Denying suffering will not make it go away. Telling yourself that you are not upset, you didn’t really want that promotion or you are not afraid to take a chance, does not change the reality of what you are feeling deep down. However, saying “yes” to your experience can provide a change in perspective that makes it bearable.
There is a difference in the feeling of a “yes” vs a “no” response. The different perspectives can be felt in your body and mind. In order to demonstrate the two perspectives, Dan Siegel, researcher, author and founder of Interpersonal Neurobiology, often shares a “No and Yes” meditation in his talks.
The “Yes” and “No” Experience
Dr. Siegel asks participants to sit with their eyes closed and awareness inward. Participants are led to pay attention to sensations in their breath and body. Then, in a stern voice, he repeats, “No, No, No, No, No, No.” A few moments are left for sensing before he continues in a kind voice, saying, “Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes.” Please sit for a moment with eyes closed and try this experience in your mind’s eye.
For me, the experience was quite dramatic. With the no, I felt my stomach sink, my heart and lungs constricted, there was tightness in my head and hands, I felt a metaphorical armour on my back, my shoulders lifted and my posture became diminutive.
The “yes” on the other hand, was a definite relief. My heart softened, it felt like a weight lifted off my chest and shoulders, tension melted out of my back, my facial muscles relaxed toward a smile and I noticed the warmth of improved circulation.
Saying “yes” or “no” to your life experiences will have a similar felt sense to what you felt in the aforementioned meditation. If your life experience elicits a reaction something like, “S/he doesn’t love me anymore – No!”, “I got passed over for the promotion – No!” or “My credit card bill is really high this month – No!” there will be contractions in your body that occur in response to the instinctive denial of your reality.
When you are struggling to accept the reality of a circumstance in your life, it is instinctive to respond with the felt sense of “No!” While specific sensations in the meditation may vary between individuals, this “No!” reaction is a protective fight/flight/freeze response in all of us. The heightened sensations of constriction, tightening, shielding, moving sharply outward while preparing to run for cover, affect you on physical, emotional, and energetic levels.
The “no” reaction elicits a fight/flight/freeze state. When you are in this state, your blood flow moves out of your organs and into your limbs preparing you to run, hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline increase, digestion shuts down, your energy sinks into the lower chakras and your emotions become more intense. The effects will be stronger if you spend time indulging the “no reaction” with negative thoughts.
Embracing the “Yes”
On the other hand, accepting that, “Yes, this is happening,” allows you to widen the lens of your experience. Radically accepting reality by recognizing the truth of the situation allows for a change in perspective. Saying yes even when you are dissatisfied with an experience, is not faking it. It’s not saying, “Yes, I like this.” Rather, you allow a pause to compassionately witness your experience in lieu of negating it.
A compassionate response might be something like, “Oh yeah, I am struggling at this moment. I care about this suffering. I can attend to it.” The “Yes” response allows you to acknowledge and feel the grief, loss, frustration or whatever emotion you are coming up against. It honours your felt sense about an experience instead of dismissing it.
When you respond to unwanted experience with “yes” you acknowledge that in life crappy things happen. In fact, you are recognizing that something crappy is happening right now. But instead of fighting with reality, you sense into the experience of reality so that you can begin to face getting through it.
Grant Emotion a Valid Position in Life
Successful integration of life’s ups and downs requires that you grant emotion a valid position in daily life. Both the “yes” and the “no” response are connected to sensation, feelings and emotion. When you gloss over the sensations, feelings and emotions, they become fused with unconscious anchors connected to your nervous system. These unconscious anchors are created by past challenging experiences and they can have a huge influence on both your moment to moment experience and your overall health.
Repeating the “no” response frequently give priority to the fight/flight/freeze part of your autonomic nervous system. It changes your physiology making you able to fight or run. Also, it takes you into the lower, more reactive parts of your brain diminishing your ability to access the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that allows you to think things through in a logical manner.
Conversely, granting a “Yes” and pausing to experience your emotions, has positive effects on both physical and mental health. Even if the emotional experience is intense, acknowledging that the intensity exists will help. Paying attention to emotion brings it into awareness to it can be processed by your body and mind then it can subside.
Eventually, when the emotion passes, your nervous system will shift into a rest state. It will invite slowed respiration, improved circulation, reduced stress hormones and relaxation. This grounding effect creates the opportunity to become cognitively clear so that you can link your responses to current moment experience and desires rather than fear and past experience.
Negating your emotions does not result in strength
Strength, vitality, and progress do not rise out of negating emotions. Rather negating emotions reduces your physical health, puts you at the mercy of old thought patterns and, changes your cognitive ability to function optimally.
The cognitive ability to function in the here and now is negatively affected by the fight/flight/freeze response. When you are in a life or death situation, you have no time to think things through. It’s all about instinct. The fight/flight/freeze response is a conditioned defence mechanism that was programmed through experiences of attachment loss in the past.
