The most frequently asked question about mindfulness, mindfulness of emotions, conclusion.
I really enjoyed writing this second part. In addition to reflecting on the Buddha’s teachings, my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, and my own humble experience, I was also thrilled to dive into the more recent mindfulness-based psychotherapies. We live in such exciting times! My goal writing this piece was to provide healing advice for the wounded soul and crunchy facts for the geeki brain, while showing respect to the Buddha 🧘🏽♂️ (the mindfulness OG), and, last but not least, keeping things real. For good form, I also made sure to sprinkle the whole thing with plenty of emojis 😅. Looking forward to your feedback before I shoot the video!
The Most Frequently Asked Question About Mindfulness
After watching to this point, you may ask: “Brother Promise, mindfulness sounds great, but in my life, in my real life, in the real world, I have to think and plan. If I just live in the present, how can I plan my future?”
Just kidding! That's a great question, and there's a great answer to it, which is that mindfulness doesn't ask you to never think about the past or the future, but to anchor your mind in the present moment, and when you do need to think, to think calmly and constructively.
We tend to believe that if we think a lot, we must be intelligent, and if we worry a lot, we must be productive. But if we were to pause, step back, and look at our situation more objectively, we would realize that these assumptions are false. It stings to realize this, because we're so attached to our thoughts, but it's true. The majority of our thoughts are compulsive, and compulsive thoughts tend to create more problems than they solve.
One of the keys to a happier and more productive life is knowing how to think less compulsively and more consciously. Compulsive thinking is jittery, out of control, and destructive, whereas conscious thinking is calm, controlled, and constructive.
Just as a musician tunes her instrument to produce clear and harmonious notes, you can use mindfulness to tune your nervous system to produce clear and harmonious thoughts. By anchoring your attention in your breath, your body, and the present moment, you can use your mind in a way that brings more value to your life, your studies, and your work.
Please do not just take my word for it. Look at what researchers found.
A meta-analysis conducted by German researchers in 2022 reported that students who practiced mindfulness had significantly higher grades than those who did not.
A 2019 meta-analysis called
With a mindfulness practice, our mind becomes less of a compulsive tyrant and more of a calm assistant. We see that, most of the time, living deeply and meaningfully in the present moment is the best way we can take care of the future, and when we do need to think and plan, our mindfulness practice helps us do so more consciously and efficiently.
“Mmmmm…. That makes a lot of sense.”
Thanks for asking!
Mindfulness of Emotions
Before I share how mindfulness can help us manage painful emotions, I want to provide some context by saying three important things.
First, it's okay to be human. We all experience painful emotions from time to time. At least I do. In today's busy world, so many of us lack opportunities for real, emotionally vulnerable conversations and are under the impression that we're the only person who feels what we feel. We are like a frog in its well who has never visited the wells of other frogs, and we take our emotional life way too personally. Everyone has some suffering. This is bad news, of course, but it is also good news because it means that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you and that you are not alone.
Second, please take a holistic approach to your mental health. Wellness is multifactorial, and you don't want to rely only on your mindfulness practice to prevent and manage difficult emotions. Meaningful human connections, getting enough sleep at night, physical activity, time in nature, wise media consumption, and other practices in the Daily Wellness Empowerment Program all contribute to a much more pleasant emotional landscape, so please make full use of all of them.
And third is, please practice mindfulness as a way of life, not as a quick fix. Practice sitting meditation, breathing breaks, mindful walking, and try to live each moment as mindfully as you can, so that, when an emotion comes up, you will have more mindfulness energy to embrace it. Mindfulness is not a quick-fix tool to pull out of your pocket when, as the poets say, shit hits the fan. Mindfulness is a way of life.
The River Metaphor
With these three things being said, when an emotion comes up, you want to come back to your breath and look at your emotion from a spacious and kind awareness.
Imagine you are drowning in the middle of a river. You’re in the dark. You can’t breathe. So you push yourself to the surface, you catch your breath, and you swim to the bank of the river. From the bank, you look at the river. The river is still turbulent and murky, but you’ve made it to safety. And gradually the river becomes calmer and clearer.
This was a metaphor. The river represents your emotion. The breath is your mindfulness of breathing. And the bank is your spacious and kind awareness.
When we experience a strong emotion, we get entangled in our thoughts — we get sucked into them, and we don’t have much space for anything else. Steven C. Hayes, a professor of clinical psychology and the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, calls this “cognitive fusion”. When we are “fused” with our thoughts, psychologically, we drown.
