69 – Sitting With Sadness

Buddhist teachings often talk about “being with our emotions” or learning to “sit with an emotion” but what does that really mean? What does that look like in our day to day lives? In this episode, I will discuss a recent experience I had with sitting with sadness.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 69. I’m your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m talking about sitting with sadness. If you’re listening to this podcast, it’s probably safe for me to assume that you’re also interested in the essential concepts of Buddhism, and how they relate to your daily life. One of the goals with this podcast is to take Buddhist concepts and teachings, and then explain them in a way that’s easy to understand, practical for everyday life.

In addition to this podcast, I’ve also written a book to help with this process. With my book, ‘No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners’, you’ll gain a fundamental understanding of Buddhism and how to apply the philosophies in your everyday life through a simple four-part structure, addressing the different aspects of Buddhism, the Buddha, key concepts, the Buddhist teachings, and current Buddhist practices, along with straightforward questions and answers that simplify the vital concepts of Buddhism into easy to understand ideas and everyday Buddhism sidebars that make Buddhism less abstract by offering down-to-earth examples from everyday life. Presented in a simple, conversational style, the information and guidance in ‘No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners’ provides the groundwork that is necessary for building or continuing your own Buddhist practice. You can learn more about the book by visiting EverydayBuddhism.com. Now, to the topic that I’ve prepared for the podcast episode toady, Sitting With Sadness.

Before jumping into this topic, I do want to clarify something. After my last podcast episode, Never Enough, I talked about the topic of emotional abuse in that podcast episode, and I received an email or a message from a good friend of mine, and she brought up a few points that were really important points that I wanted to pass along to anyone listening. I wanted to clarify this for this specific podcast episode that I’m about to talk about, Sitting With Sadness, but also any other past topics and any other teachings about Buddhism. My friend asked me to consider the following, that sometimes, the language and the terminology used in Buddhism may seem to encourage people to tolerate their current situations with words that are used often like ‘Acceptance’, expressions like, ‘Go with the flow’, ‘Let things go’, ‘Let things be’. These are never intended to imply that people should tolerate abuse in any way.

She went on to note that it’s important to understand that a great majority of people who seek Buddhism or Buddhist teachings to help address with their suffering are seeking these things because they’re going through something difficult. This was absolutely the case for me. I was going through a really difficult stage in my life, experiencing a lot of suffering, and that’s what led me down the path to research Buddhism, and to practice meditation. I want to clarify that while Buddhism teaches us to be introspective and to seek the source of our suffering within, it’s an internal process, it’s also important to understand that these teachings are also meant to equip us with a more skillful means of addressing our external sources of suffering as well. Buddhism is not about being passive.

It’s not about sitting still and allowing things to take place around us. It’s about not being reactive. It’s much more difficult for us to be skillful with our actions when we’re reactive, so one of the most important teachings in Buddhism is to help us understand where and how we tend to be reactive in our minds. Passivity is a form of resignation. Passivity can also be a form of reactivity, right?

It may be that our habitual form of reactivity to conflict for example, is to not say anything, to be quiet, and I say that out of an example, that’s the case for me in my own life. One of my strongest forms of reactivity was to avoid confrontation at all costs, and I paid a price for this in my own marriage. Four years into my marriage, this was a really difficult thing for us, because if there was anything that was going to come up that was going to cause conflict, I didn’t want to address it. My wife wanted to move at one point to live closer to her family. That was a topic I wouldn’t address.

I was very dismissive of the idea of moving, and in large part, I think it’s because I knew it was going to be a difficult conversation, and I didn’t like having difficult conversations, so my form of reactivity in that case was to avoid talking about it. Looking back now, I can see that that was a form of reactivity, so it’s my hope that these teachings and these concepts will feel more like an invitation to be more skillful with navigating the difficulties that arise in life, and learning to take skillful action to address her difficulties, because sometimes, having that difficult conversation, addressing the difficult situation at hand, that can be the start of a beautiful, new chapter in life, but in order to get to that, we have to address the situation at hand. We can’t sit passively and resign to the situation that’s causing us unnecessary suffering, and then just expect it to go away. For example, like I talked about last week, somebody who’s in an abusive relationship, their form of reactivity may feel like avoiding getting out of that situation. It’s very likely that if you are in an abusive relationship and you need to get out of it, you are going to have to weigh the price that you pay for staying and for going.

