Practices for Difficult Feelings

Working with difficult feelings or images – Sandra Lee Dennis

Tara Talks: The Undefended Heart – Tara Brach

The welcoming prayer — Richard Rohr


How to Work with Difficult Feelings or Images



1. First, start slowly by encouraging contact with body sensations, feelings, and emotions as on ongoing practice. Spend five minutes tracking your predominant sensation each day. Once you sit down and turn your attention to your body and breath, begin by labeling wherever you notice the strongest sensation in your body. For example, “neck, knee, tongue, whole body, foot, belly…” might be one sequence you observe. You will see that new sensations arise quickly and flow through us constantly.

2. Then, once you are comfortable following your body sensations, begin to focus on one slightly unpleasant sensation at a time. Note characteristics of the sensation itself—shape, size, texture, temperature, color, or motion—not your interpretations of the meaning or cause of the feeling.  This practice helps anchor attention in the body.  Be open to and welcome the full range of emotions including rage, disgust terror, grief, despair and any unnameable accompanying sensations as they arise. This practice helps to confront prohibitions to the free flow of feelings that we may have repressed as a survival strategy in childhood, perhaps feelings frozen by early trauma.

3. The deep relaxation that can arise from sustained body focus sometimes encourages the opening of imaginal space. It may bring into awareness an imaginal counterpart of the sensation in the form of an image or sound or voice. Should inner visions arise to take you away from sensation, return your attention to the bodily sensations associated with the image. Breathe into the sensations, you may be surprised how the images changes as the sensations soften. Let the sensations move in and out with the breath.  Stay anchored in the field of the body to stay grounded and to encourage the integration of the image with your bodily sense of self.If imagery does not come, no matter, stay with the sensations themselves as a practice in allowing.

4. When difficult or painful feelings or frightening images arise, they may signal an emerging union of  opposites (love/hate, anger/fear, superiority/inferiority). These sensations can be framed as the deep heart calling for our attention. Go slowly.  Touch into the painful feeling or scary image on the in-breath, softening to the sensations.  On the out-breath, focus on any place in your body that feels pleasant to you. If you begin to feel overwhelmed, switch to a safe and sustaining image or memory, such as that of warming light. Or simply stop your inner focus for now.

5.. Next, you may want to examine your attitudes toward the most difficult feelings—lust, aggression, fear,  or jealousy, for example. As you become aware of the thoughts that go with the feelings, it will be easier to stay focused on the sensations. Do your best to drop the story-line that is reflexively interpreting, naming, analyzing why you are feeling this way. Analyzing is a sure sign that we have lost the thread of the feeling, this body messenger trying to reach us, and escaped into our minds.

6. Increasing awareness of the story we tell ourselves about feelings will help to not unconsciously identify with it and act out this old pattern.  (“No one loves you” or “you never do anything right,” for instance, may emerge to explain painful feelings of shame or fear).  We want to shelve the analysis and hone our ability to listen to the deeper currents these feelings carry. When, as is our habit, we listen to our interpretations from the past, we turn away from and betray our own truth of the moment arising from our body intelligence. The truth is we do not know what these feeling messengers are all about! Feelings are a mystery!

7.  Meanwhile, any time you feel on the verge of overwhelm, stop. Bookmark the feeling, memory or image and distract yourself for a while.  It will be there when you are ready to come back to it. Go for a walk, listen to some music, call a friend, have a snack.  Then come back and start again.

8. At this point, you may want to enter into a dialogue with the sensation or image asking if it has something to tell you. You can write out the dialogue or simply listen to the exchange in your mind. The patterns that give rise to our most challenging feelings are deeply rooted and unfold as we learn to bring them gentle accepting, even loving, attention. This is an art form that takes time to learn. Be kind and gentle with yourself and put any self-criticisms on the sidelines.

9. Most importantly, try holding a welcoming attitude to discomfort and pain.  Think of difficult feelings as messengers from beyond, signs that you are at the edge of your comfort zone where something new and wonderful can reach you.  In time, we discover that difficult feelings are our allies.  When we are ready to listen to their wisdom, they blossom into the flowers of compassion and kindness, strength and courage.

With this practice, we are inviting our natural resources and gifts to release from the grip of our unconscious fear of pain and discomfort.  Gradually, as we soften to our pain, our tolerance for previously unbearable sensations grows. We expand our capacity to live life more fully and openly, surrendering to what is, becoming a channel for the light and love and wonder.

Tara Talks: The Undefended Heart

The gateway to full intimacy and love is our capacity to open to vulnerability. In this guided reflection, we explore how bringing a nurturing, kind presence to the places of suffering in our own being leads to authentic, loving connection with others. To watch the full talk, go to:


The Welcoming Prayer — Richard Rohr

A form of Christian contemplation for moving into our fear, pain and resentments…


1. First, identify a hurt or an offense in your life. Remember the feelings you first experienced with this hurt and feel them the way you first felt them. Notice how this shows up in your body. Paying attention to your body’s sensations keeps you from jumping into the mind and its dualistic games of good-guy/bad-guy, win/lose, either/or.

2. After you can identify the hurt and feel it in your body, welcome it. Stop fighting it. Stop splitting and blaming. Welcome the grief. Welcome the anger. It’s hard to do, but for some reason, when we name it, feel it, and welcome it, transformation can begin.

3. Don’t lose presence to the moment. Any kind of analysis will lead you back into attachment to your ego self.  Hold the creative tension, but don’t ground it by thinking about it, critiquing it, or analyzing it.  When you’re able to welcome your own pain, you will in some way feel the pain of the whole world. This is what it means to be human—and also what it means to be divine. You can hold this immense pain because you too are being held by the very One in Christian symbology who went through this process on the Cross.

4. Next, hand all of this pain—yours and the world’s—over to God. Let it go. Ask for the grace of forgiveness for the person who hurt you, for the event that offended you, for the reality of suffering in each life.  I can’t promise the pain will leave easily or quickly. To forgive is not to forget. But letting go frees up a great amount of soul-energy that liberates a level of life you didn’t know existed. It leads you to Love, to your True Self.