The holiday season is upon us!
While this season can bring us much heart-felt joy and connection, it also ushers in stressful events, relationships, and memories that trigger unpleasant feelings in our bodies and minds. I’m going to assume that this isn’t news to you! Maybe it’s just the micro-culture I operate in as a therapist, but I find that with each passing year, I witness fewer assumptions that the holiday season should look and feel like a hallmark commercial, and more acknowledgment and dialogue around the idea that it is entirely normal and acceptable to experience and express unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and memories during the holiday season. Are you getting this message too, or is it really just my micro-environment?
Anyway, more and more, I encounter awareness that our attempts to block, numb, or beat our negative feelings into submission tend to cause more discomfort than simply feeling things as they come up. However difficult it may feel to resist the urge to distract or block all of the messiness that arises in us, it turns out that in the end, it is much less complicated to lay down our arms and let our emotions and experiences run their natural course.
You might have the reaction that this way isn’t for you (e.g. “um, why should I accept my negative feelings? They’re unpleasant.”). And, that’s natural and understandable. No one really likes discomfort. You have to figure out for yourself what is right for you.
But, humor me for a moment. Perhaps just because you’re still reading, I want to invite you to experience the message that you can allow all of your emotions to flow through you. Consider this: You don’t HAVE to navigate this holiday season as the 100% however-you-think-you-should-behave-or-feel version of yourself. You don’t have to have it all together. You don’t have to get it right or be perfect. All parts of you can be welcome.
So, you might be wondering, what does all of this talk about accepting unpleasantness have to do with floating?
Floating can be a tool to help us practice this “all aspects of me are welcome” way of relating to ourselves. If you’re relatively new to the practice of inviting your full range of emotions (pleasant and unpleasant), it can be helpful to find a safe environment to practice doing this. A floatation tank is the perfect environment for such a practice. It is spacious, soothing, relaxing, and will not bombard you with distractions. Even though most of us enjoy the distractions that remove us from our unpleasant emotions, they can be a problem because distraction puts a plug in emotional digestion. In the float tank, you can experiment with practices that help you digest and process the emotional stuff that comes up this time of year.
So, we’ve got a few suggestions for you! My father always says, “take the best and leave the rest.” Our hope is that as you read the following suggestions, you will take what works for you, and let go of whatever doesn’t. No pressure! So, without further ado, if you are interested in hopping in one of our float tanks and experimenting with this practice of helping unpleasant emotions process through you, I suggest these steps:
- Don’t go straight to emotional suffering – First, if unpleasant emotions are right there at the surface (e.g. if you’re feeling very sad, or angry, or upset) just see if the emotion and tension can hold on for a moment while you get in touch with something in you that can help it. Next, see if you can find what Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “the seed of mindfulness” in you. This may be a feeling of presence in you. Or, it may be a quality of curiosity towards your experience. It may just feel like a sense of openness. It may feel like a calm physical feeling or a non-judgmental attitude that you would take towards a beloved friend, pet, or family member. It may simply feel like an intention to be open to and curious about whatever arises in you. It may feel very weak, strong, or somewhere in between. Know that whatever you experience is okay. Just like there is no right or wrong way to float, there is also no right or wrong way to simply be curious about what openness feels like in you.
Now, when you locate it, just breathe into it and let it become as strong as it needs to be. Don’t worry if your feelings of openness do not feel strong. It takes practice. See if you can just allow yourself to use your breath and attention to water this seed of mindfulness in you. You can visualize it growing, but don’t try to hard. Just see what happens to it when you gently breathe into it. Give it time. The more you water this seed of mindfulness, the more this seed will grow from a tiny seed into a mighty plant or a deeply rooted tree.
2. Once you feel the seed of mindfulness in you, see if you can bring that energy to areas of tension in your mind and body – You might notice thought patterns, memories, feelings, or physical sensations. In your day to day life, you might feel accustomed to “coping” with such things by pushing them down, telling them to stop, or distracting from them. See if you can resist the urge to make them stop. Just agree that for this 90 minutes in a float tank, you will take advantage of this perfect space to simply give yourself permission to explore the things that you typically don’t explore.
- Thoughts: If you have a rampant thinker in your head, see if you can bring your attention to this thinker. Try not to judge it. See if you can care about this thinker in you and be its listening friend. I recommend saying out loud, “I am available right now. Is there something that you are wanting me to understand? Is there something you need? Is there something I can do to help?” See if you can simply pause and listen for a response. If, for instance, the voice in your head is running through all of the things you have to get done before your holiday, you might ask the thinker, “help me understand how it is helping you and me to think over these things?” It might respond. See if you can stay curious. You might find yourself in a conversation with this side of you. See if you can just stick with it and be a friend to think mental thinker in you.
- Memories: If you are experiencing memories associated with the holidays (or with anything), see if you can just watch the pictures that come into your mind. You can be curious and ask the picture, “is there something that you are wanting me to understand?” See if you can listen for a response. If the pictures are difficult, see if you can feel the seed of mindfulness in you. You might put your hand on your heart and say, “yes, this is difficult, and I am here for you. I’ll stay right here.”
- Emotions and feelings: If you have a strong emotion like anger or sadness in your body, see if you can, with the curiosity of a child, notice what it feels like to allow this emotional energy to run through you. You might wonder where you feel the energy in your body? For instance, it’s not uncommon to feel sadness in your upper chest and throat. It’s not uncommon to feel anger in your upper chest, head, arms, and hands. See if you can treat this like an experiment. You might think to yourself, “cool, this is me, learning what the pattern of tension associated with this emotion looks and feels like in my body.” If you feel the urge to move in some way, cry, or use your voice, you might just invite yourself to go ahead and do that!
3. Be inclusive and forgiving with yourself. Especially for these 90 minutes. You deserve it! – Keep coming back to the reminder that there is nothing bad or wrong about listening and witnessing the thoughts, memories, emotions and feelings that arise in you. In some way or another, they arise in all of us. And this is especially true during the holiday season! When your float is over, just let yourself know that you don’t have to distract from unpleasant emotions all of the time, and you don’t have to pay attention to them all of the time either. You can practice doing both. Most of us are better at practicing the distraction side. It takes courage and bravery to explore the unpleasant, and it can be very healing and stress relieving if you choose to do this in a safe environment like a float tank.
If you practice something like this again and again, you might notice that it takes much more energy to push unpleasant feelings away than it does to approach them and allow them to be a valid part of your inner experience. When the unpleasant sides of us feel attended to, they tend to become less intense. We hope you use the floating environment to take this approach for a test-drive and see if it helps you calm your holiday stress.
Many blessings from us this Holiday Season! We continue to love to share with you the many ways you can use the floating environment to support your wellbeing. Let us know if you practice something inside the float tank that helps you! We’d love to hear about it and pass it on!