To “defuse”, to push yourself back to reality, I encourage you to first get in touch with your breath. Close your mouth, and give all your attention to the sensations of your breath naturally coming in and naturally going out. Be present to the breath, and patient with the breath. Stay with the sensations of your natural breath, breath after breath after breath.
Once your attention is stably established on your breath, notice other sensations going on in your body: is your forehead strained? Are your eyes watering? Do you have a lump in your throat? Are your shoulders tense? Are your fists clenched? Is your heart racing? Is your stomach upset? Is your belly tight? Are your legs shaking? Are you feeling particularly hot or cold anywhere in your body? Observe your physical sensations as they are, and see how they are in a state of flux, changing. Allow all of your sensations to flow, and, if they want to, to relax.
Then, notice the thoughts that pass through your mind. Whatever their content may be, see each thought as just that — a thought. A thought comes, stays for a while, and goes. Another thought comes, stays for a while, and goes. Observe how thoughts want to pull your attention in, and instead of being drawn into their content, simply be aware of the thoughts for what they are: thoughts. Instead of trying to control the thoughts, let them come and go naturally. Instead of identifying with the thoughts, be the spacious, light, and kind awareness in which everything comes and goes.
This spacious and kind awareness is your safe bank. Turbulent sensations and murky thoughts are still flowing, but you are no longer drowning in them. In this spacious and kind awareness, you are in touch with the fullness of the present moment, and you have more freedom to decide what you would like to do from there. Practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy call this “psychological flexibility”. The emotion may still be there, but you are no longer drowning in it. You are more open, aware, and meaningfully engaged with reality.
Another Way to Relate to Emotions
Without mindfulness, we tend to either
totally identify with the emotion, act on it automatically, and feel regret, or,
discriminate against the emotion, suppress it, and feel stressed.
We may want to reflect,
How many times have I been carried away by my emotion, and how well has it worked for me?
How many times have I suppressed my emotion, and how did that make me feel?
Is there a better way I can experiment with?
Yes, there is. The mindful way encourages us to relate to our emotions with more inner space, kindness, and awareness. We know the emotion is there, and we acknowledge it for what it is, without the urge to act on it, change it, or get rid of it.
Being aware of how we're feeling when we're feeling it is the foundation of emotional intelligence and a key condition for happiness. In psychology, this is known as “affect labeling”. When we're sad, we recognize that sadness is there. When we're angry, we recognize that anger is there. When we're desirous, anxious, irritated, frustrated, or confused, we know that desire, anxiety, irritation, frustration, or confusion is there. We want to be able to mentally call each of our emotions by its name. Studies show that simply naming our painful emotion can slightly reduce its intensity and duration and help us make better decisions.
Without self-awareness, we are like a drunk person who thinks, “I’m not drunk. I can drive!” We drive through life, we drive through our relationships, under the influence of craving, anger, and confusion… and we get into a lot of accidents. So when we experience a strong emotion, the strict minimum is to acknowledge it, because when we know how we feel, we can make more helpful choices. “Right now, I’m really angry: maybe it’s not the right time to go speak with this person.” “Right now, I’m really depressed: maybe I should stop looking at pictures of my ex on social media and do something more constructive.” “Right now, I’m really exhausted: maybe I need a power nap before I resume my work.” When we know that we are, emotionally speaking, under the influence, we can minimize the damage of our emotion and redirect ourselves toward more helpful behavior.
As you practice mindfulness of your emotions, please be on the lookout for any subtle tendency to suppress your emotion. As you follow your breath and observe your sensations and thoughts, it’s possible that a part of you is thinking, “Hey, I’m doing mindfulness right here, I’m accepting you from a space of loving attention, and when I accept you from that space of loving attention, remember, emotion, it’s the sign that you should get ouuuuuuutta heeere!” Haha. That is not going to work very well. Please remember, this is loving attention, not suppression. Our practice is not to trim our heart into a banzai. Our practice is to offer each of our emotions the sunshine of our awareness, the water of our kindness, and to allow our emotional landscape to flourish beautifully.
(Silence, closing my eyes, smiling.)
Sorry, I was mindfully attending to the pride I felt for coming up with such a poetic metaphor. Anyways!
The key takeaway is that when you’re experiencing a strong emotion:
find your breath,
observe your physical sensations,
notice your thoughts, and,
be the light, spacious, and kind awareness.
From there, you can make more informed choices that are more in line with your values.
