A Practice in Mindfulness
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 2016 (edited January 17, 2021)
Our emotions can be great teachers or callous task masters. A mindful check-in harnesses our powerful emotions.
We respond to life with emotion—spirits leap, chemicals flow. Biological programming pushes us forward in excitement or recoiling in fear. Emotions pull on strings of the past, inviting memories into the feelings of the present. The past isn’t the past at all; it lives in the present. We can vehemently hate our past. We can fight it, detest and blame but here in the present the past resides.
Accepting past behavior differs from stagnating settlement. We don’t accept and ignore impacts of our behaviors. We accept but evaluate for better. We’re not satisfied with yesterday’s subpar performance but accept we have worked subpar. We are human; subject to errors—momentary lapses causing pain to ourselves and others. We can grieve the pain-creating behaviors; often the grief motivates change. Whether it’s grief, sadness, anger or love, the emotion encourages movement. The need to act can arise from the feeling.
Emotions are complex. We use words to describe feelings to satisfy verbal expression; but words aren’t emotions. The experience is more than a simple word—sad, angry, afraid or ashamed. Our bodies experience a change, a chemical movement motivating action. The emotional waves immerse the organism in changing balances and intensities. We feel something. Culture and language give meaning to the internal movements. Our human need to understand illuminate prominent feelings that we give life to with an explanation of words—I’m mad or sad.
Constructing a workable theory, presentable in words, transforms feelings into conscious understanding. These theories can be constructive or destructive. A poorly constructed theory has power to transform feelings into debilitating guilt, shame and self-loathing. A well-constructed theory may deepen the experience, giving a complex understanding to human loss, motivating treasuring of current connections, and wisdom.
The mindful check-in reflects inward on images, sensations, and thoughts, bringing clarity to inner experience without the dizzying muckiness of biased and automatic judgements.
Mindful Check-In of Feelings
There’s a difference between primary feeling affects and the following complex explanations. We give priority to the explanation because they are most salient, clinging to meaning while overlooking the feeling. The practice of mindfulness focuses on the feeling, avoiding or reworking troublesome and drawn out explanations; we sometimes need to forget the associated thoughts and bathe in the moment. Daniel Siegel refers to this as taking a "time-in" (2012).
This proves difficult for most, accustom to thinking. The practice of mindful feeling draws us closer to an experience, allowing chemical changes to ebb and flow without muddying the experience with wandering thoughts.
A Three Step Mindful Check-In
We revert to natural reactionary modes. Habit is an energy saving measure of an efficient system. However, many reactionary modes represent out dated adaptations. The pause breaks the customary cycle of reaction. Many use mindful breathing practices to achieve this pause. We can experiment with different methods for interrupting harmful automatic processes to create the pause.
Step Two—Narrow Attention
Once the reactionary cycle has been broken move attention inward. Without words and judgement, move into the arousal. Feel it. Examine it. Accept it.
After narrowing our focus, directing attention to the raw feeling affects, we can now step back and widen our view. Identify the trigger that ignited the emotion, connecting to similarities from the past experiences that sparked the same emotional response.
For more on this topic: Focusing on Feelings
We should experiment with practices, allowing flexibility to find our own techniques.
Awareness can extend beyond simple focus on feeling. We still need workable theories for clarity of experience, giving a cognitive handle for reflection and refinement. Siegel succinctly puts it, "name it so we can tame it" (2012). The handle of a linguistic label helps stabilize attention, allowing experiences to be easily recalled.
Feelings are important to understand, bringing new lessons, and valuable guidance. But successful integration requires attention, moving experience from automatic responses to probing observations. We move from blind justifications to skeptical examinations, challenging thoughts, questioning our impulses, and identifying dysfunction. Only through openness can we entertain a possibility of change. With intention we add depth to incidents of emotion, broadening our vocabulary, and expanding our categories.
The reactionary chain between feeling affects and behavior can be broken, harmful translations can be challenged and replaced. Feelings are a sacred encounter with our humanness, to be treasured. We shouldn’t be ashamed because we feel nor should we allow feelings to be a burdensome task master. Guilt can motivate healthier practices; sadness can stir future appreciations; and anger can direct attention to injustices. But any of these emotions can morph into something harmful and debilitating.
We gain wisdom by learning from our missteps. Excusing the past to protect against uncomfortable emotions limits the value of experience. Discomfort over blunders is healthy when the feelings give meaning and direction to future action. Labeling hurt as evidence of our insufficiency magnifies the hurt, using the pain to ruthlessly demonize our worth is damning, leading to protective practices such as leading pathological avoidance.
We should repair mistakes, express sincere apologies and then forgive our self for the misdeed, moving forward with renewed desire to improve. We must muddle through the dynamic path of change throughout our lives as we navigate the challenging roads of living. Checking in with our emotions provides valuable insights during this confusing and complex journey.
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Siegel, D. J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; Third Printing Used edition