Imagine if you had children in the equation. That’s something that has to be weighed with leaving, and that’s not to say that you should justify staying in a harmful situation. What I’m saying is yes, it’s going to be difficult to get out of that situation, but that’s the only way out of it, is to go through the difficulty. Recognize, “Okay. We’re all going to have to make changes here. This is going to affect our children, but I simply cannot stay in this situation.”

I guess what I’m trying to really get at here and clarify is that Buddhism is in no way encouraging you to stick with your suffering, to sit through your suffering, and I want to talk about that because the topic of today’s podcast is sitting with sadness, but again, this is an invitation to be with a situation the way that it is with an emotion, the way that it is with the end goal of being able to be more skillful in how we handle that emotion. It’s not an invitation to sit with that emotion and be passive and never do anything about it. I wanted to clarify that a little bit more. I hope that makes sense based on last week’s podcast episode, any other teaching you may have ever heard about Buddhism that talks with words like ‘Acceptance’ and being like water, learning to go with the flow, letting things be. It’s never insinuating that external circumstances like being in an abusive relationship should be tolerated, and I hope that these teachings won’t encourage you to stick with a situation like that. What I’m hoping is that these teachings will allow you to be much more keenly aware of reality.

“What is really happening, and what do I need to do to change that?” That’s the whole point of this, is that by being more mindful, we have a much more clear picture of reality, and then, that allows us to be more skillful with that crucial question of, “Now, what do I do with it? What comes next? Do I stay? Do I go? How am I going to get out of this situation that I’m in that’s causing me suffering?” This is about skillful action, not about passive resignation, so I want to be clear about that.

If you guys have anything else you want to add to that, feel free to comment when I post this on the Facebook group or wherever you find this posted, or email me because I think this is a very worthwhile conversation that can keep going. What I want to share today in terms of sitting with sadness as an experience that I had, two weeks ago with my son, Rajko who’s nine years old now. For me, it’s important to take these concepts that are taught in Buddhism, but then, to actually explain, “How are these applied in normal day-to-day situations in real life?” I had this experience with my son that I wanted to share with you because for me, it was applying this in my real life. Now, in my case, I have younger kids, but I think this is relevant to any situation.

This could have unfolded this conversation, and how it went down could have unfolded with a spouse, or with a sibling, or a friend. It could have happened in a lot of different ways. In this case, it happened with my son. What happened is, it was bedtime, and most kids resist wanting to go to bed, so they have their excuses, and, “I’m hungry”, or, “Now, I’m thirsty”, or whatever it is. Several minutes into this process of bedtime, and by several, I mean like the other kids had all fallen asleep, my wife was already in bed, and I was just staying up because he tends to take a long time to go to sleep, so I’m sitting down on the couch, and then I start hearing crying, the sounds of crying, so I walked into the room and I said, “Rajko, what’s the matter?”

I’m kind of frustrated because by now, this is the third or fourth time I’ve gone in there, and I’m thinking, “He just needs something. He always needs something to avoid going to sleep”, but in this case, I walked in and I said, “Rajko, what’s the matter?” He said, “I’m just sad”, and I said, kind of frustrated, “Why are you sad?” He’s like, “I just miss our old house.” Then, in that moment, I thought, “This is one of those crucial moments where I often talk about learning to sit with your emotions”, and here, there are two emotions going.

One is that he’s crying, and may very well be that it’s he’s legitimately sad, but the other one is I’m sitting with an emotion of frustration. I want things to be other than they are. I want him to go to sleep, so I thought, “I’m going to sit with my emotion too, sit with this frustration and talk to him about this for a moment”, so I climbed up in his bed and sat down with him, and I said, “Tell me why you’re sad. Let’s talk about this a little bit.” As he started to talk to me, I’ve realized right away, he was …

This was genuine. He really was just sad because he was thinking about our old house, the house where he grew up, and he is very tender-hearted and very sensitive, so it made sense to me as he’s explaining why he misses the old house, and our big tree in the backyard, and the track we had around the house that he used to ride his bike. He just said, “I just want to go back to our old house”, and he’s crying, kind of uncontrollable crying at that point, and I noticed the tendency to want to dismiss the emotion, something like, “Oh, you don’t need to be sad. Think about all the toys you have here”, or something to divert that attention from his sadness to something else. I didn’t say any of that, but I thought it.

As I was thinking, and I was thinking, “Why do we do that? Why is there a tendency to shy away from these emotions?”, and I was very happy that I was able to think through this as this situation was unfolding with him because I was able to pause and see the reactivity happening in my own mind, my aversion to the situation. Then, my reaction to him was I said, “Let’s talk about sadness for a little bit.” I said, “Why do you think we feel sad sometimes?”, and then we started talking about that, and then I turned the conversation. I said, “Did you know I feel sad and I cry sometimes too?” He looked at me almost like incredulous, like, “What? Dad’s crying?”