In my experience and in the experience of other practitioners, although mindfulness brings more presence and kindness to our emotional landscape, we still feel and go through all emotions. If anything, mindfulness makes us more sensitive, more human. When we practice sitting meditation, breathing breaks, walking meditation, mindful eating, or mindfulness in other daily activities, we connect with everything happening within us, pleasant and unpleasant, comfortable and uncomfortable. We redefine our relationship to ourselves, from avoidance to presence, from discrimination to kindness, and from contraction to spaciousness. Mindfulness helps us tap into our own potential for self-regulation, mental clarity, and empathy. Mindfulness helps us recognize the cold, dark, forksaken parts of our souls, and slowly fill them with warmth, light, and presence. With mindfulness, we not only feel better, we also become better at feeling. Mindfulness helps us grow into a more whole, more complete human being. Mindfulness helps us to discriminate less against ourselves, to know ourselves more deeply, and to cultivate a gentle form of self-honesty. Mindfulness helps us connect truthfully with whatever it is we’re feeling, because, as the Buddha said, “You have to keep it real.” Unless he never said that and I just confused Buddhist wisdom with hip-hop wisdom. But still. You gotta keep it real. If you need to cry, cry mindfully. If you need to go for a run, go for a run mindfully. If you need to confide in someone, confide in someone mindfully.
Please, do not expect your mindfulness practice to make you perfectly peaceful and clear-minded all the time. Expect your mindfulness practice to make you more peaceful and more clear-minded than without mindfulness. Mindfulness is not about pretending or imposing some idea onto reality. Mindfulness is about tuning into the reality of your breath, the reality of your feelings, and bringing a little more presence, a little more kindness, a little more clarity into this beautiful mess called life.
I have been a monk for fifteen years but I still make mistakes regularly. Although my mindfulness practice has allowed me to become an overall much calmer, kinder, and happier person, from time to time I still think, say, or do things that I regret. I get carried away, and then I feel shame. Shame is an important emotion that I’d like to share some thoughts about.
Our world needs shame. As a thought experiment, what would a world without shame look like?
… Right?! So our world needs shame. Shame is a preventive and curative medicine. But just like any medicine, shame needs to be handled wisely. In the right case and in the right dosage, shame prevents us from hurting ourselves and others, and shame helps us mend our mistakes and become a better person. But in the wrong case or in the wrong dosage, shame becomes toxic: it destroys our self-esteem and robs us of the opportunity to live fully and meaningfully the present moment.
Instead of asking ourselves “How can I stop feeling shame?” it is better to ask ourselves,
Is shame the appropriate response for this situation?
Am I using the right dose of shame? and,
What concrete behavior would be more in line with my values?
We don’t want to deny our mistakes. We want to see every mistake, big or small, as an opportunity for growth. When we calmly look back at our mistake, we can identify the various conditions that brought about our unskillful thought, word, or action. The more we see these conditions, the more we naturally create a space of understanding and forgiveness for ourselves. We recognize that we are human, subject to inner and outer conditions, and that our willpower has its limits. And, at the same time, the more we see these conditions, the more informed and motivated we are to do better in the future. We want to look at our mistake the way a programmer looks at a bug in her program, and become the engineer of our own and other people’s happiness.
This way, shame becomes a supportive companion, the true medicine it is meant to be.
Most of our suffering comes from our constant struggle to escape unpleasant physical sensations and pursue pleasant physical sensations. At any given time, within our body there is an ocean of sensations — some pleasant, others unpleasant, all rising and falling at unfathomable speed. And in our consciousness, there are the tendencies to resist and reject unpleasant sensations while craving and pursuing pleasant sensations. So we are constantly rejecting one part of our experience while craving for another, and in doing so we are dividing our mind. And is this division itself pleasant or unpleasant?
Do you enjoy being divided?
A divided mind is a suffering mind, and an undivided mind is a peaceful, open, light, and happy mind.
There are many ways for us to release some of this division and enjoy a more undivided mental space. I don’t have time to go into detail here, but one simple way you might like to experiment with is to ask yourself, “How is this emotion trying to help me?”
This simple question can really shift your attitude, from seeing your painful emotion as an enemy, to seeing it as a friend who comes to inform and protect you. Anger, for example, tries to help you restore healthy boundaries, so that you can build happy relationships. Desire tries to help you survive, as an individual and as a species. Fear does its best to keep you safe and sound. Sadness allows your pain to flow and water your seeds of empathy. Boredom encourages you to experience life more fully and meaningfully. And frustration speaks to you about your unmet needs.
