How Mindfulness Can Help Us Better Manage Our Emotions
It's easier than you think to relate more skillfully and wisely to emotions
Posted April 13, 2019
From the vantage point of mindfulness, emotional states, although they can feel supremely powerful and consuming, are fleeting by nature. There’s a crucial, yet subtle difference between being the emotion, letting it overtake your identity in the moment, and noticing it merely arising inside you. Unfortunately, when we feel a strong emotion, we need to say things like, “I’m angry,” or “I’m sad.” This is misleading: You are not what you feel in any given moment, as distressing as it may be. It would be more accurate to say “it’s angering” or "it’s saddening.” Let me explain.
A metaphor in the literature is comparing our moods to the earth's weather. Just like our minds, on the earth it rains, then the sun comes out, then it gets foggy. There are many more changes and they will continue to flux and cycle. The key is that there is no inherent goodness or badness about each of the earth's weather states. Sunshine isn't inherently better than rain whether we prefer it or not; both sunshine and rain are simply passing states the earth cycles through. The same applies to inner mind states. Related, global warming aside, just like we do not control the weather, we don't control our mood either.
Don't believe me? Try to make yourself happy now. Now make yourself surprised. Unless you're super human, that experiment probably didn't work too well.
An underlying problem in our culture is that we've been conditioned to constantly seek pleasure and avoid pain, when ironically pleasure is temporary by nature and pain is inevitable by nature. Do you know anyone who has never felt pain? In this sense, we can help ourselves out immensely by not trying to hold on to pleasure longer than it's meant to stay, there by enjoying it more. Likewise, we can stop trying to avoid pain when it inexorably knocks on our door by embracing it as temporary without fighting or eschewing it.
The point is that emotions themselves, by nature, have short half-lives. When we tend to become mired in emotional states, if you’re mindful, you’ll notice that, just like a flame needs oxygen to survive, emotions, especially upsetting ones, need thoughts to fuel them. They need you to buy the storyline undergirding them to stay alive.
Returning back to the weather analogy, what's most important is our willingness to be awake and aware regardless of the "weather" state of our emotions. No matter what's going on, we can always tune into the vast awareness that lingers below; the background of our experience. I know this may sound too good to be true. But think about it for second; the last time you were angry, how long did it last? Happy? Sad? Upset? I can't repeat enough: emotions, by nature, are fluid and we have less control than we think. Yes, you heard right, they visit for a while, usually a short while, and then evaporate.
Staying in this evergreen, vast awareness of focusing on experiencing the body sensations the emotion, instead of trying to alter it if it feels negative, and sustain it if it feels pleasant, is what mindfulness and Ontological Being are all about. It turns out, this unconditional presence, no matter what our present mental state or weather, is always in reach.
By practicing mindfulness, we can train our minds to be less affected by the mind's current state, trust the wisdom of its temporary nature, and tune into its pre-conceptual, vivid awareness below. Unlike most of us who tend to become helplessly stuck in emotional states, practicing mindfulness gives you another option, you can "get off the ride" and watch the emotion unfold without trying to change it.
Dr. Tara Brach, a well-known psychologist and mindfulness teacher, offers a useful acronym to relate more skillfully to distressing emotions when they arrive. She calls it RAIN: First you recognize what is arising inside, then secondly set an intention to accept whatever it is, thirdly investigate it with interest and care, and lastly, nurture it with self-compassion. Her RAIN meditation can be especially useful in those distressing times we will all face.
In sum, by welcoming the weather of not only your mind, not that of your family, partner(s), friends, and colleagues, you can help the world not suffer unnecessarily and relate more skillfully to emotion. As your mindfulness practice builds, you will see the intrinsic wisdom of your emotions, which often provide useful information your body is telling you.
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With this attitude of unconditional curiosity toward emotion, you can see that they can be rich sources of growth too. Mindfulness practices foster your ability to observe and listen to emotions, tap into to their inherent wisdom, even the painful ones. Although fleeting, emotions often provide important information. Just like it tends to fog during winter, the anger you'll predictably feel when you are mistreated is worth heeding as wise information to guide your decisions. Even still, it will pass.
*This post is for educational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.