Ways out of Drowning: Four Ways to Respond to Troubling Memories, Thoughts, and Feelings

By Adam J. Pearson

Yesterday, I noticed shame, sadness, and embarrassment arising from an old memory coming back to haunt me. It is a memory that I have had to confront many times in the past. And yet, it still holds some power over me. When it comes into the light of consciousness, it tends to detonate troubling feelings that linger. However, this time, when the feelings came up, instead of getting swept up by the memory into the emotional charges that it carries, I met it mindfully and dove deep into the present experience of it. And I found that there are four wise and healthy ways to respond to these thoughts, memories, and feelings that can come to our aid in moments like this, when these powerful disturbing emotions are storming through us.

Way 1: Meeting with Mindfulness
One way of responding to troubling memories, thoughts, and feelings involves just meeting them with mindfulness. The feeling comes up, and it hurts, but instead of pushing it away, you stay with it.  You don’t let it carry you away. Instead, you look at it with detached curiosity. You dive into it and try to see what it feels like from the inside out and how it looks from the outside in.  You observe it and try to understand how it is working within you, what is giving rise to it, how it is making you feel, what it is trying to tell you about “the kind of person you are.” You meet it with totally present, careful attention. And you let it do its thing without trying to change it or manipulate it in any way.

You roll with it and ride it out like a surfer riding waves. You don’t think up a story about it; you just watch whatever thoughts are naturally arising around it. You watch the stories your mind is weaving about it to try to control and deal with it. You just stay present with it and watch it. And what I have found in situations like this is that just mindfully watching the feelings can weaken their power without creating even more problems with developing beliefs about the feelings or identifying with them or holding on to them as if they are “me” in any meaningful sense.

Way 2: Tracing the Feeling Back to the Basic Feeling of Being

This way is a little more abstract, but I have found it helpful as well.  This way involves tracing the feelings back to the core parts of us that give rise to them. For example, I traced the troubling memory back to the core epicenter of the feelings that the memory was igniting within me. It came back to the feeling that “I” was under attack, that “I” was being threatened and jeopardized. And at the core of this feeling was the deeper feeling that “I am” as the  sage Nisargadatta Maharaj called it. What I found was that the powerful emotional charges carried by this memory had become mixed up with the feeling of I-ness, with thoughts that “I am this, I am shameful, I am suffering, etc.” “I” had lost myself  in a storm that “I myself” created. 

The event that happened in the troubling memory was experienced as carrying a threat to my separate sense of self. And this threat manifested as emotions, which in turn manifested as thoughts or beliefs about “me.” The emotion of “shame” manifested as the thought “I am shameful, a disgrace.” The emotion of “sadness” manifested as the thought “I am pathetic.” The emotion of embarrassment manifested as the thought “I am embarrassing.” These thoughts went on to amplify the emotions that engendered them. For example, feeling that “I” was shameful, intrinsically, in the core of my being or my self, led the shame to deepen and intensify.

Let me get a little abstract for a minute. The ironic fact in these moments of emotional storming is that the egoic stronghold, the web of beliefs and feelings that I take to be “me,” is basically attacking itself with its own mechanisms. Just as our sense of separate self reinforces itself by associating with conventionally ‘positive’ traits such as strength, courage, and attractiveness, so does it ironically weaken itself by associating itself with socially devalued traits like weakness and inadequacy. However, the same mechanism of association (“I’m this kind of person…”)  and identification (“I am this….”) is at work in both cases. In one case, the association with traits our society considers to be positive produces feelings of confidence, self-assurance, and potentially even pride and arrogance. In the other case, the association with traits our society considers to be undesirable gives rise to feelings of insecurity, self-loathing, self-hatred, self-doubt, fear, cowardliness, and potentially even thoughts of suicide. Without a doubt, the urge to kill oneself  is the most ironic manifestation of egotism of all; it is born out of a sense of self that has paradoxically created itself in order to destroy itself.

All of these mechanisms that the mind uses to identify with things in order to build up a separate sense of “who I am” can be experienced in the emotional repercussions of a single ‘disturbing’ memory. What I had to see, though, was that this whole play of identification, association, and emotional disturbance was not me. The true core of who we are, our sense of being present, our bare sense of being anything at all, is totally unaffected by all the swingings of the egoic pendulum from self-love to self-hatred, from yearnings for self-aggrandizement to feelings of being extremely small. We are here, we are present before any of these identifications with positive and negative traits ever come up. We are born into this world without any of these, and yet, we still exist, so they cannot be basic or fundamental to who we are. “Our existence precedes our essence” as the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre put it.

What does this mean for our painful emotions? We can practice coming back to this bare and basic feeling of being present. And this is one way of responding to troubling memories, thoughts, and feelings. We can trace the pain back to the feeling that “I am,” back to the bare feeling of simply being, simply existing. And when we just hold our attention on this feeling, I find that it takes us back to this feeling of deep affinity and connectedness with everything because everything shares this basic fact of being present. Even as everything is constantly changing and impermanent, still, this presence is here, taking all these forms, making all these changes. Being is undergoing all these transformations, saying all these words, doing all these things.

