Emotional Mindfulness

Emotional Mindfulness

So in the last few posts, I have been offering tools and approaches to enhance present focus and mindfulness in meditation and everyday life. However, this begs the question, How is it that we have become unmindful in the first place? Why is it that “we all live a distance from ourselves”. Why is it so hard to stay present, even when the process of being “absent from the moment” produces so much suffering?

emotional mindfulness

emotional mindfulness

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers to this conundrum, I do believe that a basic understanding of some tenets of Buddhism and behavioral psychology (an unlikely pairing) may help shed some light on this issue.

In behavioral learning circles, there has been a lot of research to explore the phenomenon of behavioral avoidance in a variety of organisms, including humans. Critters of all stripes can be easily trained to avoid stimuli which, through associative conditioning have been associated with aversive or unpleasant events such as loud noise, electric shock and so on. Such avoidances, once acquired, can be durably maintained even long after the aversive event is no longer forthcoming (eg. shock is discontinued). Such empirical observations have been extrapolated to help describe , explain and even treat a number of human behaviors and symptoms including social and simple phobias, PTSD, OCD, etc.

The Buddha, in laying out the Four Noble Truths indicated that the principle cause of suffering is desire. It is my belief that one of the strongest and pervasive desires is to abolish or minimize emotional pain. Paradoxically, it is our very endeavor to decrease pain by avoiding the cues that provoke or are associated with emotional pain and unpleasant emotional experiences, that is responsible for so much of human suffering at a personal, interpersonal and even international level (more on the later in a future blog post).

The fact is, we are constantly leaving ourselves in order to not face any one of a huge host of unpleasant emotions, and sensations: boredom, shame, fear, loneliness, despair, anger, helplessness, hopelessness, insecurity, guilt, restlessness, craving and so on. Through a near endless array of internal (covert) and behavioral (overt) mechanisms we have learned to flee from emotional pain. In the book, “How To Lose Control”, I attempted to describe the many mechanisms through which we avoid exposure to uncomfortable feelings through internal defense mechanisms, drug and alcohol use, preoccupation with eating, shopping, cleaning, work, sex, exercise, material and monetary acquisitions, interpersonal control, overindulgence in technology (texting, video games etc. ), staying busy, relationship dependencies, to name but a very few. In fact, a tremendous amount of our time and energy is consumed by the endeavor to remove ourselves from emotional pain and the associated internal and external cues.

Therefore, until and unless we learn to become friends with the “dark emotions” and unpleasant feelings and sensations, true mindfulness will allude us.

Some steps to help foster emotional mindfulness:

1) label your feelings – the simple act of  labeling your current feeling state with some degree of discriminative specificity can greatly enhance mindfulness and help produce measurable degrees of neural integration (see below posts) https://blackturtlebooks.com/mindfulness-and-psychotherapy-the-mindful-brain/


2) Identify and focus on any unpleasant physical sensations that may be occurring in your body. Take some time to simply watch thee feelings or sensations.

3) Watch the conversation that your brain weaves around difficult feelings that you are experiencing. Your brain always wants to engage in dramas and stories. Feel the feelings but watch the drama. As noted in a previous post, the brain is a very sticky place and will want to ensnare you in its drama. When you are able, note the drama and observe it without getting in it. If you find your mind indulging drama, softly say inwardly, “drama”. And gently focus attention on where you are and what you are doing. For those new here, you may want to check out the post on the “Parade Metaphor” for more techniques on mindful emotional viewing. https://blackturtlebooks.com/mindfulness-exercise-the-parade-metaphor/

4) Practice emotional surfing. https://blackturtlebooks.com/integrative-mindful-exposure-emotional-surfing/ Emotional surfing is a powerful exercise in which you mindfully ride with emotional responses experiences. As you ride the wave of emotion you will see how quickly feelings unlock and morph into other feelings that were held down below them much akin to peeling the layers of an onion. By practicing this exercise, you will learn that there is nothing you need to do with difficult emotions. Like all other mental events, they simply come and go on their own All things are transitory. Nothing lasts. The irony is that the more we avoid difficult emotions, the more they linger. Unexposed emotions stay perfectly conserved and therefore stuck. Learn to “lean into pain” and you will find there is nothing to fear, therefore nothing to control. True control is requiring no control at all.

