In my last post I talked a little bit about mindfulness, how it can help us in our busy lives, and how we can start to develop it.
Today I'd like to say something about how mindfulness can help with emotional pain, something that is all too prevalent in the modern world. Many people suffer greatly from anxiety, grief, regret, anger, worry, lack of self-esteem - the list goes on.
The mindful approach to working with difficult emotions is simple yet powerful. The key is to bring awareness and acceptance to our experience - in other words, to be mindful of what's going on for us. We are often very unwilling to look directly at our experience and see it for what it is; we have strong habits of avoidance, turning away from it, trying to distract ourselves or put on a brave face and pretend everything is fine when it isn't. Unfortunately, in the process we can end up compounding the problem - we become afraid of our fear, angry with ourselves for becoming angry, and so on.
It's important to realise that there are two aspects to any situation: the situation itself, and our relationship to that situation. If I stub my toe, my foot will hurt - that's the situation. But how do I react to it? Do I curse myself for being so clumsy, or wish that my foot didn't hurt despite all evidence to the contrary? Or can I find a way to recognise and accept the situation for what it is? In the first case, my relationship to the pain is adding negative mental activity on top of the physical experience. In the second case, there's just the pain itself - the extra burden of suffering has vanished, so the whole experience feels lighter and less difficult.
Paradoxically, bringing the non-judgemental awareness of mindfulness to our difficult emotions - looking at them without trying to change the experience at all - starts to shift our relationship to those emotions, and, over time, brings about a powerful transformation.
Working with emotions is a delicate process, and one that requires great care, patience and self-compassion. It can be helpful to think of the way you might approach a frightened animal - trying to be forceful will only make the situation worse. Being quietly, calmly present and allowing the animal to come to you in its own time is far more helpful. In the same way, we can't resolve our difficult emotions forcefully or instantaneously - we must work patiently and gently with them each time they arise, allowing them to change at their own pace.
Emotions can be powerful forces, and if we work with them on the level of the mind it's easy to get swept away. Instead, you may find it helps to work with the body. Each emotion is felt in the body as well as the mind - butterflies in the stomach, tightness in the chest, and so on. When difficult emotions arise, we can look at what's going on in the body. This allows us to turn towards the experience more easily, with less risk of getting caught up in the emotion.
Many people are not used to working with their bodies in this way. Some people even find that they aren't particularly aware of their bodies and can't feel much going on at all. The good news is that the awareness does develop over time, with practice.
A well-known meditation practice which helps to develop greater body awareness and sensitivity is the body scan. This involves moving the attention around the body from place to place, usually following a specific sequence. There are two body scan meditations - one 10 minutes long, the other 25 minutes - in the Audio section of my website. Give them a try!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!