If you want to illuminate a person’s true colors, especially their relationship to control, put them in a room with kids. Someone can talk a good talk, but when they’re asked to communicate with kids, their true colors emerge and they either turn tight and rigid or they flow with the energy like someone practicing Aikido. Most people I meet fall into the former category, but when I meet someone in the latter I study them with awe and appreciation.

The person who shines most prominently in my mind is my friend, Lisa, who is more like a long-lost sister blessedly found along the shared path of raising kids. When I first met Lisa and I watched her interact with my son, Everest, I was struck by her ability to meet and follow his energy while simultaneously setting appropriate boundaries. I remember saying to her, “You have this amazing ability to say no (set a boundary) in a way that feels like a yes,” like when Everest would insist on telling her something while she was in the middle of a conversation with me and she would say, “Yes, Everest, I would love to hear what you have to say just as soon as I’m finished talking to your mom!” And perhaps it’s not even the words as much as the energy, for she would look him directly in the eyes with a big smile on her face and touch his arm with great love and tenderness. Children respond to this energy, and Everest would inevitably and politely wait his turn.

But she’s a rarity (and gift) in a sea of adults with whom I’ve come into contact since becoming a parent. Most adults I meet talk a good talk but when a child (usually mine) refuses to stay within the lines, the underlying habit of control is unleashed. Since most people were raised by adults who controlled many aspects of their life (as they themselves were raised by controlling adults) and then sent to school where the dominant ideology is one of control, it makes sense that most people treat kids with an attitude of disdain or control. And, by extension, they treat themselves the same way, attempting to control their own feelings, thoughts, and actions so they can squeeze themselves into the image of what they think they “should” be feeling, thinking, and doing.

We’re born naturally meeting life with healthy emotional responses: a baby cries when he’s hungry, tired or separated from his primary caregiver, she smiles or laughs when she’s happy, he expresses frustration when his skill level doesn’t meet his desire, they feel jealous when a sibling arrives on the scene, left out when someone gets to do something that they don’t get to do, they worry if someone doesn’t show up on time, they feel anger, rage, confusion, loneliness. These are all normal and healthy response to life. But somewhere along the way children learn to suppress these natural and healthy responses where they sink underground and emerge later as depression, anxiety, intrusive/obsessive thoughts and/or physical ailments. As adults there are endless ways to control or cover up the uncomfortable feelings of life, and this is why we self-medicate by overspending, overeating, over-drinking, over-sexing, over-thinking, and distracting ourselves with the media.These are all the ways that we deny our natural states and say no instead of yes to life.

When I say yes to life I don’t mean adopting a pollyanna approach where you believe that upholding a positive attitude will allow you to “create your reality”, thereby bypassing the uncomfortable and messy parts of life. In fact, the idea that you can “create your reality” reeks of control and doesn’t allow for the mysterious forces of spirit and soul that are constantly affecting and shaping our lives. A more realistic and simultaneously liberating viewpoint is that, while you can’t control life’s events, you can control how you respond to them, and when you say yes to life you’re saying yes to whatever comes your way.

Saying yes to life means saying yes to change. Saying yes to change means saying yes to the spectrum of feelings activated by change on both the ending side  (death) and the beginning side (rebirth): grief, uncertainty, fear, vulnerability, loneliness, doubt, confusion, discomfort, longing, joy, excitement, hope, creativity, laughter. Saying yes to life means accepting with eyes wide open consciousness that death is the only constant in life, and that this awareness engenders fear in nearly everyone. Saying yes to life means saying yes to the stuff that we think we shouldn’t feel, especially if we were move evolved, healed or enlightened.

