When something goes wrong and we feel disappointed, frustrated, jealous, hurt, or angry, we tend to experience the world the way Goldilocks did: as a place of extremes. Generally we either we want to blow the feeling up into an all-encompassing monsoon or shrink it down so small that we can wrap it in plastic and forget that it’s there.
I started thinking about this after having a conversation with one of my former clients who teaches yoga. A student in one of her classes interrupted the class to complain, in front of everyone, that my client was playing the music too loudly.
My client’s first reaction was to shrink-wrap: “What do I care what one woman says? I’m not the type of person to get upset by what other people think.”
But she couldn’t quite shake the incident and kept thinking about it afterward, going over and over it in her mind. The feeling then began to turn into a monsoon (I’m taking some liberties here since I don’t remember her exact words, but this was the gist of it): “I can ‘t believe she overreacted like that! What a cranky, unhappy person she must be to think that she can interrupt the whole class just to make her miserable point! This is the worst thing that’s ever happened in one of my classes. I’m so furious! I hate her!”
Neither one actually reflects the truth. The key to handling feelings in a way that leaves us feeling more serene, empowered, and confident afterward is to pay attention to them while staying grounded in reality.
In my client’s example, that means making space for the feeling: “I’m feeling really angry and hurt right now.” That includes actually feeling the emotion in her body and noticing what that feels like: perhaps a constricted throat, a heat in her arms, or a ball of energy in her chest.
Then she can slowly expand her awareness to everything else. It’s like when I had gum surgery and focused on what my feet were experiencing in moments when I felt anxious about what was going on in my mouth. There was nothing abnormal about my toes at that time; they continued to exist in my socks and shoes as always. Maintaining my awareness of my toes helped ground me. In this case, extending my awareness to my full body can help. I can focus on my breath as it goes in and out. My breath is not affected by somebody’s complaints. Nor are my ankles, my knees, my scalp, or my shins.
From there my client can extend my awareness to the rest of the world. Her apartment is not affected by the woman or her anger. Neither is her dog. Her relationship with her family is still just as fulfilling. Her friends were not affected, nor her love for them or their love for her. Her worth as a person and her value as a yoga teacher are also unaffected. And she still had the same hopes, dreams, and intentions. The world is still just as large, with just as many possibilities for happiness, contentment, serenity, peace, and love.
As she extends her awareness to the larger world, a spaciousness can open up. The feeling is still there. She can make space for it to exist. But because it isn’t all that exists, it’s more tolerable. She doesn’t have to fix it or make it go away. Like an ocean filled with waves of feeling, we’re big enough to contain all the stormy waters that move within us. By cultivating our inner spaciousness, we can help Goldilocks find the third bowl. There the porridge isn’t too hot or too cold; it’s just right.