5) Ask yourself the question, when in the course of an activity or while contemplating an activity, “Am i avoiding an uncomfortable feeling by engaging in this?” Or, stated another way, If I wasn’t doing this, what might I be feeling?”

6) Expose your fears of losing control: Most of us are convinced that powerful emotions are dangerous and therefore in need of subjugation and control. We must learn to understand and expose these fears in order to relinquish control. More on this in the next posts.

By implementing these practices, you just might find that you are able to stay a little bit more present in the moment and in yourself.

All are welcome to post comments!!!!!

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • From what I have experienced going to a mindful counselor is that you should avoid your feelings by looking at the situation in a different way or putting a positive spin on the situation. I am confused about that since I think that is also avoiding your feelings.

    • mm
      January 18, 2014 3:13 pm

      Hi Janet: Many psychologists/counselors are trained in cognitive approaches to psychotherapy based on the assumption that irrational thoughts and/or beliefs serve to contribute to emotional difficulties or maladaptive behaviors. Perhaps that is where your counselor was coming from. Professionals versed in mindfulness based approaches or emotional exposure methodologies would more likely help their clients to more thoroughly bear witness to their emotional, physical and cognitive responses in a non-reactive manner. In my experience, so called maladaptive cognitions spontaneously self-correct as one directly engages their avoided emotional experiences. However, this is ultimately an empirical question and perhaps research will be forthcoming to more directly contrast and compare these various approaches. However, with a skilled therapist, there are probably great benefits to be gained from a variety of approaches. No one approach is best suited to all individuals so i would never say that one approach is inherently superior to any other.

  • I listened to your interview and really found the part about the empty feeling or “void” great. I have come to believe that the empty feeling is much worse than depression. I have faced it at various times and at various levels. I think it is the cause of many people’s problems especially addictions.

    I originally recovered from many things by discharging and facing feelings and “the void”. I have been involved in Re-evaluation Counseling (which teaches discharging your feelings) and even went to Primal Therapy a little. More recently I learned meditation and was in mindfulness counseling which really seemed refreshing since I had always seemed to be “in my feelings” which can be a difficult also. I really hit a brick wall with the mindfulness however, when I felt I was being encouraged to avoid my feelings. I felt like I had fought really hard to keep my feelings and didn’t want to detach from them.

    I think the truth, as usual is a balance of the two, even though sometimes they appear to be opposite. It sound like from what I have read, and haven’t finished the book yet, that you are doing both. It’s really exciting to me because I was thinking I was going to need to give up the mindfulness and it appears I can have my feelings, meditate and be mindful.

    • mm
      February 23, 2014 5:37 pm

      Those teaching mindfulness practice should never discourage students from facing any of the so called “dark emotions”. I believe it is possible that some professionals themselves may be afraid of leading people into these realms due to their own fears and misconceptions. Now it is true that some people may need some preparatory skills in grounding themselves and being able to modulate emotional experiences depending on their overall psychological vulnerabilities. However, for the vast majority, one’ suffering is directly tied to the degree to which we avoid these emotional experiences and therefore great relief is invariably realized when we embrace these experiences and learns for ourselves that no matter how daunting and painful these emotions and experiences can be, they are never dangerous. Very quickly, people can find equanimity and stillness, even as they embrace these difficult feelings. They come to quickly realize how transient and impermanent these feelings are once we finally “let go” and face them. IT is nature’s way after all!
      Thank you for sharing your courageous work. Best of luck!!!

  • Fighting numbness
    September 26, 2015 6:02 pm

    The article is fascinating. Thank you.
    I finding that I can now feel.and label my emotions but I will suddenly go numb. My psychotherapist

    realised this the other day and ask me what I was feeling. I have buried very dark emotions and been numb to get through life for so long that I have had to teach myself to recognise emotions
    My thought was to accept the numbness and then keep going back to these emotions again always giving them.permission to come out. Rather like gradually getting used to them. Ideas


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