What Mindfulness Has Taught Me About Emotions
I have always been prone to melancholy. Whether it’s written in my stars, passed on through my genes, a remnant of my conditioning, or (more likely) some combination of the above, I have always felt it all. Grief, anger, longing, love – none of these have ever been foreign to me. I was the teenager who wrote poetry that would have broken a parent’s heart had they gotten their hands on it. I was the girl journaling about love at fifteen, and about despair just a moment later. Perhaps we all were. In any case, the full spectrum of emotions were familiar territory to me from an early age.
Yet the melancholy I struggled with simmered just beneath the surface most of the time. Only those who knew me well could sniff it out, aware of something deeper brewing within me. In my private world, in those hours just before bed, I felt it all. The things I hadn’t felt safe to express and explore with my family and many of my friends found release in moonlit hours. As I moved into and through university, my emotional realm became more complex. As I approached the end of my degree knowing that what I wanted to pursue in life had very little to do with what I had studied, I floundered. Feelings of depression and anxiety came and went, and in an effort to ‘figure myself out’, I traveled the Southeast corner of the world solo for 3 months.
Throughout that trip and upon my return home, it became apparent to me that I could not escape. I needed to look into what was weighing me down, and that’s when I first encountered mindfulness: Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are’ beckoned me from a packed shelf of a bustling bookstore. Everything changed from that point forward, but I cannot say that the changes always felt ‘good’. Things surfaced before being processed, often rising again and again until they could be gracefully released. Emotions grew stronger, calling me to change various thought patterns and behaviors that were no longer of service to me.
As I developed the courage to take a closer look at my emotions, my attachments to them began to shift. I started to sense their impermanence; even if they weighed heavily on me in one moment, I more frequently observed their transitory nature. Mindfulness was opening me up to a new way of relating to my emotions, offering lessons to be practiced for a lifetime:
Emotions are not shameful
One of the most powerful insights that came was the new understanding that raw emotions are nothing to be ashamed of; they are a part of our humanity. I began practicing self-compassion in place of judgment during tough emotions, honoring myself as if I were a child trapped in a fearful place. Mindfulness has helped me to witness shame-ridden emotions like jealousy and anger with less charge, simply casting light on whatever sensations and stories they bring with them. Rather than judging myself for experiencing the full range of emotions, I have become aware that everything that arises is natural and entirely human, and that we each have various emotional patterns unique to our personal makeup. When this is witnessed, these patterns can be unraveled like a ball of yarn, gently and gracefully overtime.
Mindfulness of emotions has taught me that whatever currents flow through me do not make me ‘good’ or ‘bad’; they make me human. As we open up to our emotions without inflating or deflating ourselves in the process, we start to feel a greater sense of love and acceptance for whatever we are going through. This love helps to heal our sore spots.
Contrary to popular belief, strong emotions soften when we turn towards them
Subconsciously, many of us tend to turn away from our challenging emotions. We might fear that they’re something to be ashamed of or that they might overwhelm us completely if we open up to them. Through mindfulness practice, I have come to understand that this is largely untrue. In each moment that I wholeheartedly open up to an uncomfortable feeling with compassion, I experience a dissolution of the heaviness. As I invite myself to honestly and simply be with whatever is present, a sense of release (or relief) surfaces. Stubborn thoughts soften (sometimes quickly, other times with patience), but in the end, things pass more swiftly when I honestly and mindfully inquire about their true nature.
It is important to note, however, that in cases of severe trauma, a slow and soft approach should be taken before diving straight in. Exploring loving-kindness practices is a gentle way to begin this work, as explored in this talk on trauma by Tara Brach.
We can be both with and apart from our emotions
And lastly, mindfulness has taught me that it is possible to both honor and be separate from my emotions. One of the misconceptions I held about mindfulness, in the beginning, was that mindfulness entailed becoming emotionless – that to be mindful meant I shouldn’t experience any ‘negative’ feelings. However, as I’ve deepened my understanding of mindfulness, I’ve uncovered the truth that under a mindful eye, things are neither ‘positive’ nor ‘negative’; we are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ for having a particular raw experience. I have learned that it is possible to experience heaviness and discomfort mindfully, maintaining some distance between the emotion and myself as the observer. In this way, I am better able to sit with my emotions – to be with them – honoring whatever it is they are here for while knowing that I am not defined by them.
So while emotions can be incredibly difficult, continuing to ebb and flow like waves, mindfulness has helped me to shift my beliefs about these mysterious energy patterns. As I embrace new understandings that emotions are not shameful, that they won’t take me down as I turn towards them, and that I can both honor them and hold them at a compassionate distance, I have become a better surfer of rising waves. While it’s not a picture-perfect process, it is an honest one – one that helps us to find compassion for our own humanity and for that in others. As we open up to ourselves compassionately in this way, we find greater acceptance for every step – every breath – of this wild and wonderful journey.
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