Working with Emotions

To continue the thread from my previous blog, the simple definition of “mindfulness” is moment by moment awareness. It is a state of mind we cultivate that has as its core curiosity and self-discovery rather than criticism and self-judgment.

 In the practice of mindfulness we are interested in a non-judgmental approach towards ourselves, others and our life experiences. When difficult situations arise in our life: job loss, death of someone we love, physical and emotional pain, we practice taking a more friendly approach towards the experience rather than putting it “in exile”.

 This is based on the fact that part and parcel of living our life is that difficult situations and circumstances will visit us and along with these circumstances are uncomfortable feelings like grief, anger and shame to name a few.

 On my office bookshelf there is a quote from the novelist and philosopher Jean Paul Sartre which says “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you”. I love this quote because it tells us we are the architects of our own freedom. And since living means encountering difficult emotions and situations, we can experience more freedom and transformation from suffering if we learn how to turn toward our difficult emotions with acceptance. A sense of freedom and peace come as we accept them as part of our emotional growth and maturity.

 Acceptance means a non-judgmental willingness to let things be as they are as we become aware of them. We accept pleasurable and painful experiences when they arrive at our door. This does not mean we just submit to them or endorse them but that an acceptance of them precedes positive change in the way we work with them.

 Here is an exercise for practicing “friendly” attention to our experiences.

 Start by sitting in a comfortable position, muscles relaxed, spine straight and bring your attention to your breathing. Do not try to control your breathing, just observe it flowing in, flowing out.

Then think about a difficult situation you are facing or a memory that brings with it a strong emotion.

 We begin by feeling the emotion and only observing it and being curious about it. We take the attitude that it has something to teach us.

We notice what it feels like, for example: tightness in the chest or a knot in the throat.

Begin to simply breathe into the feeling, allowing yourself to “rest” in the experience without resistance. Remember we are not trying to “get rid” of it but rather transform it. We accept it is a normal human emotion and we change it by working with it in an open and friendly way.

If we get distracted by other thoughts we simply bring our awareness back to the feeling in the body.

When we feel we are “with” the difficult feeling, and not treating it as an enemy, we ask it a question as if it could talk to us. The spirit of this is how you might respond to your child if they were upset. You wouldn’t attack, criticize or condemn them. You would more likely just listen with curiosity and compassion wishing to help.

Next we bring our awareness to where that feeling is in the body and say to it: What do you need from me in order to feel better? Or what do you need from me to not be in such pain?

We then simply listen, without editing whatever thought rises up from the feeling we have asked the question of. It may be a simple phrase like: “Pay attention to me” or “please don’t ignore me”. If we hear nothing we just breathe and wait and continue to pay compassionate attention.

Then notice what the feeling is inside. You might notice the feeling has changed or gone away because of your caring for it rather than ignoring or denying it. You might notice there is more than one emotion present. If so we attend to that. If the feeling is still there that is o.k. too but perhaps you notice you are not dominated or controlled by it in your actions so much.

This is an example of how to work with emotions when difficult situation arise.


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