I said, “Yeah. If I sit and I think about things, it’ll make me sad too.” I said, “For example, if I were to think about my home where I grew up.” I started describing the house in Mexico where I lived, and telling him about Sundays, my grandma would come over, and we would always have the big meal. Then, I started sharing stories about my youth and the house where I grew up. The funny thing is, as I’m telling him these things, I’m starting to feel a real nostalgia at that moment, and I started to feel genuinely sad too.

Then, I started telling him a few more stories about my grandma, and that triggered a memory of a time that my grandma was really sick, and she went to the hospital and she needed blood, and the only people in the family who had her blood type were my twin brother and I, and so we went in there and we gave her blood, and when she came out of the surgery and woke up and found out that she had our blood now, my twin brother and I … I think we were 15 maybe, 16 at the time, but we were both very adventurous, and by then, we were already into a lot of extreme sports. I think we had already been skydiving and scuba diving at a young age. You can do that in Mexico, but as she wakes up and she said, “Oh, I feel like I want to go skydiving”, and joking with us, saying, “Now that I’ve got your blood, I’m going to be more adventurous in life”, and then joking with us, “I think I can speak English now”, and she couldn’t. She could never speak a word of English, but it was …

As I’m telling this story to my son, Rajko, I’m emotional, and I’m crying, and I’m thinking back to these memories, and it was a touching moment to share with my son and to show him what it’s like to sit with sadness. Then, for a moment, we were both teary-eyed as we’re both recalling these fun memories of our past. Then, I said, “Rajko, it’s natural to feel this way, so see how just by sharing the story with you … Look at me. Now, I’m crying too”, and he just gave me a big hug, and I said, “It’s normal for us to feel this way”, and I said, “We feel this way because we cherish those memories.” I said, “What’s really important though is to understand that those memories that you miss, that’s happening right now.”

I said, “One day in the future, you’ll look back, and you may be sad, missing this house, the house where we’re living now.” Then, I said, “One thing I can promise you if you can remember this is that one day, you might be sitting in your bed, talking to your son or to your daughter about what it is to feel sadness, and you’re going to remember, hopefully, you’ll remember this memory, and you’ll remember the day that your dad talked to you about it, and you might actually cry.” There we were, sharing in this really tender moment, this … It was a neat experience to help him understand how okay it is to feel sad, so when I talk about the title of the podcast being, Sitting With Sadness, really, it’s that we’re sitting with whatever is. In this case, there was sadness, and we were sitting with it, and I hope that it teaches my son in the same way that it taught me in that moment that it’s whatever we’re experiencing is okay.

It’s just what is, and the whole object of learning to sit with whatever is, is that we can become more skillful in how we deal with that, like I mentioned in the introduction to this podcast, the ability to act skillfully with life as it unfolds. That’s really what we’re after here. That’s what we’re after with being more mindful. I think one of the greatest misconceptions about mindfulness is that it’s a form of passivity, or that it’s a form of just sitting with something until you’re okay with it, and that’s not necessarily what it is. It’s you’re trying to stop the reactivity because when you’re not reactive and you can see something for what it really is, an emotion, a memory, a thought, or a situation, a life situation that you’re in, you can be more skillful with the all important question of, “Now, what do I do with this? What comes next?”

I experienced this with my son the other night, just that brief moment of feeling reactive. I wanted him to just quit crying and go to bed, but I saw that reactivity in me, and I paused, and I said, “This could be a teaching moment to teach him that emotions are normal, that they’re healthy, and even if they’re uncomfortable, they can be beautiful so they can evoke feelings, memories that caused you to cherish the present moment with a little bit more tenderness than before.” I feel like with this experience that I had with my son, I saw that in him. I saw it in me as we were sitting there, talking. I was really cherishing that moment.

It was fascinating how quickly that moment went from being a moment of frustration, where I’m trying to just get my kid to go to sleep so I can go back to watching TV or whatever I was doing, switched to, “Wow. This is a moment I’m not going to forget. That little conversation that lasted 10, 15 minutes, I’m not going to forget that.” It’s very possible he won’t forget it. Maybe he will. He’s still young.

