This blog post has been bubbling away for a while. I want to write about the process that I’ve found helpful when struggling with difficult feelings. This week it’s been so useful that I almost wanted to give this post a ridiculously bold title like ‘Noticing: The answer to everything!’ but I restrained myself because I’m aware that different things work for different people at different times and it might not be for everyone. I’m putting this out there now in the hope that it could be useful to some readers as something to weave into your life, or as a way of thinking through what you’re already doing.
I’ve come across different versions of this process in a number of places. It forms the basis of several therapeutic approaches (particularly many existential, humanistic and psychodynamic forms of therapy) and it’s also fundamental to the Buddhist mindful approach which I find so helpful, and to various other kinds of meditation. But I’ve also noticed that many friends and clients have developed something along these lines more spontaneously, without necessarily following a particular approach.
I would summarise the process something like this:
Noticing -> Understanding -> Engaging
The core idea is that before going on to attempt to understand a situation, or to engage with it, it is important to fully notice it. Another way of putting it is that any time you find yourself struggling, you just go back to noticing.
Why is noticing so important? One of my favourite authors, Pema Chödrön, uses the metaphor of a glass of dirty water. This one particularly connects with me because I often start my days watching the Thames, which is, as we know from The Kinks, a ‘dirty old river’! I imagine a glass of Thames water in front of me. It is murky and unclear because it’s all churned up with mud and silt and rubbish. We can’t see anything clearly when it’s like that, so what we have to do is to let it be still for a period of time. That allows the dirt to settle at the bottom of the glass and the water on top to become clear.
Pema suggests that part of why we often don’t want to allow this to happen is the fear that we have of what we might see once it all settles. I imagine that the bottom of the Thames is a pretty scary place with all the junk and slime and probably even skeletons that have accumulated there over the years. What might loom at you out of the murky gloom if you gave it the chance? But the point is that any kind of understanding of our own accumulated mess – and the things we’ve tried to bury in there – is only possible if we allow the water to settle.
Rushing past noticing
Generally when I’m struggling with something I don’t give things time to settle – quite the opposite. My habitual response is generally to rush to either the engaging or the understanding parts of the process.
I think that rushing to engage is probably the most common one for me. I start my day with something bothering me from the previous day, or just a general sense of anxiety, unease or irritation. Instead of giving that any time I get straight into my work. Or perhaps I’m at the end of the day and something that’s happened is troubling me but I just launch into watching TV or socialising. When I do that, often there is a sense of something under the surface which is getting bigger and more frightening the more I try to push it down under all the busy-ness and distractions. When I finally stop work or turn of the TV it can feel much more fearsome than it did at the start, and I often realise that I haven’t really been present to whatever I was working on, or enjoying what I was watching, because it is nagging away in the background.
Rushing to engage also often takes the form of trying to stop the feeling before it gets a hold by reacting immediately. This is what happens when I respond straight away to a difficult email, or I lash out at somebody who has upset me, or I make a snap decision about a tough situation. Often when that happens I’m aware that I haven’t dealt with the situation as well as I might have: I’ve passed the difficult feeling on to someone else in a crappy kind of domino effect, or I’ve exacerbated a problem rather than helping with it. The idea of refraining from acting until I’ve spent some time noticing is helpful to me in these situations.
The other alternative to rushing to engage is rushing to understand. This is something I often do when my emotions are particularly painful: feeling really low, panicky, or angry, for example. I’m very troubled by how tough it feels. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to feel this bad. I’m desperate to understand it because I think that will stop the feeling. What often happens is that I end up going round and round and round analysing it and trying to find an answer. It’s easy then to layer more and more difficult feelings on top of the original feeling. I’m worried about feeling down; and then I’m angry at myself for being worried about feeling down; and then I’m depressed at the fact I’m angry at myself for being worried about feeling down – and on and on and on.
The struggle to understand can easily land me in a place where I decide there must be something wrong with me for having this out-of-proportion reaction, or there must be something wrong with the external circumstances in my life (this job is bad, this relationship is wrong, it’s this other person’s fault). So I can tip into either depression or conflict with another person or situation.
What is noticing?
An alternative to rushing to either engage or to understand is to slow down and stay with the original feeling or situation, and just to focus on noticing it. Each time I feel drawn to trying to understand it, or to get up and do something, I can try to bring myself back to the original experience and just really notice what it is like.
When I have managed to do this there is a real sense of things beginning to clear like the water in the glass. A kind of understanding begins to emerge naturally from the process of noticing, in a very different way than when I’m attempting to force myself to understand what is going on. By the end of the process I can have a much clearer sense of how to engage, often becoming aware that there are many options and that nothing has to happen immediately.
It’s important to emphasise though that it is often extremely hard to stay with difficult emotions and experiences like this. There’s a reason why we rush to distract ourselves or try to force the feeling to go away. This noticing is such a radically different approach that it takes time to cultivate.