Attachment loss is when you lose or become separated from someone/thing that you love or depend on. This kind of loss has to do with survival, especially if it happens when you are young and/or very dependent. Because the nervous system prioritizes survival, this kind of experience gets stored in nerve pathways with super fast connectivity.
Experiences that look on the outside to be inconsequential but feel on the inside bigger than they “should” are likely pointing to this super fast connectivity. If today’s experience looks vaguely like a past traumatic experience – same location, season, people…- it can become associated with past experiences and quickly responded to through the lens of fear.
When seen through the lens of fear, the declined invite to dinner today becomes an insult added to a previous injury. The insult gets associated with something like your parent’s failure to connect with you when you were 4. It is a quick and sometimes dirty, association between the past and present.
The unconscious response does not differentiate experiences, that is not its job. The job of the unconscious response is to make associations from the past. The unconscious mind can build associative events up allowing today’s experience to trigger a much more complex response than is necessary.
This associative part of your being is sometimes referred to as the shadow. It evolved in the nervous system with good intention. It is grounded in learning and reminds you in order to protect you. The system it uses to alert you is sensation. Your body, if you listen to it, re-minds you. It shows your mind how you felt in the past when something like this happened.
Changing the perspective to a compassionate, “Yes this is happening. I am afraid” allows you to be conscious of the current moment experience. The reality of what you are going through may be painful but throwing a “No!” on top of it only adds to that pain.
Moreover, bringing conscious awareness to the experience that is happening now, takes you out of the lower parts of your brain and into the prefrontal cortex. In the cognitive processing of the prefrontal cortex, lies the ability to witness any associations from the past and to differentiate what was then, from what is now.
Differentiation is difficult when you are stuck in the instinctive “No!” Telling yourself, “This is not happening, I am not going to feel fear.” is fighting with the reality that you are scared. The fighting nudges your nervous system further into defence mode. In defence mode, intensity envelops your senses while evidence is collected to link the experience of today with even more negative associations from your past. The intensity of this associative experience blocks your ability to differentiate what is now, from what is bubbling up from the past.
Fixing the Glitch
Unfortunately, there is a glitch in the system. It is associative and well, not everything that tastes like chicken is chicken. Associations can lead you in the wrong direction. What is happening today, in your adult life, the present moment is not the past.
Sometimes in order to progress you need to differentiate. If you respond to everything in the same manner that you did in the past, you will have the same results that you had in the past.
In order to get out of the associative experience and into differentiation, pause and listen to the sensations of the present moment. Notice when the dialogue in your head veers off into the past and cognitively remind yourself to stay present with your current moment sensations.
Use repeated awareness of sensation to create physical anchors that foreshadow both the “Yes” and “No” experience. The repetition creates linkage in your nervous system. Linkage means that when you experience, “No” in daily life, there is a good chance that a little whisper of, “Yes” will show up to remind you to pause. This happens because, in the nervous system, what fires together, wires together. You are actually training your nervous system to look for “Yes” when it finds, “No.”
The anchors are the reminder to pause, let your mind link up with current moment experience and let your body/nervous system get back into alignment. Alignment is neither the intensity of fight/flight/freeze nor the total release into rest and recuperate. Alignment is creating balance in the nervous system. It is a position where you can consciously control your decision to act out of a desire for your highest good rather than out fear.
Turning Experience into Anchors
Practising the “Yes and No Meditation,” presented earlier in this article is a good enough starting place. Become familiar with the intensity of the “no” sensations so that in life when they start to creep up on you, you can positively use them as an anchor to help you become more conscious of your actions moving forward.
You can say something to yourself like, “My shoulders feel tight, my heart and chest feel constricted. Yes, here I am. I am resisting my sadness.” Acknowledging the facts without rejecting them will help you anchor your experience in the current moment.
Grant yourself the experience rather than using distraction and moving on to what actions you will take next. Distracting yourself is another version of defence against reality. Stay present with the desire to reject your current experience. Feel the “No.” and notice your senses.
- Notice your breath. Where do you feel it?
- What do you feel?
- Is your awareness stationary or mobile?
- What words are in your head in relation to this experience?
- Can you feel your body connected to the ground?
You will also want to create anchors for the “Yes” side of the meditation. Practice noticing what it feels like to enter the relaxation response.
- What does the shift in breathing feel like?
- Which muscles release first?
- What does release feel like for you?
- What does your mind feel like as you make the shift?
- Is there an emotional quality associated with the relaxation response?
Finding balance or alignment is, unfortunately, a work in progress. You need to practice and you will get better at it over time. Attending to the messages that your nervous system sends out as sensation in your body will become more familiar and frequent.
“Yes” may never be your default response, however, it will become a more recurrent experience. In hindsight, you will be aware of the places that, “No” has set you back. In these moments, you will know that “Yes” is the starting place for course correction.
Want support developing a practice? Connect with me at heidistokes.com.