I used to think that the point of spiritual growth was to eradicate fear, impatience, irritation, jealousy, envy and every other dark and “yucky” feeling. But as I read more from spiritually evolved people, I realized that it’s not the feelings themselves that should or can be evicted; it’s our reaction to the feeling and how much we’re able to contain it, breathe into it, say yes to it, and transform it into its counterpart. It’s as if embedded into each difficult feeling is the potential for growing into the opposite feeling: When we move towards fear, we expand our potential for courage, when we say yes to impatience, we grow our patience, breathing into irritation widens our tolerance, and so on. The difficult feelings are our greatest teachers, the alchemists chunks of coal that, when approached with consciousness, are transformed into gold.

Pema Chodron says it poignantly in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times:

When we first begin our exploration, we have all kinds of ideals and expectations. We are looking for answers to satisfy a hunger we have felt for a very long time. But the last thing we want is a further introduction to the boogeyman. Of course, people do try to warn us. I remember when I first received meditation instruction, the woman told me the technique and guidelines on how to practice and then said, “But please don’t go away from here thinking that meditation is a vacation from irritation.”

No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear. We are very rarely told to move closer, to just be there, to become familiar with fear. I once asked the Zen master Kobun Chino Roshi how he related with fear and he said, “I agree. I agree.” But the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, distract ourselves, but by all means, make it go away.

So the next time you encounter fear, consider yourself lucky. This is where the courage comes in. Usually we think that brave people have no fear. The truth is that they are intimate with fear.”

What would happen if the next time you feel something unwanted, you made a conscious choice to move toward it without judgement? You notice a desire to eat when you’re not hungry and instead of acting on the habitual impulse to reach for food, you ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now? Let me stop and check in to see if I can breathe into this feeling instead of running from it.” That moment is a miracle. That moment that you do something different and turn inside with curiosity instead of reach outside for temporary comfort is the moment you say yes to life and start a transformative process of reversing a lifetime of habit that no longer serves you. It’s the moment you become an alchemist by holding the coal-like feeling close, turning it around inside of you, breathing into it and all around it, touching it, getting to know it until… until… something releases inside and the feeling you’ve been running from your entire life turns to gold.


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  1. Hey. What a wonderful post especially because today I’m not really feeling all that positive. I would like to run from this as I usually have done in the past but I really don’t want to any longer. I would like to learn how to take the moment in and be still with it. I’m a over thinker so I hope I can eventually be still oneday soon.

  2. Sheryl- I love the opening to the article especially. Last summer some of my extended family came to visit with young children. My fiance was so incredibly patient with my (what I would call) hyperactive, demanding, and in need of discipline young cousins. He was so patient with them and my parent’s dog (a yellow lab puppy) that I had to sit back in awe and watch him as he held his ground with the kids by applying some light discipline but they still had fun and learned from him. I could not believe how good he was with kids and conversely, I could not believe how impatient I was! It really speaks to his character and his strength- he takes life as it comes, occasionally finding himself gripping for control, but usually quickly able to reorient himself to understanding that life comes as it comes. His patience is one of those qualities I both admire and find myself jealous of and a quality of his that I will hold onto for comfort as I am going through my own spiritual growth.

  3. What a lovely story, Blm, and a testament to your wonderful guy ; ).

  4. Jen: Your desire to changing your habitual conditioning of responding to thoughts and feelings is what will allow you to do so. It takes time, patience, and commitment, but it’s when you feel fed up with the way you’ve been reacting that you find these resources to make change.

  5. Once again, Sheryl, thank you for the beautiful post. I can’t believe sometimes how surrounded I am by reminders, such as your post, of the wisdom that we need to not push away our uncomfortable feelings, and how little I find myself putting it into practice when the moment presents itself. Everything I have read this past year has reinforced this message – I believe it, I internalise it, and then I completely ignore it when tested. This morning I awoke in the grip of fear and irritation. My wedding is in 1 week, and I awoke in the full flood of doubt and fear. And then I judged myself bitterly for not being rid of these feelings yet – for not having better control of my life!! And of course the spiral continued. I felt hopeless, messed up, wrong… I didn’t want to get up etc. And now, I read your post, and the passage from Pema Chodron’s book (which I only finished reading recently), and I can see that this morning was an opportunity to move into the feelings of fear and doubt and irritation and let them convert. Thank you for the reminder. I will pray that I remember it the next time these ‘unwanted’ feelings hit me. Just one question: what is you wisdom on what we do with judgment? Judgment is different from unwanted feelings, and moving into it doesn’t seem the best approach?

