A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how important it is to think about how we want to feel in life, so that we can seek out those feelings on a daily basis. I described some of the words that I’ve used in the past to describe how I want to feel: unstoppable, in tune, sparkle, etc.
This week, as I was writing out this Instagram post, I realized that one word has made more of a difference in my life than any other. It helps me through the worst attacks of anxiety. It strengthens my relationships. And it keeps me moving forward with my art practice and business. It’s not a word we might usually associate with strength and power but trust me, it carries plenty of both.
The word is softness and despite its unassuming nature, it has utterly and completely changed my life.
Softness vs. Hardness
Throughout all my reading about and experimenting with mindfulness, I’ve come to realize that the biggest obstacle to my happiness and success is hardness, a quality that I see as both resulting from and causing anger, frustration, judgement, separation, and fear. When I meet the difficulties of life with hardness, I am more likely to lash out - at myself and at the people around me - or to shut down. Hardness stiffens my mind and body, makes it hard for me to move, to see other options, and to be flexible or innovative.
With softness, on the other hand, I am more likely to see the world with curiosity and openness. I treat myself and the people around me with compassion - recognizing our flaws and mistakes and showing love anyway. I am more ready to accept whatever comes and work with it, instead of fighting and struggling and wishing things were different. I find much more peace even in hard times.
Softness Lesson #1
Softness has been hard to learn, and it’s hard to explain as well. One of my biggest lessons came when my partner made it clear to me that when I was stressed or upset the hardness that I brought to our interactions hurt him. For a long time, I thought it was my pain that was bothering him and thought that I had to be always joyful and happy for the relationship to work.
Eventually I realized that it wasn’t the pain that was causing trouble, it was my reaction to the pain. When I met my pain with anger, or tried to fight it, that energy would rise up around me and smack anyone who got close. It became clear that I needed to bring softness to my own pain so that I could offer it to my partner as well. But how?
I started developing an arsenal of techniques to help me find softness. When I was worried about something, I tried to pay attention to what was around me and find beauty. When I felt overwhelmed by emotion I tried deep, slow breathing to calm my heart rate. When I felt the urge to attack my anxiety with frantic action, I would whisper to myself, out loud, “You’re okay” over and over until I started to believe it. And when I was coming home to see my partner, I would think about how softness feels and try to embody it before I got there.
All these things helped, and continue to help. But there was an important aspect missing. With all of these practices, I was trying to change what was happening: in my mind and body and sometimes even in the outside world. And though the change was always a positive one, there was still an element of resistance to it, of struggle. And where there is struggle, there is hardness.
Softness Lesson #2
Another epiphany came at a meditation retreat last spring. During the question and answer period, I asked our teacher what to do when my thoughts get stuck on a problem and start spinning out of control. I mentioned how I would try all of the above techniques - thinking about something else, deep breathing, and gentle mantras - and how none of them could make the spinning thoughts stop.
She explained that the thoughts were my mind’s attempt to deal with a feeling that I was experiencing. My mind was trying to find a way to make the feeling stop. But the only real way to deal with a feeling is to feel it, and to see what it’s trying to tell us. She suggested that I get quiet and try to see what feeling my thoughts were trying to help me avoid. Once I found it, I could notice what it felt like in my body while showing it as much compassion as I was able. This new understanding might then lead to another feeling, which might start a whole new round of spinning thoughts. The key is to stay with the feelings, wherever they lead.
This is the heart of softness: not fighting or striving to control our experiences. Watching, accepting, feeling all the way through it, and letting it pass on its own. Because everything does pass, eventually. It is completely counter-intuitive and one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. But I can see it starting to change things bit by bit, day by day.
This practice reminded me of this quote from a Marie Forleo interview that I wrote down years ago:
“Just sit. Notice where you feel hard, and sit with that.
In the middle of that hardness, you’ll feel anger; sit with that.
Go to the centre of the anger and you’ll probably come to sadness.
Stay with the sadness until it turns to vulnerability.
Keep sitting with what comes up; the deeper you dig, the more tender you become.
Raw fear can open into the wide expanse of genuineness, compassion, gratitude, and acceptance in the present moment.
A tender heart appears naturally when you are able to stay present.
From your heart, you can see the true pigment of the sky.
You can see the vibrant yellow of the sunflower and the deep blue of your daughter’s eyes.
A tender heart doesn’t block out rainclouds or tears or dying sunflowers.
Allow both beauty and sadness to touch you. This is love, not fear.”
It’s not magic: it doesn’t make the pain go away. But when you remove the added struggle and tension, it does make the pain easier to bear. And often, allowing space for difficult feelings means that they move on more quickly than they would if I was struggling with them. This is absolutely not something I have mastered - it’s a lifelong practice. For now, I’m working on remembering softness whenever I can. And being gentle with myself when I can’t.
If you want to learn more about practicing softness and acceptance I would recommend reading anything by Thich Nhat Han or Pema Chodron. The book Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach has been the most detailed description of this practice that I’ve found. And I’ve been really enjoying working with The Mindfulness and Anxiety Workbook for Anxiety by John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Eifert. It’s quite repetitive but I think the repetition has actually helped me change the way I think, and it has some great exercises.