Considering I had recurring nightmares as a child about being overrun with ants, I used to have a knack for smashing ants even more quickly than I did spiders. That all changed on the day I found an ant inside, trapped it, observed it for a moment, and then released it outside. The ant then went on its merry way, away from our apartment and back towards the wild.
In that moment, I was reminded of the true power of "Trap, Neuter, and Release" — a program devoted to resolving the problems associated with trapping and killing wild cats. Instead of killing feral animals (due to problems related to overpopulation), the program neuters and then releases back into the wild. Here is a related article excerpt which I think is relevant that I'd like to explore further:
"An estimated sixty million feral cats live in the United States today. Local animal control often try to eliminate them by trapping and killing. This does not work. Instead of reducing their numbers, killing makes room for new cats to move in and the breeding process begins all over again. So does the suffering.
"Half of all kittens born into these colonies die soon after birth. Their mothers spend most of their lives pregnant and hungry. Unneutered tom cats roam across busy roads seeking mates, getting in fights: untreated wounds can eventually kill them."
The above quote serves as a wonderful metaphor for discussion about compassion; however, I'm ironically not talking about compassion in relation to others nor animals, but rather, towards ourselves.
How often do we beat ourselves up over things?
Many of us carry regrets such as "I should have done this" or "I shouldn't have said that."
These thoughts are no different than the wild cats…
Some people might say not to worry about these wild thoughts: "Don't carry guilt or regret… because guilt and regret are living in the past, and I 'should' be living in the present." That's all well and good, but it doesn't acknowledge the basic fact that we're feeling guilt or regret right now. And that is the present moment.
The real questions are these…
How do we learn to release some of the guilts and regrets we have?
How do we learn to accept ourselves, even when we feel so completely unacceptable?
In the context of the metaphor… how do we learn to neuter those negative thoughts?
What I propose is, rather than looking at it from the perspective of accepting ourselves, or of not feeling certain negative emotions because we're not "supposed to," instead apply the "Trap and Release" to our thoughts. How, you might ask? Try this…
The next time you have a thought that isn't pleasant, observe it. That's it, just observe it. After a moment, let it go.
For example, let's say that somebody says something that hurts your feelings, but inside you know they didn't mean to hurt your feelings. You end up telling yourself, "I shouldn't feel hurt. I know they didn't mean it." The challenge we have with this way of thinking is that we end up judging ourselves ("should" is usually an indicator that you're judging) for how we feel instead of understanding it. This judgment ends up causing us to feel even worse about ourselves… after all, what's worse then feeling bad? Feeling bad *about* feeling bad!
We end up trying to "kill" the thought by fighting against it… but fighting against something only serves to bring on another fight. Every time we say "I should" or "I shouldn't" we are fighting against ourselves and only serving to reinforce and build up our weapons against ourselves.
Internally, this has the same effect as a country fearing war so they start a draft and spend more on defense. Then another country sees this, they become fearful, and they start building up their defenses. Eventually, there's so much fear and so many weapons that people not only forget the original reason why they were fighting in the first place, but if somebody even sneezes wrong it could cause World War 3.
So now back to an example with ourselves…
In that moment, rather than say you "should" or "shouldn't" feel whatever it is you're feeling or thinking, instead just accept the fact that you feel hurt without trying to change it. Pause for a moment and just allow without judgment.
If you feel you can't avoid judging yourself, then offer to give yourself a temporary "cease fire." Say to yourself, "While I am observing this thought/emotion, I choose not to judge myself. However, in another five minutes I'll let any judgments I feel come into my awareness." The point behind this is to allow yourself to be accepting of that thought or emotion you are observing, at least for that moment.
What is the point of all of this? Why "Trap and Release"? Another excerpt from the article…
"Our goal is to catch the adult cats, spay or neuter them and release them back to their 'neighborhood.'"
If you continue to observe each of your judgmental thoughts (we all have them, even if it's something as simple as, "I don't like the way I feel right now" or "I wish that person would talk less."), you will begin to see the thoughts as they are.
You will begin to understand that the judgments you carry now, the negative thoughts you have today, are many times not because of what's happening in the present moment, but because what's happening in the present moment is poking at something painful or upsetting from your past.
If you want an extra challenge…
After pausing, ask yourself why you feel the way you do or had the thought you did. From our example, you might ask yourself, "Why does this hurt even though she didn't mean to hurt my feelings?" Be honest with yourself in that answer, and again remember not to judge your answer but just to accept and observe it.
Logically, you know you are not hurt because of what this person said (since they didn't mean to hurt you), but that you're actually hurt because this situation reminds you of something in your past that hurt. Maybe you are consciously aware of this thing in the past which hurts, but more than likely, you're not conscious of it (otherwise it probably wouldn't hurt when an unrelated event in the future causes this pain to be brought back up).
Eventually through this practice, the "wild cats" (i.e. negative thoughts) come in, become "neutered," and then go back to their "neighborhood."
Any way you look at it, though, by trapping, observing, and releasing your thoughts, you are allowing and accepting the natural flow of energy instead of impeding it. By stopping the "fight" within yourself, over time you will notice a progressively increasing sense of peace as you become more understanding of yourself, your thoughts, and your feelings.
This happens because as you allow yourself to be as you are, warts and all, your need to defend yourself… against yourself… becomes less and less prevalent.
You will feel less and less need to build up your arsenal of weapons preparing for war, and instead allow the weapons to be dismantled and set aside. They're still there, but they're benign and ineffective.
Eventually so much so, that you're able to walk across the boundaries of the war zone, shake hands with those you once feared…
With yourself you once feared…
And relax in peace.