The goal of asking, “How is this emotion trying to help me?” is for you to release some of the resistance to your painful emotion, to let go of your mental division, to allow unpleasant physical sensations to flow freely, and to hear your emotion’s message. You know you’re practicing this contemplation correctly when you experience a relief: your body becomes a little more relaxed, and your mind becomes a little more open, light, and whole.
Seeing your emotions as trying to help you doesn’t mean that all of your emotions are “right” and that you should blindly follow them. It simply means that they’re here for a reason and that they’re doing their best. A good analogy would be to think of emotions as advisors, and mindfulness as the king. It is important for the king to listen to his advisors, and it is also important for the king to make the decisions. If the king doesn’t listen to his advisors, he will make uninformed decisions, but if a single advisor takes control of the kingdom, it will be a mess. In the same way, if you don’t mindfully listen to all of your emotions, you won’t be able to make emotionally intelligent decisions, but if you allow any one of your emotions to run your life, it will be a mess. What you want is to listen to all the parts of you, and make mindful, informed, and wise choices.
An Emotion is an Interaction
An emotion is an interaction between physiological processes and a mental discourse. For example, when we get angry,
at the physiological level, our heart accelerates, our muscles tense up, our blood pressure goes up, and we get hot, while at the mental level, we may think, “I can’t believe he did that! This is so unfair!” Or when we are sad, we may get cold and feel sluggish in our body, while in our mind we may tell ourselves, “This is terrible. Why does this always happen to me?”
Our physiological processes and our mental discourse also influence each other. For example, when we are sleep deprived, our thoughts are more negative. Or when we think about a difficulty in our life, our stomach or shoulders may tense up.
But an emotion is always an interaction between physical sensations and a mental discourse. Therefore, to work with your emotions is to work with your physical sensations, or your mental discourse, or both.
When you pay attention to your breath, you calm down both the mental discourse and the physical sensations.
If your thoughts were a fire, your attention would be its fuel. The more you pay attention to the content of your thoughts, the more they grow, and the more they burn your peace of mind. By shifting your attention away from your mental discourse and toward the sensations of your breath, you naturally deprive the fire of some of its fuel, and your mental discourse grows quieter.
At the physiological level, as we’ve seen, when you focus on your natural breathing, your breathing naturally becomes smoother and slower. With the slowing down of your respiratory rate, sympathetic nervous system activity decreases and parasympathetic nervous system increases. Your body begins to relax, your heart rate slows down, your blood pressure goes down, and your internal organs such as your brain receive more oxygen. You operate less in short-term survival mode, more in long-term happiness mode, and you pacify your entire physiology.
Our natural tendency is to try to solve our problem immediately by thinking. But if you remember the analogy of the musician, if our nervous system is out-of-tune, our thoughts won’t be of good quality. When our nervous system is agitated, the more we think, the more confused we become. Therefore, it is very important that we focus on our breath, regulate our nervous system, and calm our body and mind before we begin to think about the situation.
Once we are calm enough, we can gently reconsider the story we’ve been telling ourselves.
In psychology, this is called “cognitive reappraisal”. Cognitive reappraisal is simpler than it sounds. It simply means looking at our mental discourse, the story that our mind is telling, and asking ourselves, “Really?” Cognitive reappraisal is not autosuggestion — we’re not trying to convince ourselves of anything in particular. It is calm, curious, and critical thinking. We invite our mental discourse to a reality check. We reconsider the content of our thoughts in order to look at the situation in a way which is more accurate, actionable, and useful.
You can ask yourself,
“Is this thought true?”
“Is this belief helpful?”
“How have I been contributing to the issue?”
“How can I contribute better?”
When your mental discourse revolves around another person, you can also find the right time to check with them:
“Did you actually say that?”
“Did you actually do that?”
“What difficulty made you speak or act this way?”
At the risk of being redundant, for this reality check to be healing and effective, it needs to happen in your spacious and loving awareness, and that is why before you reappraise the content of your thoughts, you want to calm your body and mind by focusing on your breath, noticing your sensations and thoughts, cognitively defusing from the emotion, and reestablishing your connection with the fullness and spaciousness of the present moment.
We tend to misconceive problems as
personal — “this is just about me”,
permanent — “this will last forever”, and,
pervasive — “this will inevitably lead to this terrible cascade of consequences and ruin everything in the universe”.
From your spacious and kind awareness, you may also want to ask yourself,
Is this really just about me?
Is this really going to last forever?
