Thoughts may not always be true, but emotion — now that’s an entirely different thing (or so we think)! Emotions must be taken very seriously. Emotions arise out of our lived experience, and thus must contain some fundamental element of truth. When we start observing our emotions however, we realize that emotions fire almost as randomly as the chatter we call thoughts. One moment we are flooded with icky feelings, suddenly back in a story from middle school. The next moment the channel changes and a new movie plays. For no reason, we find ourselves in a tsunami of bliss as the image of summer camp wafts into consciousness.
Emotions follow thoughts and are made of thought stories (that we believe) about whatever experience we are reliving or imagining. Our emotions are made of bundles of thoughts, and contain the truth that our thoughts have written. We relate to our feelings as fixed and entirely trustworthy entities, and yet, like weather moving through the sky, our feelings are often as unreliable and changeable as everything else our mind puts out. When we stop romanticizing our emotions, as fundamental truths that arise out of the all-knowing heart, we can notice them as another byproduct of our wild and temperamental minds.
Further complicating our ability to put our feelings in front of the witness, we believe that our emotions are fundamental to who we are. We think that if we feel sad, we are sad, if we feel unworthy, we are unworthy, and so on. The combination of our belief in the truth of our feelings along with our propensity to identify with them, makes emotion the hardest aspect of the mind to become mindful of, the trickiest play of the mind to get behind and see clearly.
In order to be mindful of our emotions, some part of us must have the ability to watch our feelings, be with our feelings, and feel for them, all without actually becoming them. Can we relate with our sadness without feeling entirely sad, be with our sense of unworthiness from a place that doesn’t share the unworthiness? This would imply that some part of us could remain separate from and larger than even our strongest emotions. You might ask, If I am not made of my emotions, then what am I made of? Yes, maybe I am not made of my thoughts, but how could I possibly not be what I feel? What else if more fundamental to me?
The process of gaining perspective on or unsticking from our emotions is further complicated by the fact that we are emotionally attached to our emotions. As a friend described, My feelings contain a piece of my heart. I feel like my feelings are my children, I guess I love them in some way. Noticing our emotions would mean that we would have to let go of them just a little bit, at least enough to be able to be with them. Being with our feelings can feel like we are abandoning our children, severing the merger between us and them. Indeed, this sense of loss can present a real challenge.
In truth however, we can best serve our strongest emotions by offering them our own kindness and compassion, and loosening our stranglehold on them (and thus theirs on us). In order to bring true comfort to painful feelings we have to be the larger parent to the wounded-ness in us, to be with our feelings, but not of them. We experience a deep sense of relief as we create a little bit of space between us and our feelings, allowing our feelings to absorb our company rather than our identity.
We want and need a separate grown up, a compassionate presence that can protect and lead us out of our suffering, even as our suffering is screaming for us to stay in it and as it. Sometimes, we need something or someone to represent a different possibility, to sit beside us and not be where we are. We can be that something or someone for ourselves. Our emotional pain, young as it often is, lacks the wisdom to know that we do indeed need to unstick from it a little bit, to be just to the side of it, in order to actually make it feel better. First, we must be mindful that such emotions are happening within our awareness, and second, we must bring our empathic company to that which we witness. Such company is a gift of kindness to ourselves, and not the abandonment that we mistakenly believe. This awareness is the more evolved wisdom that both blooms from and gives life to genuine wellbeing.
Mindfulness includes not just awareness of thought, but also awareness of our deepest emotions. At the farthest end, awareness can include even the very sense of the “I” who witnesses such phenomenon, but more on that later… Practice mindfulness — not only with your “What’s for dinner?” thoughts, but with the emotions that you feel most attached to and identified with. Ultimately, having some space between yourself and your feelings liberates you from the deepest bondage of the mind. The good news is that you can in fact feel your feelings, the energy that they contain, without actually having to be them or be swallowed by them.
From “Inviting a Monkey to Tea” by Nancy Colier (Hohm Press, 2012).