There it was, that nagging bright yellow Post-it note: “Call Sam.” Sam was my former landlord, and he owed me a rental deposit, a decent amount of money I could put toward a mortgage payment. It had been months since I moved out, but I hadn’t called, partly because Sam got angry so easily and partly because he had always made me feel like a six-year-old contending with the schoolyard bully. Just thinking about calling him filled me with anxiety.
Fortunately, after years of “riding the wave,” a technique central to the practice of Kripalu Yoga, I had learned how to sit with and explore uncomfortable feelings. As I thought about the phone call, I deepened my breath and felt the tightness in my belly ease, only to be replaced by a sense of nausea, which turned into a feeling of helplessness, then dread. As these feelings intensified, I consciously relaxed my body and decided to welcome whatever showed up. Suddenly a thought popped into my head. “You have a rental contract. You’ll be fine. Call him.” This was no earth-shattering insight, but I immediately felt relieved and comfortable enough to call and negotiate with a clear mind and a relaxed body.
For more than a year I had dreaded making a 10-minute call. But by riding the waves of discomfort I was able to access a sense of inner balance and take on a challenge with more courage and confidence. I’d often practiced this technique while doing asanas to fully embrace the present; using it in my daily life helped me cultivate a sense of equanimity and poise.
Waves of Resistance
When the going gets tough, the tough may get going, but most of us sidestep unease by distracting ourselves with anger, numbness, work, or substances that temporarily relieve the pain. That’s because we’re well versed in resisting the present moment, especially when it’s thick with difficult or unpleasant things.
Often you may feel this resistance as a wave of sensation and emotion. Some waves are small and mildly irritating. Others can feel like tidal waves, overwhelming you in a roiling pool of dread, fear, and anxiety.
When you start to feel this resistance, try to stay with it and witness the inner turmoil rather than get sucked into it. If you can successfully ride the waves of sensation and emotion, you’ll arrive at a state of compassion and wisdom.
So how can you move from fear and anxiety to insight and freedom? The secret is paying attention to sensations and the feelings that accompany them. Each time you focus on your breath, each time you relax and listen to your feelings, you open yourself to the present.
When you simply witness your feelings instead of reacting to them, you allow your life to unfold organically and you open a doorway to greater sympathy and understanding. Most important, you develop your capacity to be free in an often challenging and turbulent world.