Diving Into Doing. Dealing with Difficult Emotions.

Last week I talked about my amazing uncle, Joe, and how much he has taught me about accepting emotions. Having experienced the loss of his first wife and now, as he lives with a fast-moving, terminal cancer, he is no stranger to ‘difficult’ emotions. It is not the emotions themselves that are difficult. Joe has taught me that all emotions are a natural and normal part of the human condition. Rather, it is how we often express and try to suppress these emotions that causes difficulty. Our society tends to regard anger, sadness, grief, etc as emotions that need to be removed or overcome rather than experienced in an accepting, healthy way. We are taught, men especially, that we shouldn’t ‘burden’ our loved ones with some of our most intense emotions.

Through Joe’s example, I’ve learned to become more accepting of my own emotions and the emotions displayed by my loved ones. It’s very freeing to express my emotions openly in front of my loved ones and ask for help when needed. However, there are times when I want to work through my sadness on my own. Before I spent a lot of time talking to Joe, I typically dealt with sadness by sitting in one spot and crying. I felt like I had to push aside my feelings until I could be by myself. Now, I keep myself active and engage in my emotions while I’m working. This, what Joe calls, ‘Diving Into Doing’, has proven to be a great help.

After Joe received his cancer diagnosis and the grim news surrounding it, he set to work building. He built beautiful benches, worked in his garden, set a stone path, built a pool, and worked on various projects until he was physically unable to build anymore.

One of the amazing benches he made. Picture by Joe

One of the amazing benches he made. Picture by Joe

This was not, as you might assume, an attempt to escape from his emotions or a way to busy himself so that he couldn’t think negative thoughts. On the contrary, he says it is a way to slow down time for attentiveness and acceptance. When the treatments left him winded and he needed to take breaks, then he’d reflect on the potential for his various projects, looking to raw slabs of wood or letting ideas about book chapters dance about in his mind. By focusing on a task, and letting our feelings ebb and flow naturally, our emotions untangle themselves unforced. Diving into doing becomes a way for even the most deeply buried emotions to work their way to the surface. Attentiveness is crucial for this process to work.

Attentiveness, as Joe explains it, is a “state of being that includes perception and understands the limits of it; includes thought and the limits to it; includes the mind and body as well as the understanding of how to utilize them efficiently”. When we are attentive, we do not try to change or force our will upon the outcome. He would look at the raw wood and see what was to be carved instead of trying to force a specific design upon a piece of wood. He would go to the garden and examine the soil and the surroundings and plant according to what he saw rather than deciding ahead of time what he wanted to plant. When I am attentive with my boys, I follow their lead in games and emotions, not imposing crafts I’d like to try or that I think they would enjoy upon them, but letting them show me how they want to interact.

Mindfulness is part of attentiveness, but it is more than just mindfulness. As Joe explains it, “it begins with the intention to understand and an acceptance that we do not know, really.” Like Joe, I practice both and each has their time and place. With mindfulness, there is still often the urge to change what is being observed instead of letting everything unfold naturally. I can be mindful in my interaction with the boys and still desire to shape their play in a way that will be, in my opinion, most educational.

At the same time, attentiveness is not about sitting back and passively watching the universe. When I am attentive with my boys and see that one particular action draws a smile, I will often repeat that action in an exaggerated manner if they seem open to that particular type of silliness. When working on his benches, Joe used his years of experience to know how to make their inner potential really shine.

With diving into doing and attentiveness, grief, sadness, anger, and other difficult emotions need not be pushed to the side until we are ‘ready’ to deal with them. We experience them as we work and they naturally flow through us. I’m better able to recognize the sign of a wave of sadness coming towards me and no longer do I feel swept away by my emotions.

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time outdoors, playing in the dirt with my boys and gardening. Joe often talks about the balance of life and death found in nature. Form decays, passes back, new forms grow, and it is all beautiful. We do not fear death in the fall or in our own gardens because we know it is a natural and normal part of life. As Joe often notes, the impermanence of life is one of the most amazing aspects. Same with our emotions. Our fear, anger, grief, sadness, etc may seem overwhelmingly endless in one moment, but it won’t hold us in a tight grip forever.

It’s now time for me to go out and enjoy the beauty of my garden.

As Joe says, “Up from the seat and into the day.”


  1. […] to death or dying. I’ve written about what he taught me about accepting emotions and diving into doing, but the greatest thing he taught me was about death […]