Negative emotions suck.
To state the obvious, they’re no fun and feel terrible. But they are here to stay. At least some of the time.
Feeling badly is simply baked into the human experience. You can’t be here, in this world, on this earth, having a life, without negative emotions.
Many of us have been told or taught that the goal is to feel good all of the time, or at least something approximating that. But that’s a lie. Just as the world around us is made up of good and bad, transcendence and tragedy, our emotions are meant to run the gamut. After all, we can’t truly experience joy without knowing its opposite, sorrow.
Simply understanding this fact can ease our pain. When we accept that this life is meant to be rich and varied and painful and joyful, we resist less and mentally open ourselves up to the fullness of what it means to be human.
The common phrase “what we resist persists” captures the truth of this point, namely that to move beyond our negative feelings, we must first actually feel them. This is what it means to heal, and mindfulness helps in a powerful way.
Practicing mindfulness simply means paying attention to whatever arises as it arises.
Feeling sad? That’s okay, it’s part of the fabric of life. Instead of resisting or avoiding our sadness, mindfulness asks us to just notice, to sit with it, to experience the vibration of our feelings in our bodies. For so many of us, this is at odds with what we were taught. We were taught to rush through our sadness, to move on and be happy and okay. But learning to actually feel our feelings—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is a critical life skill, and it’s not too late to learn it.
When I feel sad, or embarrassed, or lonely, my inclination is to distract myself so that I don’t have to experience the discomfort of my feelings. (Anyone else going heavy on the sauvignon blanc these days?) I’ve spent most of my life avoiding my feelings with food, alcohol, shopping, social media, and the list goes on and on.
But as a dedicated teacher and student of the disciplines of yoga and mindfulness-based meditation, my practice is to do the opposite. I try to lean in, to feel my feelings all the way through, and then to release them when they are ready to go. My mindfulness practice invites me to lean in, to be present to my emotional reality. It feels uncomfortable to do so in the moment, to be sure. But then, surprisingly, it actually feels better.
Every feeling has a beginning, a middle, and, thankfully, an end.
When we are willing to sit with our emotions, as unpleasant as they may be, we might begin to notice that they actually pass through us more quickly than if we resist them. Also, the more we sit with our negative emotions, the more adept we become at doing so. We get better at feeling our pain, which ironically makes our pain feel less painful. We must understand that this work takes practice and be patient with ourselves. But it’s well worth the time and effort.
Here are three ways we can start to use mindfulness to feel better now:
- Notice our feelings.
Many of us are not self-aware enough to even be in touch with our moment-by-moment emotional experience. We can change this by simply pausing throughout the day to ask ourselves what we are feeling right now. We can start to identify our emotions by labeling them with a single word such as stressed, worried, overwhelmed, or anxious. We will start to notice patterns in our inner landscape, which can increase our awareness pretty quickly.
- Describe our feelings in terms of physical sensations.
Feelings are simply vibrations in our bodies. When we start to notice, we can then begin to describe them to ourselves. To me, anxiety feels tight, contracted, and hot. I feel it most in my stomach and throat. Sadness feels heavy, dark, and cool. I feel it most in my chest and legs. When we describe our feelings, we step into the seat of the witness, as if we are on the outside looking in. This provides some immediate relief by helping us create a little bit of space between what we experience and what we tell ourselves about what we experience. For example, if I can identify that I am feeling anxiety, I feel less overtaken by it. It is simply something that I notice, and I sense that I am not my anxiety. Rather, I am the observer of my anxiety.
- Attend to our emotional experience with softness and compassion.
Compassion is an essential ingredient of all mindfulness practice. We notice what arises, as unpleasant as it may be, and hold it softly, without judgment. This helps us process our feelings without resisting them. They can then move through us more freely.