Is it reasonable to extrapolate to this extent?*
Learn to see everything in the light of multifactorial change. Everything changes according to countless conditions. Nothing is personal, permanent, nor pervasive. People, events, and things are not the separate and stable entities your thoughts would have you believe. Everything is flowing. Whether you want it or not, everything is changing, in a state of flux.
When you follow your breath, you tone down the mental discourse, you get into a flow state, and you reduce friction with reality. With less friction between your consciousness and reality comes less suffering. Before, when you were totally absorbed in your mental discourse, it seemed like you were carving your life’s drama on a rock. But as you follow your breath, allow your body to relax, become more awake and equanimous, and notice how everything is changing, your mental discourse loses its grip. Now, it seems as if you are writing your life’s drama on sand… or even on water… or even on thin air. You are more aware, yet you take your life less personally. You are more conscious, yet you worry less, because you see things more as they are, flowing naturally according to conditions. This insight into multifactorial change can be very healing and liberating, even if you are only able to maintain it for a short moment. The Buddha encourages us to nurture it regularly. The more we can see how things change according to many conditions, the more accurate our understanding becomes, and the more space, lightness, peace, and freedom we bring to our mind.
The Four Establishments of Mindfulness
The Buddha taught four establishments of mindfulness: body, feelings, mind, and liberating truth.
Notice how he ordered them from the coarsest to the subtlest: body first, then feelings, then mind, then liberating truth.
The Buddha encourages us to establish our mindfulness in all of these four establishments — to become aware of our body as it is, in the present moment, without desire or aversion; to become aware of our feelings as they are, in the present moment, without desire or aversion; to become aware of our mind, as it is, in the present moment, without desire and aversion; and to become aware of the liberating truth, as it is, in the present moment, without desire and aversion.
Mindfulness of our breath and body helps us come back to life, stay grounded, and physically relax.
Mindfulness of our feelings connects us to our own humanity and softens our heart for others.
Mindfulness of our mind helps us update our belief system and connect to life more as it truly is.
And mindfulness of the liberating truth works with the deepest roots of suffering within our mind in order to cultivate spaciousness, lightness, and freedom. If you would like to learn more about the Liberating Truth, I have a book that you can download for free at mentalhealthrevolution.org/books/vipassana, as well as a series of videos on this channel called Experiments in Transcendence.
How Mindfulness Grows Our Emotional Intelligence
One way to explain how a mindfulness practice helps us develop our emotional intelligence is that the more aware we are of ourselves and our environment,
the more information our brain can gather about:
what we think, say, or do,
the types of environments and people we interact with, and,
how we feel.
Overtime, our brain naturally generates new hypotheses
about how what we think, say, or do, or different environments and people, affect how we feel. For instance, “It seems like every time I think kind thoughts, I feel peaceful and happy.” “It seems like every time I criticize someone behind their back, I feel disconnected.” “It seems like every time I eat fried food, my stomach hurts.” “It seems like every time I go out into nature, I feel refreshed.”
Then, the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation, our brain naturally tests these hypotheses:
“Let me see if it’s going to be different this time, or if my hypothesis was correct.”
And slowly, we can learn from our own experiences,
update our belief system, develop our emotional intelligence, and naturally make decisions that are a bit more conducive to our own and other people’s long-term happiness.
In 1892, William James wrote in his book Psychology: The Briefer Course,
The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. […] An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about.
Little did he know that 24 centuries before him, in India, an enlightened man did provide this education per excellence, did offer detailed, practical instructions in attention training, and that thanks to the countless people who have transmitted his teachings, we still have access to them today.
By cultivating mindfulness, an accepting awareness of the present moment, we decrease activity in our Default Mode Network and increase activity in our Positive Task Network — we think less compulsively and we become more conscious. Our respiratory rate slows down, we decrease sympathetic nervous system activity and increase parasympathetic nervous system activity — we stress less, and we relax more. We are able to appreciate our conditions of happiness more deeply, regulate our emotions better, and respond to challenges more wisely. If a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, a mindful mind is, indeed, a happy mind, and it is no wonder that mindfulness has been shown to be helpful in a wide range of mental health conditions.
In 2021, the journal Nature published an article entitled,
. The authors looked at 419 randomized controlled trials from clinical and non-clinical populations, totalling over 50,000 participants, and concluded that
Mindfulness can help,
promote prosocial behavior,
sleep better, and,
slow cognitive aging.
To be clear, I don't believe there is such a thing as a cure-all for mental health, but I do believe that mindfulness should play a key role in any good mental health plan.
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