of Rosemary, in Rosemary’s Baby, cradling her demon-spawn child. Love is that powerful.) Cradling our feelings helps us contain them, tolerate them, soothe them, embrace them.

Eventually, I did stop fighting my grief and fear and sadness. I yielded. And the pain was not so great. I learned that living with the fear of feelings was much, much worse that living with the feelings themselves.

In a classic Buddhist story, a mother, crazed with grief over her son who just died, begs Buddha to use his power to bring her child back to life. Buddha promises her that he will grant her wish if she can bring him a mustard seed from a home in which no one has ever died. She frantically goes from door to door, but everyone tells her a story of loss. She cannot find even one home that has not been touched by death. By the time she returns to Buddha, she understands the truth of sorrow and life. She asks Buddha to help her bury her son and becomes his disciple.

When I feel a distressing feeling now, I rock it tenderly and sing it lullabies. I think about all the other people in the world who feel this feeling. I know that whatever I feel has been felt before, and is being felt this very moment, by millions of people. I reach out to them, filled with compassion for us all. Our hearts are one. And in that oneness I find peace.


  1. Just so you know, I read virtually every one of your posts but don't often leave a comment. Why? Because each post is so complete and so well crafted that there is little I feel I can add to what you have said.

  2. Hi Galen,

    Scary feelings can easily overwhelm us and causes us to make poor decisions and act in ways that are not beneficial. Facing the feelings that frighten us takes courage. But the good thing is the more we do so, the better we become at dealing with these feelings. This is simply because we have gained the wisdom and the experience to do so.

    I remember how I used to avoid my scary feelings, but as a result they always remained there at the back of my mind lurking and growing in strength. It was not until I faced them and took the steps to manage them that I attained the inner peace I sought.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

  3. Terri--Welcome and thanks for following. I look forward to reading your blog.

    Bob--I'm very pleased that you find my posts worth reading whether you comment or not, but of course your thoughts and insights are always welcome, or even just a simple howdy.

    Irving--Those scary feelings do seem to grow in the dark, don't they? With some experience, as you observe, we find that we can gain some wisdom and skill. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Thank you, Galen -- you always go right to the point. Noticing, embracing, living with tenderness to ourselves and others. And just keep remembering to live with an open heart to ourselves as well as other.

  5. Thank you Galen. That's a post full of wisdom, compassion and honesty. And I one I will learn from.

  6. Cathie--Thank you for the reminder to live with an open heart to ourselves. It's like the safety instructions by the flight attendants--secure your own oxygen mask before helping others!

    Riley--Thank you for your kind comment.

  7. Excellent post Galen! We sometimes let our emotions run away with us without stopping for a moment and taking a deep breath. We're not alone in whatever fate is throwing at us at that moment.

  8. Galen: What a beautiful post and message. What you said was so true and helpful. It really is about confronting your fears and walking right through them. When you shed light on situations, things no longer seem as intimidating and scary as they initially did. Great post.

  9. ryoko--Yes, take a deep breath. Always a good first step. And remember that we are not alone. Thank you for your comment.

    Sibyl--I like the image of walking through our fears, or jumping through them, as you described in your recent post!


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