I was in a really classy independent coffee shop yesterday (OK. I was in Starbucks), pondering over what I wanted write about. Then, it came to me…in the form of scalding hot water.
So I had just ordered another of what I like to refer to as a “Duty Drink” (compensation for sitting there for 3+ hours, shamelessly abusing their banana bread and Mocha-Coconut Frap samples), and I was carrying my freshly-poured tea (the cheapest menu item possible) from counter to (...Milk Station? What do you call that thing? There must be a name for it. Any Baristas in the house? “Milk Station” it is.). Anyways, I’m carrying my tea from counter to Milk Station, and “WHAM!” Buddy in a hurry runs into me. Scalding. Hot. Water. All. Over. My. Hand. He’s like “I’m sooooo sorry!” I’m like Oh dear God. There is an electric sander going to town on my hand. I had a split second to refrain from screaming “M&TH@RF#*@ING S*#& B!@L$ AAAAAAAAAAAAH” and instead, I instead let out more of a laboured “IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII’M OKAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY….nnngaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh….” that, if I know anything about Emus (I know nothing about Emus), well, I’m guessing my non-convincing “I’m Okay” sounded like an Emu mating call.
But what I’m getting at here, is that my instinct was of course to impress the entire coffee shop with my extensive cursing vocabulary (again, I probably have Em to thank for that one), but the apologetic look on Buddy’s face (and the children…I thought of the children) prevented me from doing so. After I had assured the horrified onlookers that I was fine (Their skepticism likely emerging from the disparity between my watering eyes and rigid Jack-o-lantern grin), I decided this must have been a sign from the Universe to tell you all about Refraining.
Refraining is, essentially, what it sounds like. Holding back. Not doing. Going against your impulse to take out pain on Starbucks’ customers’ ears (They deserve it. Conformists–I kid. Note the irony), and breathing through it instead. Of course, the example I gave was one of physical pain, and what I aim to teach you today is about refraining when you’re experiencing emotional pain. When we experience emotional pain (anxiety, sadness, boredom, anger, guilt, jealousy, etc.), our impulse is to avoid it. To distract ourselves. We seek temporary relief in the form of indulgence, and in doing so, we give that pain more power over us. This is why Buddhists encourage abstinence from indulgence . It’s not because they’re uptight, judgmental meanies; it’s because they know much of the time our “indulgence” is sought as a way to avoid pain.
Now, as I’ve said before, I’m all about indulgence, fun, and hedonism. However, if your “fun” is because you want to avoid emotional suffering, there might be some space for refraining in your life. Think about times when you’ve felt a negative emotion, and you’ve stopped the pain using booze, drugs, food, sex, or some other form of avoidance. If we refrain, we try to find comfort in discomfort. We invite it in and offer it tea (with a disclaimer). We sit with it and feel it out. We experience it and send ourselves self-compassion in response. And then a funny thing happens. It starts to lose its power over us. That boredom, that anxiety, that sadness…it doesn’t seem so unbearable. It’s the reason those monks can sit for hours cross-legged. It’s not that they don’t itch, or they don’t hurt. But they refrain. My girl, Pema says, “Refraining is a way of making friends with ourselves at the most profound level possible. We can begin to relate to what’s underneath all the bubbles and burps and farts, all the stuff that comes out and expresses itself as uptight, controlling, manipulative behaviour, or whatever it is…[Refraining is] the quality of not grabbing for entertainment in the minute we feel a slight edge of boredom coming on. It’s the practice of not immediately filling up space just because there’s a gap.”
So the next time your feelings make you want to reach for the Crown, try hanging out with discomfort for a bit. You don’t have to be it with all afternoon. Just get to know it a little. See what happens. The Crown will still be there in 5 minutes.
And…always look both ways before migrating to the Milk Station (If not, this could happen to you!).