Several decades ago, a 5-year-old boy named Mikey taught me a very important lesson about emotions. It is one of those lessons, which keeps being brought back to me. I have been reminded of it a number of books that I have read and then again today as I was reading my selection in Denise Linn’s Soul Coaching. The lesson is to lean into the experience, not lean away from it.
See all too often when we are going through a challenging time, or a situation that is difficult or causing us discomfort, we tend to lean away from our feelings and emotions. We try to move away from what we are feeling. We try to move away from the pain, the anger, the fear, the discomfort. So rather then feel these emotions, we try to move away from them into a place of constructed neutrality and calm. We might tell ourselves, I am at peace. I am calm. I am happy. The thing is that if you are calm or at peace or happy you do not have to convince yourself that you are, because you are.
One of the things Mikey taught me was the importance of leaning in. He came to his first day of day camp scared because he was going to be away from his mother for the first time. We leaned into his fear and sadness by having him make faces. Make a sad face I would say, make a monster face, make a scared face, and we worked our way through a myriad of emotions. As Mikey leaned into his emotions, the fear and the scared lost their power and gave way to happiness and joy.
I had this epiphany not long ago about the importance of leaning in while watching Shrek and thinking about the donkey’s relationship with the fire-breathing dragon. That dragon looked so scary, but what the donkey learned as he leaned was there was so much more to the dragon then he initially saw. There is a deeper relationship and transformation, which comes from the leaning in. It got me thinking about the fire-breathing dragons in my life that had caused me to lean away because I was afraid of being torched. I began to visualize my fears as this real dragon and then had an understanding that after breathing all that fire in my direction, that its throat was probably dry and this dragon would probably like nothing more then a cold drink. So I began inviting it in, handing it the remote control and a cold drink. It is amazing how much freedom one gains once the fire-breathing dragons in one’s life are gone.
There is this similar story about the Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk. He was visiting a monastery with his entourage. Near the gate, a dog was tied up barking, frenzied, and foaming at the mouth. The whole group felt fear. Suddenly the dog broke free and charged the group. While all of the other monks ran away, the Rinpoche ran toward the dog at full speed. The dog was so surprised that it cowered, stuck its tail beneath its legs, and ran away. When the other monks asked the Rinpoche why he ran toward the dog, the Rinpoche replied, “I have been trained to embrace what I fear, to run toward it instead of shrinking away. This is my spiritual practice.”
We cannot evolve in our spiritual lives if lean away from that which is happening around us. It does not matter what it is, whether it is news of war or environmental disaster, anger, frustration, or a cranky loved one. What is important is that we take a deep breath, lean into our feelings, remaining centered, and present with whatever we are feeling.
Learning to lean in is a spiritual discipline. It may take more time for some to master then others, but it is all about the journey. For some the journey may be about even mastering awareness that one is leaning away. For others, it will be about acknowledging our tendency to lean away. For others, it will be about opening themselves up to the parts of the authentic self which we might seek to avoid or reject.
Leaning away is like sweeping the dirt under the carpet, or sticking things in the closet. They may look pretty and clean, but the feelings are still there. Like Mikey who faced his fears through the making of faces or the Rinpoche who faced his fear and the dog head-on, the feelings often times dissolve and dissipate in our awareness of their existence and our willingness to lean into them. Leaning away shows us where we still need to evolve and leaning in shows us where we have evolved. So the next time you feel like leaning away, take a breath, center yourself, and lean in. you might be surprised at the experience.