Befriending our feelings – Part 2

We’d probably like to feel happy and upbeat all the time, but mindfulness is not about getting to some mythical state where we are always happy and calm. We can spend a lot of time and energy resisting our emotions, when simply being present with them for a while may be all that is needed. There are steps we can take to lift our mood, and if we find that our ongoing low mood states are really affecting the quality of our lives, it makes sense to get professional help.

Yet for everyday emotions, sometimes it’s most helpful to just feel them. Emotions are natural responses to the changing conditions of our lives. We put unnecessary pressure on ourselves if we feel that we ‘should’ be happy all the time.

One of the most effective ways in which mindfulness can be helpful is to feel the emotions in our body as body sensations. Our heart might be racing, or our chest feel constricted. There may be an ache in our heart centre, or butterflies in our stomach, or our forehead may be constricted and tight. If we tune into these sensations during meditation, what we often notice is that these feelings, and thus our emotions, shift and change all the time. Sensing the emotions in our body seems to ground them, and they become something we can more easily be present with. Emotions can seem large and overwhelming, but as body sensations, they never stay the same for long, and we can allow ourselves to flow along with them rather than wasting our energy trying to build a massive sandbank in an attempt to hold them back.

I find that staying with an emotion for a few minutes is usually enough. If there is a feeling of sadness, I try to make the time to simply sit with this for a few minutes and feel it. I can then choose to do something which I know from experience will lift my mood – perhaps go for a short walk, or play with the cat, or listen to some music. There may still be a residual sense of sadness, but I usually feel free to get on with the rest of the day.

Of course, sometimes we need a lot more than this – for a serious bereavement, or a clinical depression or anxiety disorder which may require professional help, and also plenty of time and space for healing. Yet there is value in befriending our feelings rather than declaring war on them, and if we can get into the habit of being more welcoming towards our wide range of everyday emotions, we are usually in a better position to deal with the more serious emotions when they arise as well.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a few moments each day to practise feeling your emotions in your body. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Befriending our feelings

In Christopher Germer’s ‘Five pathways to self-compassion’, befriending our feelings is the third step along the path. While it’s easy enough to befriend our feelings when we’re in a calm and happy frame of mind, this practice is asking us to become friendly with all our emotions, even the ones we find most challenging. To do this, it’s helpful to look at the role which emotions play in our lives.

Many of our emotions, especially the very powerful ones, are connected to the bonds we feel with other human beings. Perhaps we’re happy when we feel loved; we’re grieving when we’re parted from someone who is close to us; and we feel angry when we believe we’ve been betrayed in some way. Without emotions, we would be indifferent to our children, unmotivated at work; and whether we’re listening to a Mozart symphony or a chainsaw, it wouldn’t make any difference to us.

In this way, our emotions are really messengers who give us valuable information about what is happening for us. Theoretically, we could simply receive this information, nod wisely, and thank the messenger for keeping us informed.

As we all know from experience, it’s usually not as straight-forward as that. Our upbringing and the culture we live in determine to a large extent the approach we take to a range of emotions. Some emotions might be seen as valuable, and we might be encouraged to throw extra fuel onto these and perhaps even hold on to them when they’re trying to fade away. Other emotions might be regarded as so shameful, we can’t even allow ourselves to feel a glimmer of them. We might feel comfortable with more neutral feeling states, or we might become restless, becoming convinced we’re missing out in some way. Some cultures encourage the open expression of emotions, while other places consider this to be very discourteous to the people around us.

Emotions can also become so powerful that they take us over – when we’re highly aroused, the pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain which is important for impulse control, empathy, seeing the bigger picture and being less reactive, can go off-line. We see ‘red’, and might act in ways we later deeply regret. Rick Hanson calls this the ‘red zone’, and one of the key benefits of a regular mindfulness practice is learning how to live in the ‘green zone’, where we are in charge of our emotions, not the other way around. Next week, we will look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can help us engage more skillfully with our emotional states.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to reflect on your current relationship to emotions – either through journalling, or perhaps during a quiet time. What did your upbringing and culture teach you about emotions?

Anja Tanhane

Developing insight

‘The man with insight enough to accept his limitations comes closest to perfection.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Imagine walking around for days with a serious injury and not even noticing it. There is a rare genetic disorder called congenital insensitivity to pain, where this is exactly what happens. People with this disorder don’t feel physical pain, which sounds wonderful at first, but is actually extremely dangerous. As children, they may chew off most of their tongue, constantly get injured without learning from the pain, and spend a lot of time in hospital. Throughout their lives, they don’t know if they’re getting appendicitis or some other internal disease. People with this condition tend to die young, with their bodies in a terrible state after years of broken bones and other injuries.

Our challenging emotions are the psychological equivalent of the physical pain we experience – often unpleasant, sometimes so excruciating we feel we cannot bear it, yet on the other hand they are like a bell which alert us to what’s actually going on in our lives. If we try to simply ignore them, we’re like the person with severe chest pain who refuses to call for an ambulance and dies of a heart attack. Yet if we investigate our emotions, like a doctor who examines a patient with a set of symptoms, we can learn a lot about ourselves.

In order to investigate the emotions, we first need to have some space around them, which is where the practices of recognition, acceptance and investigation we talked about in the previous two reflections are important. It can also be helpful to talk to others, or seek some counselling. Once we gain a wider perspective, we can then ask ourselves – what can this emotion tell me about my life?

Sometimes there is an immediate, obvious answer – ‘I’m resentful because a colleague got credit for one of my ideas’ – and a deeper, underlying one – ‘I’ve always found it hard to assert myself’. We might notice certain emotional patterns, or over-reactions to current events, which stem from experiences in the past. In mindfulness, we try not to judge ourselves for having these emotions, but rather learn from them. We all have our vulnerable places, where something affects us more than we think it ‘should’. This is just part of our common humanity, and rather than judging ourselves harshly, we can use the insight we gain from understanding our emotional ‘symptoms’ to grow and develop.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down one challenging emotion you experience regularly. Then write about the ‘story’ behind this emotion. What can you learn from this story to help you in the present and the future?

