As a person who is often caught up in difficult emotions, much of my practice focuses on processing them. Before I started to practice meditation, I could talk (for hours) about my feelings, but rarely did I actually feel my feelings. Mindfulness practice gradually taught me how to feel, as well as some ways to cope with those feelings that weren’t about fixing myself or figuring myself out but were about a direct knowing, a present–moment touching of my emotions. With my teachers’ guidance, I intuitively felt my way into a process that I now see is essentially based on the Buddha’s Satipatthana Sutta (the Four Foundations of Mindfulness). Here he detailed the practice of mindfulness under four headings: Mindfulness of Body (sense realm), Mindfulness of Feeling Tone or vedana (reactive impressions of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral), Mindfulness of Mental States, and Mindfulness of Dhammas (impersonal phenomena). I found that Mindfulness of the Body is the fundamental tool for this practice, while the other three realms give perspective on what I discover in the physical sense-sphere.
When a difficult emotion is arising, the sensations give a clear, direct path to connecting with what’s happening in the present moment. My tendency is to go into thoughts like judging (I shouldn’t feel like this) or analyzing (Why do I feel like this?) or solving (How can I feel better?) I wind up stuck in my head and missing the actual experience. What usually happens when I think about my feelings is that the thoughts themselves trigger more feelings because I’m in conflict with myself, and I go deeper into a painful mood. Often when I’m struggling with sadness, the interaction of negative thoughts with low physical energy and dullness blossoms into depression as the blend of thoughts and sensations creates a kind of all-encompassing state, a mental and physical cloud that seems impermeable. By focusing on the body, I take myself out of the thought realm—there are no words in my body—and break this negative cycle.
Focusing on sadness in the body is challenging. The reason that I start thinking about my emotions in the first place is that I don’t want to feel them. The practice of mindful breathing eases this process. Instead of trying to dive right into the middle of the feelings, I start by feeling the breath, then gently moving my attention toward the emotion. This can be called “breathing into” as I follow the breath to the tender spots in the body where the sadness rests.
In this delicate process, mindfulness of the breath needs several companion practices. First is faith. I have to trust that I’ll be okay, that I can be with the feelings without being overwhelmed; my faith in the Dharma and in practice supports this step. If I trust in the power of mindfulness, then I don’t have to “solve” the emotion. I also need acceptance and forgiveness of myself so that I’m not judging my own feelings.
When I first started doing this work several decades ago, I was only aware of emotions in the most obvious places, the chest and belly; I still use those areas of the body as my first focus in this practice. As I’ve become more attentive and trusting, I’ve discovered that I can notice emotions in virtually any part of the body. When grief is arising, my throat constricts and my eyes swell as I hold back tears; fear can appear as tightness in the shoulders or streams of energy down the arms; excitement and joy might be surges of tingling through the back.
Another difficulty in being mindful of emotions is that, although the sensations are associated with the body, at times (especially with the eyes closed) they seem to exist in some slightly different realm—as if they are not quite inside the body, but around it. I’ve read or heard of something called the “emotional body,” and maybe this is what that term means. I don’t know if such a thing is “real,” but the concept helps me to understand what I am feeling, since the experience of emotions in the body can be so subtle and difficult to locate in space.
In any case, wherever emotions arise—whether “in” or “around” the body— one thing is clear: the sensations are always moving.
What I’ve seen is that one of the strongest factors sustaining difficult emotions, especially depression and anxiety, is the subconscious fear that they will last forever. There is something in our makeup that creates this impression, and it is one of the fundamental delusions the Buddha was trying to help us break. When I practice with emotions, I have to consciously remind myself that they are impermanent. This is stepping out of the realm of strict mindfulness, the direct knowing of an experience, and rather, reflecting on the nature of the experience. And this is the advice that the Buddha gives over and over in the Satipatthana—to contemplate the arising and passing away of all phenomena.
