Managing Overwhelm (I)
This is the first part of a two part article exploring ways of helping yourself when you feel that you are hitting overwhelm. While written from my experiences as an introvert, these techniques are applicable to anyone. We all have our limits. When we reach them if we are still called to act, we need ways to keep ourselves afloat and stay focused.
Here are some scenarios:
- You’ve had a long day, the conference has been very interesting but perhaps your stimulation levels have maxed out. Though you’d much prefer to retire to your hotel room, there is still the evening session to go.
- The party is still going strong. You’ve had a good evening, met up with a number of old friends, made some new ones but are feeling exhausted now. You’d like to leave, but your partner wants to stay a while longer.
- It’s been a day of hard negotiations with various challenges to deal with coming in from all sides, sometimes unexpectedly. You can see the end in sight, but you are not there yet. You are going to have to muster all your will power to stay with the process.
Do any of these ring true for you? I’d guess that within the outlines there is a seed of something that you have experienced. What do you do when mind and body are screaming “I want to leave,” but you know that the situation requires of you to hang in there a bit longer - and not only that, full presence is required?
In these situations we have two conflicting voices inside ourselves shouting for attention. On the one hand there is the body and mind that is exhausted and wants to go home to put their feet up, and on the other is the external situation that is demanding your undivided attention. While not denying your tiredness, and honestly responding to it where the need justifies, we need some way of acknowledging but keeping at bay the tired voice while allowing ourselves to muster all the strength that we can to be present to the task at hand.
When in such situations I have found a couple of practices to be of great help. They are both meditation practices and can happen without the knowledge of anyone around you, thus not getting in the way of what it is you are doing. In this context do not see meditation as something that happens in a quiet room while you are sitting on a chair or cushion. There can be that side to these practices, and we shall touch on them. Rather look on these as tools that you can take with you into the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Tools that take up no room, but are always with you.
In this post I shall look at the practice of “Breathing Through.”
With breathing through you are being purposefully present to the struggle or emotion that you are dealing with. When you feel overwhelm it becomes something palpable to your experience. As the sense of overwhelm hits you, imagine that you are breathing it into yourself through your nose. Breathe this overwhelm down into you and through your heart, allowing it to dissolve as it passed through your heart. Imagine your heart cradling and holding the pain and discomfort that you are feeling, and in doing so the tension and weariness that you perceive dissolves away. At times in doing this you could well notice resistance as you breathe in the overwhelm, the emotion not making it to your heart. This comes from our old habits, for example not wanting to deal with the pain or being use to calling it a day once the exhaustion presents itself. Acknowledge the resistance and breathe in the discomfort again. The capacity of the heart for holding pain is limitless. With time that which was difficult will become possible.
This practice allows you to increase your capacity to hold that which is difficult. It’s intention is not to make you like something that you previously disliked, though that may happen as well, but increase your capacity to be with discomfort. As that capacity increases so you will be able to give more of yourself to the party, meeting or whatever it is you are being called to stay ‘overtime’ for.
Time spent rehearsing this practice in quiet meditation can be very beneficial. Sit comfortably, whether on a chair or cushion, and bring to mind a situation that you have found uncomfortable. As you breathe in, breathe in that discomfort bringing it down to your heart and allowing it to dissolve. Again when resistance arises allow it to be there, don’t fight it, and return to breathing in that overwhelm. By spending your own quiet time practicing this meditation, you will be more familiar with the approach when the real life situation arises. As the Zen Master Thich Naht Hanh has said, “meditation is not an escape from life … but preparation for really being in life.”
In the next article we shall look at the practice of mindfulness and how it can enable the holding of discomfort.