Pema suggests that noticing involves regarding difficult feelings as friendly and supportive rather than as fearsome and threatening. That is one of the hardest parts for me. In the last week I’ve tried to approach two of my least favourite emotions in this way: one I call ‘the plummet’ which feels like falling into a deep dark pit of despair and self-loathing with no warning and no time to catch hold of the sides. The other is a kind of gritty grainy feeling of being slightly bored and pissed off and bothered by everything. Neither of those states feels friendly to me. I do not want to look at them closely. I just want to find a way never to experience the plummet ever again, and to shake off the grainyness when it comes on.
But this week I tried to just be with the feelings and notice them, trying to describe their texture, temperature and colour; really experiencing the sensations that arose in my body; widening out to notice how they unfold in time (What happens immediately beforehand? What is the overall situation I’m in when they happen? How do they tend to play out?) I tried to assume that the feelings were sensible, helpful things to have happened, it was just that I didn’t know yet why they were sensible, and I needed to listen more carefully and kindly to them until they did make sense: however long that took.
I found that after some time of staying with them, and curiously noticing them in this way, lots of things started to occur to me that hadn’t before. It was like a process of joining the dots as all sorts of connections started to come to me. There was a feeling of weight lifting and being able to see things much more clearly and calmly for a while.
How could we build this into our lives?
I think there are two major challenges to building such noticing practices into our lives. The emotional challenge is that it is generally the very last thing that we actually feel like doing when we feel bad. The practical challenge is about when and how we actually do it.
Pema suggests that it can be good to start with emotions that are not too difficult rather than launching in with the really tough stuff. You can even start when you’re not actually in that emotional state, but rather when you’re feeling okay. Just remembering the last time you felt a bit bad and trying to notice what it was like. You can just do it for a few minutes at first, and then do the same thing for a positive emotion to balance it out a bit. In this way the process of noticing can be gradually built in in ways that don’t feel too threatening.
Another important thing is giving ourselves time for these processes. Often when a tough thing hits we’re not in a position to go off for an hour and sit with it. We might not even get that opportunity for several days. So what I’ve started to do is to ask other people in my life for time, and to give time to myself. So, for example, if a difficult issue comes up, I ask the other people concerned to let me slow down and think about it for a while, and I also schedule in some time for myself to do that. And if that isn’t enough I ask for more or give myself longer. I’ve got a list of decisions that I want to consider and conversations that I want to have with people and a rough idea of when I’m going to get to them (some this week, some next month, some next year!)
As for the question of when we do these practices, obviously it is tough to build noticing into busy lives, and I know that I’m extremely privileged to have a job which is more flexible than most and which actually involves thinking and writing about this kind of stuff regularly. Different things definitely work for different people, but I find it helpful to have some check-in time for noticing at the start of the day. I take a cup of coffee outside wherever I am and sit for however long I have available. I often find it helpful to read or listen to a helpful book for a while beforehand, often on the journey to wherever I’m going that day, to get me in the right state of mind.
Something that I’m sure would be helpful, but which I struggle to do, is to take a few minutes out for noticing whenever something difficult bubbles up during the day. People sometimes use such moments to go to the bathroom and have a couple of minutes breathing space alone. Similarly the end of the working day can be a good point to take ten minutes before embarking on the evening, and/or it can be good to take some time just before going to sleep. I should emphasise that I do none of these things regularly myself – it is not easy! Also I’ve avoided using the word ‘meditation’ here. That can be offputting because it sounds like a ‘special’ kind of practice and can come with a lot of baggage. Whilst I have found formal meditation to be a good place for noticing, the most helpful noticing I’ve had recently happened while I was sitting on a train looking out of the window and listening to music on my phone. Other people find that they do noticing on long walks, or while they’re cycling or driving, for example.
Noticing doesn’t have to be a completely internal thing. I’ve always found that writing helps me a lot with it. So I take an hour in a café once a week to write in a journal about all the things that are going on, trying to focus on describing them rather than attempting to figure them out. A combination of just sitting and reflecting for a while and then writing can help. Drawing or other forms of expression work better for other folks. And, of course, some people use therapy as a place to do this kind of noticing with another person to guide them through the process (finding the right person, who you have a good rapport with, and who helps you to create such a space, is the key here). Or you can set up times with friends where you’ll each take turns to help the other person to talk through what’s going on for them, with a focus on noticing rather than trying to explain or solve the problem.
Sometimes what you notice when you are noticing is that the thoughts and feelings you’re having just shift and change by themselves; other times the noticing leads to more of a sense of the water settling and seeing things more clearly; sometimes all you notice is just how hard noticing is, and how you spend the whole time drifting off, or trying to analyse it, or wanting to stop. And if those things happen then they, in themselves, become something to notice.