Once I’ve come to some balance around the emotions in my body, I can bring in the other realms of mindfulness to support, deepen, and sustain the healing. The Second Foundation, Mindfulness of Feeling Tone (vedana), helps me to see my experience less as a personal drama and more as an almost biologically triggered impulse. Again, going beneath the realm of concepts, vedana points to the raw effect of the emotion—its pleasant, unpleasant or neutral quality. In other words, it’s not about me, it’s just stuff happening. We’re way down in the lower centers of the brain here, where it’s all about the basics of survival. There’s no rationalizing happening on this level, and we can’t help our reactions. So the only way to understand the feeling tone of my experience is as something I can’t control which must be accepted. On one long retreat when I was becoming attuned, moment-by-moment, to the arising of vedana, my teacher told me that I was experiencing equanimity. At this level of awareness, I wasn’t moving into wanting or not-wanting, which is the natural reaction to experiencing pleasant or unpleasant feelings. Instead, by just seeing the feeling tone, I allowed pleasant and unpleasant to simply move through me with acceptance and mindfulness. This point of view has obvious benefits when dealing with painful emotions.
The Third Foundation, identifying mental states, is the way that I usually talk about my emotions, naming my feelings as anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration or something else. If I just do this kind of naming intellectually without the earlier steps of sensing in the body and recognizing feeling tone, it doesn’t help much. That’s because what I’m trying to do is clarify the karmic process by which feelings appear and disappear. When I follow sensations to the corresponding feeling tone and then name what is happening, I not only know what’s happening intellectually, I know it viscerally. Seeing this karmic process unfold is where insight arises—the process reveals impermanence, suffering and the lack of solid identity.
With the Third Foundation, if I add the word just to the emotion identified, I remove a lot of the sting—“just fear,” “just sadness.” And because I’ve deconstructed the emotion into its component parts of body, feeling and mental state, the name isn’t so threatening. It doesn’t imply some hidden monster; it is known clearly. Now that I know what it is, I can consider ways of working with the feeling that aren’t just reactive avoidance. If I see that I’m angry, I can breathe, relax, soften my heart, maybe practice some lovingkindness (metta). If I see that I’m inclining toward sadness or depression, I can try to activate energy either physically, with exercise, or socially, by connecting with a trusted friend; or I might choose to intentionally focus on something positive like gratitude, beauty or even my own positive qualities (if I can think of any in that mood). These “antidotes” don’t arise out of aversion, which would simply create more struggle and agitation, but out of the insight and intuitive wisdom that comes from watching the entire process play out.
The Fourth Foundation, Mindfulness of Dhammas or impersonal phenomena, supports this process by giving me the broadest view of what is happening. Here I can look at my experience through the lens of Dharma. I can put my experience in the context of the Four Noble Truths, watching the arising of suffering (dukkha), its cause, its end, and the way to its end; I can view an emotion as simply one of the Five Hindrances (desire, aversion, sleepiness, restlessness and doubt); I can deconstruct an emotion into the component Five Aggregates (form, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness). Once again, this view takes me out of the personal and into the universal experience of being a human with emotions.
I like to summarize the Four Foundations practice as, This is how my body feels; it’s unpleasant; I’m in a bad mood; it’s natural; and it’s not about me.
Once I’ve gone through this process—and it’s a process that might be repeated many times in a day—there has often been a shift, as simply approaching the feeling in this way has the effect of defusing it. I may still have the mood, but it’s often taking up less space in my consciousness as my viewpoint has changed from someone who’s in pain to someone who is observing the unfolding of the Dharma.
Finally, I need to move on and do and think about other things. If I spend my whole day trying to be mindful of my emotions, it can turn into a narcissistic and obsessive exercise. At some point I just have to say, “Okay, fine, I’m in this mood,” and turn my attention elsewhere. One of the advantages of a mindfulness practice is that I can actually learn how to do this, to control and direct my attention to some extent so that I don’t have to stay stuck in one experience or one viewpoint.