And it’s this same sense of being that we find in the core of our experience; just thinking the words “I am”  takes us back to it. Beingness, hereness, presence; these are words that suggest it. But we can’t get lost in the trap of just thinking about what these words may mean. We simply have to experience it. Follow that feeling that ‘I am” straight into the feeling of being anything at all. When our attention rests in that feeling, we feel an expansive peace and connectedness that is indescribable. What we find is beyond ‘a feeling,’ or ‘a sense’ at all. It’s unspeakable and it is amazing. No concept can latch on to it and describe it. It’s beautifully ineffable.

But about that disturbing emotion that I mentioned in the beginning? How do all of these reflections affect that basic everyday experience? The basic fact of the matter is that these powerful feelings of shame, embarrassment, insecurity, etc. are all not fundamentally me. They are just emotional reactions to the mind identifying with traits or activities that society devalues. They are the emotional repercussions of my mind grabbing on to these things and saying “this is me, this is what I am, I’m the pathetic one, the embarrassing one, the inadequate one, etc.” But this is just the play, the activity of the mind. It’s this innocent ego trying to build itself up and sometimes ending up knocking itself down. It’s not me. This feeling that “I am” is more primal than any of these other thoughts or feelings that reinforce a separate “me.” It’s more meaningfully me than this falsely, but innocently, constructed “me.” The thought and feeling that “I am” can take me home to the basic feeling of being present that comes before the word “I” being spoken at all. And in this more basic state, awe, wonder, and peace can emerge and the embarrassment, shame, fear, etc. can drop away. This happens because these feeling depend on a sense of separateness, and when we turn back to this naked sense of being, which all things share, the separateness drops away.

Way 3: Meeting with Metta (Loving-Kindness)

But what if this is all too abstract and the feelings are too overwhelming or too powerful? Then what? If that happens, we can try just meeting it with what Buddhism calls ‘metta’ or a feeling and attitude of ‘loving-kindness.’ The memory comes up along with all of its emotional baggage, and instead of pushing them away, we just meet them with a lovingly kind attitude. We love the heck out of them. We see the innocence that gave rise to the feelings and we meet them like a loving parent meeting a child. This simple approach can work wonders.

Way 4: Meeting with “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you”

What if this fails too? What if the “I’m pathetic, I’m a disgrace, I’m not good enough” thoughts still continue? In this case, we can try using the “I-language” that the go uses to build itself up and knock itself down, but in a more constructive way. I learned this technique from the Hawaiian spiritual tradition of Ho’oponopono.

How does it work? I find myself in the midst of these powerful feelings and identifying with the trauma of this memory. However, instead of jumping into all of the “I am nothing, I am horrible, I am pathetic, I am shameful” thoughts that we would tend to jump into, I do something else. I turn my attention straight on to the “negative” feeling–the shame, the fear, the embarrassment, etc.–and I think “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” I’m sorry that I have given rise to this feeling and that I feel bad about it. Please forgive me for this innocent activity born out of a curious wish to know who and what I am. Thank you for the mindfulness and insight that has led me to realize what’s going on within me. Painful memory, feelings of shame, fear, sadness, I love you. This approach uses the ego’s mechanisms to dissolve the conditioning and emotional charge over time. There were a few times in my life where this simple practice really hit home for me.

Summary of the Four Ways
Really, though, if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that these disturbing memories, these troubling thoughts, are not really a problem at all. Ultimately, they won’t make much of a difference to this vast universe or to Being in itself. But I have to deal with them anyway because they feel like a problem. So what can I do about them, if I feel like I absolutely must do something? I can:

(1)  Dive into them, be fully aware of them from the inside out and from the outside in, meet them with total mindfulness and peaceful attention.
(2) Trace thoughts like “I am worthless” back to the feeling that “I am” and trace this feeling that “I am” back to beingness. Then rest there.
(3) Meet the memories, thoughts and feelings with metta, with loving-kindness and just love the heck out of them.
(4) Meet the memories, thoughts, and feelings with the four phrases, “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” Then observe how their power gradually weakens.

The power and the charge of disturbing memories, thoughts, and feelings will almost never drop away immediately. But these approaches give me healthy ways of meeting them and relating to them when they do arise. These are ways that don’t depend on rationalization or on self-deception. They are grounded in experience and in what works. They can give us a safety rope to hold on to when we feel like we are drowning. And sometimes, that’s all we need.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Clark Eide says:

    Well done, Adam. We have had many similar experiences and have come to the same conclusions. Nicely written and helpful. These solutions do work, and your desciptions of the them and their processes will aid anyone looking for relief.

    Take care.

  2. annanimm says:

    Thanks for this, it really resonated with me. I realize I have the same four ways of dealing with them, except that the wording is different…

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