Many people in both short and long term recovery who begin a mindfulness practice, often struggle with emotions. Working with emotions can be extremely challenging, confusing, frustrating and even discouraging in the development of any meditation practice. As a culture, it may be safe to say that, we have declared a war against unpleasant emotions and difficult mind states, which only furthers our dilemma. In today’s world, we find rising numbers of people struggling with anxiety, depression and stress. These common mental habits are often accompanied by underlying emotions such as anger, fear or sadness.
Mindfulness is defined as the ability to objectively monitor the arising and passing of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, within the framework of present-time awareness. In essence, it is about training our attention to be present for what is. Breaking our addiction to thinking too much, about everything, all the time. Overcome the mental habits of “what if” and “if only,” by bringing awareness to them and unhooking from their grip. In fact, research suggests that even a daily practice of mindfulness of breathing, for just 20 minutes, can have a profound and meaningful impact on the quality of our mental and emotional health.
In the moments of our lives when we feel overwhelmed in association with these common mental and emotional experiences, we can become aggravated and disappointed that they are happening to us. People who’ve made significant progress in recovery rooms often suffer from the delusion that these experiences shouldn’t even be happening, and there is something wrong with them, if that is the case. In this way, we find we may have declared war against difficult emotions and mind states and feel as though we are bad or wrong for having them.
One of the bi-products in the development of Mindfulness, is Emotional Intelligence (EI). EI is the ability of an individual to identify, assess, understand and manage their emotions. By employing the direct application of mindfulness, we can gain better access into the nature of our emotions, and most importantly, begin to establish a kind and cooperative attitude towards all emotions. Let’s be honest, we all have emotions that we would prefer to not feel. Sadness, shame, loneliness and anger perhaps top the list for many of us. Sometimes we may find ourselves slipping into the dangerous trap of categorizing emotions as positive or negative. This only intensifies a tendency to develop an attitude that some emotions simply should not happen, and we often develop unrealistic and destructive habits and behaviors in a vain attempt to avoid or suppress the unwanted emotions, and the war goes on.
One thing we have learned from science is that you can’t selectively numb emotions. If someone suppresses sadness, they suppress joy; emotions are a fair and balance system. Either you have access to emotions or you do not, plain and simple. What type of relationship do we have with our emotions? Are we able to cooperate with emotions, or do we attempt to resist and avoid the ones we don’t want to experience? Do we have a constructive relationship or a destructive relationship?
A constructive relationship allows us to cooperate with emotions by identifying the emotion we are feeling as we are feeling it. By identifying the emotion, we are able to access it without engaging
in the mental habit, or destructive behavior, of to attempting to suppress it. For example, when fear arises, we may start worrying, and imagining, “what if”. By recognizing the emotion as fear, and allowing that emotion to move through the body we can be present for it. As we practice working with emotions in a formal setting, as well as in our daily lives, there are three things we may want to remember about emotions that can give us some relief while we learn to work with them.
1 – Emotions don’t last; they are all temporary. An episode of emotion is a brief, concise experience, that does not always fit our expectations. Most emotions last between one-twenty-fifth of a second and last no longer than a few minutes. If we can allow emotions to do what they do, arise and pass, we are well on our way to beginning to manage them much more effectively.
2 – Emotions are often difficult, challenging, and hard to bear. We all know that—it’s no big surprise. But when we experience the onset of a difficult emotion, we forget that it will pass, and we react. We often engage in relief-strategies that can cause more suffering than the pain or stress of the emotion itself. For this reason, it is very important to begin practicing kindness and empathy for ourselves as we learn to navigate our emotional landscape.
3 – Emotions are not a reflection of our value or selfworth. Emotions are impersonal. When we take our emotions personally, we suffer. If I am experiencing sadness, I may get caught up in a story or some form of historicization about a person who is sad, “why am I sad, who made me sad, I don’t want to be sad.” This ongoing self-assessment, criticism and judgement only makes matters worse. If we can learn to establish mindfulness and objectivity towards emotions, it will lessen the sting of self-centeredness. Instead of saying, “I am sad,” try saying, “sadness has arisen.” Emotions are simply something we experience as human beings; they are a natural, important, beautiful and challenging aspect of our lives. Our emotions can lead us to our greatest joys
and most painful sorrows. In their most creative capacity, they guide us towards who we truly are and what is most meaningful in our lives. At their most destructive, we are caught by them: lost in the grip of anger, sadness, fear, or overwhelm. This suffering is something we have all felt, but we can create more space, choice, and ease in the face of them.
As we establish mindfulness practices and begin to gain a better understanding of emotions we will learn to be able to choose what we become emotional about and when. We can learn to have some choice and discernment about how we behave when we have become emotional. As we learn to widen the gap between stimulus and response, through practicing mindfulness, we can have a constructive relationship with all our emotions. Cultivating and establishing emotional sobriety can put an end to the war we wage against our emotions, and ourselves.
Dave Smith is a Buddhist meditation teacher, addiction treatment specialist, experienced speaker, and published author. He is the guiding teacher of the Against the Stream Nashville
Meditation Center and teaches residential retreats, meditation classes, provides trainings and workshops in both secular and Buddhist contexts. Dave lives in Los Angeles, CA.
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