Working with Difficult Emotions (Part II)

  Mindfulness practice is being aware of the entire spectrum of your experience in the present moment. An important element of this practice is being mindful of emotions, which means recognizing and fully accepting your present emotional state without identifying with or acting out these feelings.

This is challenging when we are experiencing strong emotions or desires because we have tendency to identify with these intense feelings. It can also be challenging because a particular emotion or mood may be so familiar that we fail to recognize it.

To work with emotions skillfully there are several things to keep in mind. Some of these “tips” are listed below.

1) Nonjudgmental awareness is the key to working with these difficult emotions. It’s also very helpful to name the emotions as they arise. See if you can name an emotion as precisely and as accurately as possible (without analyzing it) as soon as it arises. Develop a descriptive vocabulary of the full spectrum of your emotions.

2) Feeling an emotion fully does not mean that you must act it out. You can feel intense anger without striking out at someone and without suppressing your feelings. You can feel strong fear and yet still act boldly and calmly without suppressing the fear.

3) Emotions are based on perceptions. Perceptions are not reality. As is well known, ten people witnessing a crime or an accident will give very different accounts. In a court of law an eyewitness account is generally not considered to be solid evidence. If we see something that appears dangerous we will respond with fear even if the appearance turns out to be a total illusion. If I am in the forest and my eyes see a large bush but my mind perceives this as a grizzly bear then my brain/body will respond with fear.

When you feel an intense emotion it wise to feel it but to not assume that it is always reality-based. When sharing strong emotions with another person it is far better to say “I saw (or heard) X and now I feel Y”, rather than “When you did X it made me feel Y.” You can honestly share your perceptions and your emotions as your own without making someone else responsible for your experience.

4) It’s very helpful to be aware of messages that you received from your family of origin regarding emotions--especially those emotions that were taboo in your family. Usually a taboo is not recognized by those in the family: the forbidden motions are simply never expressed. If someone were to express this emotion family members might respond by shaming or punishing the individual or by threatening some form of punishment. e.g. “If you don’t stop crying I will give you something to cry about.” “Nice girls don’t get angry.” “Big boys don’t cry.” Sometimes the messages are more subtle--such as being silently ignored or shunned by parents or other family members. (That may be even more difficult to deal with!)

5) A feeling of safety is needed to bring healing to our emotional wounds. It’s very helpful to have a support system of some sort. This could be a counselor or support group. A trusted friend can be of help as long as he or she can be present to you without commiserating or trying to rescue you or fix you.

6) Find safe ways to express strong emotions. Find a way to release the energy in a non-harmful way. This could include weeping, shouting, pounding or kicking. It could also include journaling, voice dialogue, body movement and ritual.

7) Emotions have both a mental and physical component. That which we experience as an emotion is actually a combination of a mental belief/ perception combined with a physical sensation. If we practice mindfulness of emotions we can experience each of these components separately.

Imagine you are looking at a large ball of pink yarn from about ten feet away. As you move closer to the yarn and pay careful attention to it you might see that what appeared as pink yarn is actually made of interwoven red and white threads. (But no pink ones!)

To work with this experientially, let’s imagine that you feel very angry. If you can momentarily drop “the story” about what happened (i.e. let go of thinking about it) and focus completely on the physical sensations in your body you will begin to see the underlying mental processes without attachment to the content (i.e. the story) and without the reactivity.

8) Practice awareness of craving, aversion and delusion; this is the key to freedom from suffering. An intense emotion usually contains one or more of these factors. Craving is grasping—typically for something pleasant. Aversion is resisting or pushing away an experience—typically something unpleasant. Delusion is perceiving something to be true that is false, i.e. perceiving an illusion to be real. Blaming others or our life circumstances for our suffering is a common form of delusion.

By using this practice of nonjudgmental awareness of your emotions you will release craving, aversion and delusion and can turn a difficult emotion into a pathway that leads to awakening and liberation from suffering!