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

Taking care of the minutes

‘If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.’

Tibetan saying

This saying from Tibet beautifully encapsulates the philosophy of mindfulness. When we find ourselves struggling in life, or we just have a sense of disquiet or unease, we might look for major changes, something which will really make a difference. And sometimes big changes are necessary – for example if you’re fighting an addiction and need to check into a residential rehab facility for months in order to establish a completely different way of life. Or we may retrain for a new career, or leave an abusive relationship, or move to another country as refugees or migrants.

Most of the time, however, it is the way in which we engage with the ordinary minutes of our day which will, slowly but surely, change the way we engage with life. The neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes it as turning fleeting mental states into permanent neural traits. Over time, something minor and seemingly insignificant becomes, if repeated often enough, an important part of who we are.

Imagine you’re sitting at your desk, and you’re about to get up to fetch a document from the printer. Instead of charging across the room while anxiously thinking ahead to the next task and simultaneously worrying about something from days ago, you pause a moment for a slightly deeper breath as you get up. You walk over to the printer more slowly than usual, noticing the ground underneath your feet. You’ve been sitting at your desk for a while now, so you take the opportunity to roll your shoulders back a few times, really feeling those muscles relaxing and letting go as you walk. You pick up the document and, back at your desk, allow yourself to savour for a moment the satisfaction of having completed this particular task.

Every time you choose not to rush, to instead use the present moment to ground yourself, you are stimulating pathways in your brain which allow you to become more centred, resilient, and calm. Over time, these passing neural states become your neural traits – they become the person you are. By taking care of the minutes, you are no longer buffeted about by every minor stress, but are able to feel strong and confident in the midst of the ordinary difficulties of your life.

Weekly practice idea:

Each day, choose one routine activity to do a little more slowly and mindfully than usual. Take the time to notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane