Instructions for Being Mindful of Emotions and Feelings
Carla Brennan

Being able to truly welcome all emotions and feelings into the open space of mindfulness is an essential key to unhooking our patterns of suffering. Much of our daily suffering comes from habitual reactions to our own thoughts and emotions.

The first task of mindfulness is to distinguish between emotions/feelings and thoughts. Thinking is the narrative and imagery created in the cognitive mind. Feelings/emotions are energetic sensations experienced in the body. Thoughts can trigger feelings. Feelings can trigger thoughts. And feelings can trigger more feelings. We need to know this process intimately if we are to gain insight into how we get caught in painful reactivity.

The basic emotions (as researched by Paul Ekmann) are: anger, fear, sadness, enjoyment, surprise, and disgust. However, there are thousands of combinations and variations on these. Part of any emotional experience is an “action urge.” For example, fear stimulates wanting to flee; anger creates an impulse toward aggression. These action urges are just another kind of feeling that comes and goes. When these urges control us, our behavior becomes reactive and compulsive. As we create space for and befriend our emotions, we can more easily choose when it is wise to act and in what way.

The emphasis in formal meditation practice is simply welcoming all feelings into awareness. We start with being able to recognize feelings. You are always feeling something. Have you been aware of that? From the subtle sense of aliveness, to the fundamental feelings of the present moment as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral to our full-blown emotions. These are all fluid and often changing. What do these actually feel like in the body?

The primary characteristic of awareness is that is knows everything with equal clarity with no agenda. It does not pick or choose or have preference about what it sees. It is compared to a mirror that reflects whatever appears in front of it. Similarly, we are invited to recognize through awareness whatever arises in our field of experience.

However, our conditioned ego-based identity has plenty of agendas for emotions (and everything else). These agendas block awareness and the natural flow of feelings. Through our deeply ingrained reactions we think we must control feelings, contain them, suppress them, repress them, override them, deny them, judge them, reject them, fix them, exaggerate them, glorify them, feed them, express them, unload them, hold on to them, get lost in them . . . the list goes on.

What if we instead are simply open and present with what we feel, bringing curiosity and kindness to the mysterious upwelling of our richly human emotional life. We create an accepting, warm and caring inner environment to allow emotions to be. That’s all they ever wanted. That’s all they need to be healed and reveal their wisdom to us.

As we recognize, allow and have space for our emotions, we also recognize, allow and have space for other people’s emotions. This is the foundation of compassion.