Two handy ways to look at “freedom” from a mindfulness perspective…
We feel something unpleasant in a given moment (e.g. a stubbed toe or a wave of anger). It’s the habit of the human nervous system to zoom in on the point of discomfort, excluding all else. As a result, we are quickly overwhelmed and seek external distractions (e.g. Facebook). A great deal of freedom can be gained over time by retraining the body-mind to zoom out, feeling into the space around the discomfort (whether emotional or physical). We begin to notice all the parts of the body which aren’t in pain. Generally, this diminishes the intensity of the discomfort, allowing us to stay in the present moment (and off of Facebook).
Another thing we might notice, in staying with discomfort, is that it doesn’t just get worse and worse forever. We tend to run for the hills at the first sign of unpleasantness, but all sensations come in waves; they arise, crest, and pass away. We can retrain ourselves to stay with unpleasant sensations long enough to watch them recede and disappear. This applies to addictive cravings as well.
In my experience, an individual wave of emotion—when I can feel it clearly—is never more than 20 seconds long. But the individual waves tend to be obscured because the next one arises before the current one has fully passed. So part of this training is learning to ignore the arising of wave B order to stay with the passing of wave A.
It’s sort of like following an ocean wave to the point on the sand where it just barely touches before receding, and then keeping the attention there, instead of looking out at the break, where the next new wave is already in the process of crashing. In this way, we can experience the holes between waves of unpleasant feeling, significantly reducing overwhelm.
This is an aspect of the insight into impermanence—is a bad day really “bad” all the way through, or is it just pockets of crankiness punctuated by calm? Is the process of grief an incessant flood of sadness, or is it waves of sadness and moments of peace? Even chronic pain comes in discrete waves, each of them ending.
If you’re saying to yourself, “I would use these tools, but pain doesn’t come in waves for me,” then I would suggest: it’s probably a clarity issue. Take a closer look. As usual, I’m not asking anyone to take my word for it. See for yourself!