I don’t know, but I’m hoping that the lesson he learned that carries on with him for a while at least is that it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel sad, it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling, and to be able to sit with that emotion for a little bit and explore it, “Why do I feel this?”, “What makes us feel this way?”, and to feel hopefully that aversion that we seem to develop for certain emotions, I’m hoping he won’t feel that for sadness because of that one experience. I know in many instances in my own life in the past, sadness specifically is one of those emotions that we, it almost seems we have a natural aversion to it. We don’t want to be sad, so we try to divert our energy to something else, distract ourselves, and distraction from emotion could aggravate … It could aggravate the whole situation.

Why not just sit with an emotion? This is where it comes back into what I was expressing with the disclaimer at the beginning of this. If you’re experiencing a difficult emotion like a situation that you’re in for example, an abusive relationship, this is absolutely not an invitation to be passive, to resign. That resignation or passivity could be the very reactivity that we’re trying to discover here. You would want to be able to sit with that emotion, sit with that situation in the sense that you can gain a clear understanding, “What’s really happening here?”

“Why is this happening? Why do I tend to not be vocal and get out of this situation? Why am I not acting in a way that would remove me from this harmful situation?” You may find that it’s because your reactivity is passivity, or your habitual reactivity is to avoid confrontation, like I used to do in my marriage. Coming back to that topic, I used to really struggle with any difficult conversation I was going to have with my wife.

I would avoid it at all cost, and paid a heavy price for that. We really struggled, and at one point in our marriage, it seemed like it was all but over. We started going to marriage counseling, and what I learned was to communicate effectively. I learned that through the marriage counseling, but what I learned through practicing mindfulness and studying Buddhism was I learned that my form of reactivity was avoiding difficulties, avoiding difficult conversations in my marriage. That was one of them, so that changed drastically.

Now, it doesn’t matter what the topic is. If it’s something that needs to be addressed, I feel much more skillful with it. It’s not reactive anymore. It may be that I’ll have to give it some time, like I’ll write it out for myself and really think it through, and then say, “Hey, could we talk about something tomorrow night or right after dinner or whatever?” Then, we can bring up difficult things, and we’ve gone through very difficult conversations.

As a married couple, we were part of the same faith. I’m going through a faith transition in an orthodox or a fundamental type belief system, and I mean that in the sense of a faith system that is not flexible to say, “All paths are good.” When you belong to a rigid faith system that says, “This is the only right way, the only true way”, imagine the difficulty in a conversation to tell your spouse, “I no longer share this view”, that had I not already been studying mindfulness and learning to be skillful with my own reactivity, that could have been a disaster in our marriage, but it wasn’t because we were able to navigate that much more skillfully, so yeah. I bring this up because I do want to be very clear about the difference like I clarified back in the podcast. I can’t remember what number, but Acceptance Vs Resignation.

I’m kind of pointing to that again here in this conversation. Sitting with sadness is not a form of resignation. Sitting with sadness like the other night I was with my son, to me, that was a very skillful action that took place, a very skillful conversation that took place with my son that I don’t think would have been very doable had I not been practicing in my own life to try to be more mindful and to be more skillful with my own emotions and my own experiences. That’s the topic I wanted to share today in this podcast episode, Sitting With Sadness. You may be going through some kind of experience or situation in your own life.

Maybe it’s … It could be at work. It could be something related to the dynamics with a co-worker or a boss. You may be sitting with some kind of discomfort and avoiding the discomfort of addressing the discomfort. It could be happening in a relationship. It could be happening just with sitting with whatever emotions you’re experiencing, kind of like with what my son was experiencing.

He could have been taught in that moment to push away those feelings, “You’re not supposed to feel sad. Quit being sad.” That could have been the message, but that’s not the message that he got, and so yeah. I hope that this podcast episode and all future ones, and all concepts and teachings that you take from Buddhism or from podcast episodes that I share help. These will always feel like an invitation to learn to be more skillful with navigating the difficulties that arise in life, an invitation to be willing to take skillful action to address all of the difficulties, whether they’d be internal or external situations that you may be going through.

That’s the goal of this. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with this podcast, is these are just tools, tools to help you be more skillful with how you navigate life that’s … We’re all just navigating life, trying to do our best, and there are certain teachings and perspectives that could be powerful tools to help you do that, and that’s really what I’m after here. That’s all I have to share in this podcast episode. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others.

Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes. If you want to join the online community, you can visit SecularBuddhism.com/community, or we have links to the Facebook groups. If you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with this podcast, visit SecularBuddhism.com. You can click the Donate button there, or if you’re interested in learning more about the book that I mentioned above, you can visit EverydayBuddhism.com, and that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.