What is Underneath?

It started with a tweaked knee.

My winter livelihood depends on my ability to ski, so it makes sense that I would be anxious about my knee. My stomach got even more tense than normal, I was super restless during meditation, and my brain was full of worries and what ifs. The fear and anxiety took over.

“How are you?” people would ask. “Oh, I tweaked my knee, and I’m not really sure what’s going on…” It became my focus, all I could talk about, all I could think about.

But luckily I have a practice, and a teacher. My teacher recommended a noting practice. So I sat, and breathed, and noted where in my body I was feeling sensations. I got quiet, and was able to get really close to my present moment experience, and guess what?! I’m not really anxious about my knee. I don’t have fear about what may happen with my knee. The fear I do have is much deeper.

I’m actually at a crossroads in my life; I’m not happy, and I know I need to shift directions, but I’m not sure what that looks like and that is really scary. My mind and body actually think it is TOO scary for me to handle. But the fear has to be expressed somehow, hence the worry about the knee.

And this is not the first time I have “misplaced” an emotion. In September I sobbed in our hotel room as our vacation ended. Some subconscious part of me knew my relationship was ending, this would be our last trip together, but I didn’t want to voice it, so I turned the emotion on myself, and used it as an opportunity for self-criticism. Or there was that time I broke down because I hated the floor in my new condo when really it was about my fear of making a commitment to own property. Or in grad school when I thought my anxiety was about this group I lead on Thursdays, when really it was about the fact that I didn’t want to be in grad school at all.

This is such a common occurrence for me, and for most humans I think. We have this reptilian part of our brains that is trying to keep us safe, so it compartmentalizes or suppresses what it thinks we can’t handle. This part of our brain is so focused on keeping us safe from perceived external threats that it doesn’t think we also have the capacity to tend to our emotions.

In the holiday season I find the habit of not feeling our deep, authentic emotions to be particularly prevalent. For many of us, the societal expectations of buy/give/do seem quite strong, and it can feel hard to take the time or quiet to listen to what we’re really feeling. Our emotions can get triggered in different ways and it can be challenging to sort out what is coming from where. This can look different for all of us. It can be that we have to work a lot and are too tired to check in with our emotions, or we don’t work at all and have to cope with some loneliness, or we spend time with family. Whatever is going on can make it challenging for us to truly see what is underneath.

Sometimes, when we are around others we can take on some of their emotions. I was in the post office waiting for a package with about 15 other people. I watched people fidget and start to grumble and complain about the wait. I was able to observe in my experience when I started to take that on, and started to also feel some anxiety, even though I wasn’t in a rush and didn’t really care how long it took. This is just an instinctual human reaction, we pick up on the mood of the group so we can assimilate and assure our safety. But that doesn’t mean we need to hang on to it. We can let it go and get back to our own authentic experience.

Luckily, as my practice deepens, this experience is changing. While it still happens, I am spending less time on the “false” emotions and more time seeing what is truly underneath. These are the tools I am using to try to not get stuck in the stories my emotions want to tell me:


In my daily practice I am focusing my attention on the sensations in my body and noting where in my body my attention is drawn. (Stomach, nostrils, left foot, hands etc.) If I get pulled into worries, I bring my attention back to my body and notice what sensations are associated with the worry. Recently I feel a lot of my worries in my solar plexus. This then helps me throughout my day; when my solar plexus feels tight I know that means I am stuck in worry, so I can take a few deep breaths, relax my body, and check in with the worry. Maybe noting practice isn’t your thing, that is fine, simply find a way in your practice to be in touch with your present moment experience.

Checking in with Myself

Any time I notice I am feeling an emotion in my daily life, I take a moment to ask the question, “What else is here?” Like when a friend posts something on Facebook I don’t agree with, and I immediately feel tension in my solar plexus, which means there’s a worry. But, when I ask myself what is underneath, I find some sadness around our separateness, and some compassion for us as human beings who get attached to views. Sadness and compassion are my authentic emotions in that experience. It doesn’t take long to do this, sometimes only the length of a breath. But when I am able to let go of the surface story, and connect with what is happening underneath, I immediately feel more settled and authentic.

Checking in with Others

Throughout the teachings the Buddha makes a point of stressing the importance of wise friends. In the language of the Buddha, Pali, the term is kalyana-mittata. Whether it’s a meditation teacher, a mentor, a therapist, or some friends, we all need people we can check in with, who can help us see underneath when we are blinded by the surface stories. Yesterday, I texted one of my kalyana-mittata, because I was frustrated about how I am still grieving the end of my relationship, and she simply reminded me that it has been less than 3 months since the relationship ended. With that, my surface frustration dissipated and I was able to just feel the sadness and grief. And guess what? It passed through me in just a few hours, because I allowed myself to feel the authentic feeling underneath rather than staying stuck in the surface story.

Now as I care for my knee, I am not lost in worry, so I can simply take care of my body. When my worry does arise, I know what it is about, and I am able to tend to it by feeling it, and letting it be what it is, rather than masking it as something else.

About Kate

Kate Spina, LCSW, is a meditation facilitator at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, an Adaptive Ski Instructor, and a lover of the Dharma. She splits her time between Ventura, CA and Telluride, CO. Kate can be reached at [email protected] You may read Kate’s posts (and stay tuned in for more) by visit www.OneMindDharma.com/Kate.

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