Anja Tanhane

 

The practice of RAIN

Last week we looked at the advantages of listening to the messages our emotions might be trying to tell us, of paying attention to them rather than ‘shooting the messenger’. There are several approaches in mindfulness for dealing more effectively with our emotions, and today we will look at one which is taught by well-known meditation teachers such as Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, best known under its acronym RAIN.

RAIN is a four step process which can help us transform how we approach our emotions. Sometimes this process is best done with the support of a teacher or therapist, or, if the emotions feel manageable and we have some experience with meditation, we can also do this on our own. The four letters of RAIN stand for:

Recognition: The first step is to pause, tune in, and recognise the experience for what it is. We might be feeling unmotivated, and recognise that underneath our lethargy is a feeling of hurt and discouragement. Or we might be tetchy with our family, and when we take some time out we realise that an incident at work has left us more shaken than we realised. It’s not always easy to recognise what our emotions are, but over time, with regular meditation and other practices, we can become more skilled at this.

Acceptance: In some ways, this is perhaps the most difficult step. It’s natural to have feelings of aversion to unpleasant circumstances, including challenging emotions. Acceptance sounds passive, as if we’re helpless victims of our circumstances. In fact, it’s a very active way of engaging with our lives. Acceptance doesn’t mean we don’t work towards changing a situation for the better. But just in this moment, we accept the emotions we have – we accept that they are present.

Investigation: This is our opportunity to look more deeply into the emotion. In mindfulness, we do this by investigating our experience of body sensations, our feelings, our thoughts, images and beliefs. It’s not an intellectual or philosophical process, but rather one which is grounded in our moment-to-moment experience.

Non-identification: We have a tendency to over-identify with our emotions. I am a happy person. I am an angry person. It’s more helpful to say ‘having a thought that I’m angry’, or ‘feeling butterflies in my stomach with excitement’. Emotions come and go like weather in the sky – we are much more spacious than a temporary emotion passing through.

Processes like this take time, but it’s time well spent. Feeling more effective in dealing with our emotional life can give us a great sense of confidence. And gradually, as we get to know ourselves better, we can use this process even in the midst of a hectic day. ‘Ah yes,’ we can say to ourselves when a familiar emotion arises, ‘here it is again, trying to pass on its message.’

Weekly practice idea:

Take twenty minutes or so to use the RAIN process to investigate an emotion you have been aware of lately. Try to start with a low-key emotion rather than a really intense one.

Anja Tanhane

The guest house

‘The dark thought, the shame, the malice

Meet them at the door laughing,

And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.’

From ‘The guest house’ by Rumi

 

In his poem ‘The guest house’, the Sufi poet Rumi invites us to metaphorically open ourselves up to all visitors, just like a guest house which doesn’t get to choose who stays the night. Every morning, new guests arrive – ‘a joy, a depression, a meanness’; and he asks us to treat all of these unexpected visitors honourably, even if they ‘violently sweep your house empty of its furniture’. This poem seems to resonate with a lot of people, although on the face of it, what he is asking us to do appears rather strange. Why would we welcome dark thoughts, shame, malice? Surely it makes more sense to bolt the door against them and threaten to call the police if they don’t go away?

The instinct to protect ourselves against threats is very powerful, and our dark thoughts can pose a real to our lives. If we’re not able to deal with them skilfully, they can lead to depression, cause us to argue with those we love, or make us aggressive/paranoid/socially withdrawn and so on. Or we may project these feelings out, and someone else might become our scapegoat, forced to carry the burden of our shame.

Mindfulness asks us to see ourselves truthfully, to accept the full range of our thoughts, emotions, and personality quirks. This is an ongoing challenge, but fortunately mindfulness also enables us to better manage the challenge. Through mindfulness practice, we are able to create a compassionate space around our experiences, and this is really the key. Without self-compassion, we are likely to call the thought police on ourselves at the first sign of one of these unexpected visitors arriving at the door.

‘Treat each guest honourable’, Rumi tells us, ‘he may be clearing you out for some new delight.’

What are the delights of accepting ourselves more fully? What can we gain by engaging with those aspects of ourselves we’d rather turn away?

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when a dark thought or uncomfortable feeling arises, imagine you’re the innkeeper in Rumi’s poem, inviting them into your house. Does this make a difference to how you experience this aspect of yourself?

Anja Tanhane

 

Happiness in a minor key

Pink flowers

 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false and true;

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

(from When You Are Old, by William Butler Yeats)

 

To see the pilgrim soul of another person, to love their sorrows – we are moved by stories filled with sadness; we instinctively respect the dignity of grief; we have all suffered loss, and we know there are many more losses ahead of us, including, eventually, the loss of our lives. And yet, despite this, many of us feel we have to hide our sorrows, to be relentlessly upbeat, positive, great fun to be around. We all have different temperaments, individual ways in which we experience the difficulties of our lives. Sometimes we feel too vulnerable to show the world what’s going on with us, and the ‘sorrows of (our) changing face’ might be seen by only one or two people close to us. Yet one of the gifts of mindfulness for me has been to become much more comfortable with the full range of my emotions. Apart from sitting with difficult emotions during the formal meditation practice, I’ve learnt to allow myself to experience sadness whenever it arises.  Instead of chastising myself – ‘what have you got to be sad about, there are many people much worse off than you’ (which is quite true) – I can accept sadness as a normal part of any life. Continue reading “Happiness in a minor key” »