    • Great question about judgment, Carly. Yes, it’s not an emotion but it is a thought that says, “You shouldn’t be feeling this way. You should be over this by now,” and the work is to notice the thought but not believe it. Once you notice the thought you can ask, “Is that true? How does it feel to believe that thought?” (it will always feel terrible, of course, and lead to anxiety) and then see if you can bring in the truth to replace this false belief. You definitely don’t want to move into the judgment! But you do want to notice it and then try to shift into compassion, which is another way of saying to make space for whatever you’re feeling.

  6. This post illustrates a good lesson I learned this weekend from my five year old niece. My father-in-law (her grandpa) passed away this past December. This past weekend My husband and I were visiting his mom and the nieces happened to be there too. We were sitting in the hot tub where I was teaching Laura to back float. Her younger sister suddenly asked where the kitty was. Well, it turned out he had died the past week and their grandma told them this. Immediately Laura burst into tears. She sobbed for a full two minutes telling her grandma that she was sad about the kitty, and grandpa and her fish dying. Her grandma held her, told her it was ok to feel sad…she felt sad about grandpa and the kitty too. Then after a few minutes Laura stood up, came back over to me and said, “I’m going to dry my tears now. Will you help me float again?” She proceeded to float for the longest time up to that point.

    It was striking to see how clearly this illustrated the things you talk about on this website. And challenged me a good deal to see how moving towards a big feeling is such a healing thing. Whether five or fifty. I love how you point out that growth doesn’t mean elimination of these hard feelings, but rather changing our reaction to them. Something I always need to hear repeated and emphasized!

  7. Thank you for sharing such wonderful thoughts, I agree with you on saying yes to life and accepting as it is, I’ve been trying to do this and your story is a big support, bless your heart!

  8. I would have never thought about transitions this much before but today it really hit hard for me. Tonight is the last night that I am staying in the dorm room that I have called home for the past 3 years. I thought I would be so excited to get out and get my own apartment, and I was up until I had to start packing up my stuff. I started reminiscing about everything that has happened to me in the past 3 years and all of the people I have met and all of the experiences I’ve had. I had my wonderful boyfriend help me pack away my things, and even he felt sad that all of our memories from my dorm has to end. My boyfriend is so understanding and loving. When I broke down crying, he asked why I was so sad and all I had to do was say that I am scared to let go of something that I’ve had for 3 years and am scared of going into an apartment on my own. I started to doubt whether I should actually be moving out or not. He comforted me saying that we will always remember the good times we’ve had in the dorm but it is time to make new memories in my apartment. He reassured me that it’s okay to be feeling this sad because I am going through another one of life’s big changes, even though I kept saying it is silly to be sad over a dorm. So here I am spending the last night in a place that I’ve called home for 3 years and I am going to feel sad and grief for leaving this place, but I am saying yes to moving on to something new because after all that’s what I originally wanted anyway!

  9. Hui….tears in my eyes….thank you so much Sheryl!

  10. Hui….tears%20in%20my%20eyes….thank%20you%20so%20much%20Sheryl!

  11. What a great article written.
    Some great reminders in there. I especially click with the idea that the feeling holds the gift for us of feeling its opposite.
    When i offer my gift of space to the feeling(that it may get its time in the sun to be heard) its the intention that instantly puts you back on the right side of the fence.(dis identifying rather than identifying with the experience)You are enabling space ..that intention itself is a beautiful feeling to focus on and enhance.
    Also when you lose resistance to it and go in to it it just re comfirms that you are not the feeling but the one experiencing it…its magic how we can experience something but our souls be completeley untouched by it.
    Thank you for this and may we all focus on the gifts from our hardships and not just on the hardship.


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