Toward the end of Richard Russo’s novel Bridge of Sighs, a middle-aged widow named Tessa Lynch recalls a wild ride on the back of a motorcycle. A teenager at the time, Tessa defied her parents by secretly consorting with Declan, a reckless, dangerous man, recently discharged from the army, who rode an Indian motorcycle. When Declan invited Tessa to ride with him, she eagerly accepted. And when he opened the throttle she showed no fear. In Declan’s eyes she was “a natural the way she rode . . . leaning into the curves instead of away, as you would if you were afraid.”*
In Russo’s novel, the act of leaning into the curves becomes a metaphor for a bold and open attitude toward life. In similar fashion, the meditation teacher Pema Chodron employs the metaphor of leaning-in to illustrate a way of dealing with fear, anger, and other destructive states of mind. Enlisting the Tibetan concept of shenpa, which she translates as “hooked,” Chodron advocates a three-step method, the first step being acknowledgment that one has been “hooked” by negative feeling. The second step is to “lean into” that feeling:
Step Two. Pause, take three conscious breaths, and lean in. Lean in to the energy. Abide with it. Experience it fully. Taste it. Touch it. Smell it. Get curious about it. How does it feel in your body? What thoughts does it give birth to? Become very intimate with the itch and urge of shenpa and keep breathing. Part of this step is learning not to be seduced by the momentum of shenpa. Like Ulysses, we can find our way to hear the call of the sirens without being seduced. It’s a process of staying awake and compassionate, interrupting the momentum, and refraining from causing harm. Just do not speak, do not act, and feel the energy. Be one with your own energy, one with the ebb and flow of life. Rather than rejecting the energy, embrace it. This leaning in is very open, very curious and intelligent.**
Having learned to “lean in,” to “embrace the restless energy,” we can proceed to the third step, which is to “relax and move on.”
As Chodron readily acknowledges, leaning into uncomfortable emotions is far from easy. It takes awareness, and it also takes practice. If, for example, someone unjustly accuses us, our habitual response may be to counterattack—or flee the scene entirely. Rather than remain “awake and compassionate,” we are more likely to blame the accuser and retreat into a “storyline,” in which others appear as vicious tormentors and we ourselves as virtuous victims. And what we resist or attempt to elude is not only the object of our fear or anger; it is also those emotional states themselves. Rather than encounter and attempt to transform their negative energies, we escape into self-exonerating fantasies. Hooked on shenpa, we inflict suffering on ourselves and others, while also putting distance between our abstract thoughts and our ever-changing feelings. We lean away from the reality of our lives.
Yet it is possible to do otherwise. Merely by stopping, checking in with ourselves, and bringing awareness to our mental states, we can begin to “unhook” ourselves from destructive, habitual responses. And over time the practice of mindfulness can also incline our minds toward direct contact with our inner and external lives. Reflecting on recent studies of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Dr. Daniel Siegel, a physician and meditative practitioner, offers this perspective:
One of the elements of research on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction that I find most impressive is the work that Richie Davidson and Jon [Kabat-Zinn] have done showing that even after one eight-week MBSR course, a “left-shift” has been noted, in which the left frontal activity of the brain is enhanced. This electrical change in brain function is thought to reflect the cultivation of an “approach state,” in which we move toward, rather than away from, a challenging external situation or internal mental function such as a thought, feeling, or memory. Such an approach can be seen as the neural basis for resilience. With a mindful way of being, you’ve developed your skill to stay present for what you might otherwise try to escape. From that point of view, diagnosis would be enhanced, because denial would be overcome. If you think about it, this is the mind doing what is most helpful for mind and body. Ignoring is maladaptive.***
Paradoxically, it takes courage to face one’s fear. For many of us, the “approach state” does not come naturally, and leaning into the curves is an acquired skill. But the New Year has arrived, and a resolution to lean into our experience, however pleasant or unpleasant, delectable or undesirable, is well worth considering. As New Year’s resolutions go, it is difficult to think of one more capable of transforming fear into fearlessness, anger into compassion, and habitual denial into wisdom.
*Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs (Knopf, 2007), 475.
**Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears (Shambhala, 2009), 40.
***”The Healing Power of Mindfulness,” Shambhala Sun (January, 2011), 49.