In meditation, we usually start with turning attention to the body – breathing, sitting, standing, walking, … As we experience the body in this mindful way, we begin to see some basic ways the body responds to what’s happening – some things are pleasant, some unpleasant, and some (possibly most) is a neutral blur. And we can start to notice some of the tendencies of how we’re wired to react to these flavors of experience – we want the pleasant and try to get more; we don’t want the unpleasant and try to avoid it, and we get bored or ignore the rest.
We are normally not conscious of this connection, and so we go through life on autopilot. And that’s not a problem, for the most part. If we had to analyze in detail every piece of stimulus to determine what to do with it, our ancestors probably would have been eaten by a tiger. Through the process of evolution, this amazing system of neurons and muscles and everything else has figured ways to outsmart the tigers and invent neat things, like the device you’re reading this on.
While it is important that we take necessary actions to stay safe and healthy, the body/mind system may be a little too sensitive to what it perceives as potential threats, and many of us go through life on constant high alert, never relaxing.
Wes Nisker writes,
Therefore we take our emotions to be self-generated and freely chosen. We mistake each emotion as “I” or “self,” and become completely identified and lost in it. We fail to see that emotions come with being human; that they have biological origins and important survival functions. We don’t realize that they are evolution’s emotions.Wes Nisker, Buddha’s Nature: A Practical Guild to Discovering Your Place in the Cosmos, page 121
Meditation and mindfulness are tools to become more aware of what these tendencies are. Wes explains it this way:
Most of important of all, the sages discovered that we do not have to be driven by these primal or habitual reactions. By brining more consciousness to the emotional process we can actually gain new choices over our feelings and behavior. We can free our hearts and minds—at least to some degree—from the chains of past conditioning, and can actually learn how to cultivate the more satisfying states of mind.Wes Nisker, Buddha’s Nature: A Practical Guild to Discovering Your Place in the Cosmos, page 121
So here’s a simple practice to work with emotions – see if you can name the emotion when you notice it. “There is anger.” or “Joy is arising.” This can help us create a bit of space, which can give us more opportunity to choose more skillful ways to respond.
Christopher Germer has a 10 minute guided meditation to label emotions, which you can read or listen to here:
Spoiler alert: Tomorrow, I’ll share another approach, based on the acronym RAIN. Stay tuned!
Do you have any tips or tricks for working with emotions? Drop a comment or send me an email!
With good wishes,