In a nutshell, we want to know when and how, to move away from experience.
We want to have the clarity that knows this is not right or good for me, as well as the self care that knows I deserve to not be in such a difficult or unhealthy and/or dangerous situation. Both these forms of Wisdom and Compassion need to be present.
We’re not talking about moving away from experience just because we don’t like it, or just don’t want to deal with it anymore. This is about experience that is so difficult for us that it overwhelms our ability to be with it.
Before going further, it’s important to understand what do we mean by overwhelm? It means that we are totally overtaken by experience and have no ability to step back and witness what is happening. For example, when we are so angry that we are just acting out the anger and have no ability to know, “I’m angry right now”.
Sometimes overwhelm happens within the events of our daily life.
These events could be chronic, as in starting to be overwhelmed with the difficulty of an ongoing relationship, or becoming overwhelmed by our job. They could also be more acute such as a conversation that has turned into something that is very triggering for us, or a situation that has started to become unsafe such as being at a gathering that, for some reason, has started to become unsafe.
In both cases, the number one thing is to know,“This is too much, I don’t have the resources to be able to be with this and not become overwhelmed”. Once we’ve become clear that something needs to change, then we want to employ something that will distance ourselves from the situation.
This could involve physically removing ourselves from the situation. Such as leaving a conversation that has become toxic, leaving a job, or a relationship that has become unhealthy or abusive. It could also be less drastic, such as taking in less world events with the news if we are starting to feel overwhelmed, or not hanging out with people when our experience has shown us that the conversation tends to become toxic.
Sometimes we can’t necessarily remove ourselves from a situation right away and so then need to find ways to keep ourselves as balanced and healthy as possible within the situation. Staying mindful and embodied can go a long way towards feeling OK in difficult situations.
Sometimes overwhelm stems from difficult thoughts and emotions that arise during meditation.
It can be a fine line between being with experience and being overwhelmed by experience. Really, each one of us has to know where that line is for any given experience. In general, if you are able to be aware of experience clearly (meaning, you can name it to yourself, like noticing, there’s a lot of desire in the mind right now) at least for moments consistently (not constantly!) during a sit, you’re probably not being overwhelmed by the experience. It’s when there are long stretches of time (over 5 minutes) where there is no awareness of the experience, and/or the reactions to the experience are really rocking your boat excessively, that you want to think about creating some distance, even temporarily, from the experience. The following is a list of things than one can do to distance themselves from difficult thoughts and emotions from the most subtle to the most gross of interventions. Always try the most subtle ones first and if they don’t provide the relief, then move to the more gross interventions.
--Clearly name the type of thought and/or emotion that is present. “This is fear”
--Consciously return the attention to the anchor (meditative object such as the body or breath)
--Give the mind more to do, like moving it between body parts and the breath
--Switch to the Metta practice
--Open the eyes
--Stop meditating, get up and occupy yourself with something else.
--Sometimes we can turn our attention to food and make use of the comfort that it can give.
--Call a friend
--Watch a movie
The last three items are really interchangeable. They wouldn’t necessarily need to be tried in that order. One might get up from meditating and watch a movie right away for example.
Also, one of these three may be better for one person. For example, due to difficulties with food, eating may not be the best choice, but talking to a friend may be better.