In this article you’ll learn a five-step mindfulness exercise to supercharge your awareness of your emotions, particularly negative emotions, along with your ability to process them with minimal resistance. It’s simple, but extremely powerful.
Let’s start by talking about why we work with emotions using mindfulness.
The Influence of Negative Emotions
In many cases, emotions are the puppet masters that control us. We seek pleasant emotions, and we endeavour to avoid unpleasant ones. Just look around you. This dynamic is visible right across society.
But by and large we’re unaware of this dynamic and how it governs us. We’re victims of it. What’s worse, we seek pleasure without a solid base that enables us to effectively deal with our suffering. Indeed, you could argue we seek pleasure because we don’t have this base.
This means we’re left forever at the mercy of our unpleasant emotions and we continually restart the Pleasure–Pain game in an attempt to swing the pendulum back to Pleasure. How do we reverse this tide? How can we wisely attend to our unpleasant emotions as they arise?
Why Face Difficult Emotions With Mindfulness
To illustrate the effects of not facing our emotions, I’ll use the analogy of a house. If we don’t clean it, the effects are quite clear to visitors. Layers of dust accumulate, rooms are left strewn with objects, and smelly dishes pile up. Think of these as imperfections and blockages that ruin what could be a bright, welcoming home.
By not caring for our emotional life, we create blockages and imperfections in the emotional body. These are tied to thought patterns. Eventually they crystallise into emotion–thought subpersonalities that reappear time and time again.
Beyond that, the plain inability to feel our emotional life leads us to looking for solutions to our emotional problems in places they’re not to be found. Unaware of the power of directly facing the underlying emotional challenge, we distract ourselves to drown out the noise and run away from the pain. You might call this emotional avoidance.
Have you ever heard any of the following: “I need a cigarette,” “I’m going to drown my sorrows” or “I stuffed myself with chocolate”? All of these are prime examples of emotional avoidance.
We keep going back and going back to the alcohol, cigarettes or fast food, like a needy child. This makes the pain worse – we’re not feeling it and finding transformation in it.
But let’s not focus on what we’ll avoid. We gain self-knowledge, emotional awareness, and a freedom we can access no matter what’s going in our emotional life. This is deeply empowering work.
Get Prepared to Use Mindfulness With Emotions
Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter, and it’s time for a serious talk about this work.
As men often do, for a long time I believed emotions were airy-fairy feminine fluff, and that attitude still infects my thinking on occasion. This line of thought says: “Deal with negative emotions? Give me some practical advice, please. What even are emotions?”
But how wrong I was. When I’m in my wise self, I realise the exact opposite is true. If that attitude sounds like you, let me tell you that emotions are not airy-fairy. Emotions are what run us. I don’t mean neurological stuff, I mean everything you feel moment to moment. And emotional work isn’t child’s play. No, to face our emotions head on, we need to be like a marine, a weightlifter, a brave lion.
The core of this exercise is to bring awareness to our emotional challenges in the moment they arise. That’s not easy. Our natural tendency, just as with tough physical exercise, is to shy away and take the easy way out.
You have to take a deep breath – often metaphorically, sometimes literally – and dive in, knowing it’s likely to be unpleasant. It’s a form of inner exercise. It’s harder than lifting weights. You have to be willing to fearlessly face the darkest parts of yourself.
Roll up your sleeves: we’re going in.
5-Step Emotions Mindfulness Exercise
This exercise is intended to have you develop moment-to-moment awareness of your emotions. You’ll learn a tool you can use at any time. It’s excellent both for moments of difficult emotional challenges, like grief, fear or sadness, and for milder experiences like boredom or impatience. I even like to do it when I’m walking around with a feeling of hollowness when a moment I’d been looking forward to doesn’t quite hit the spot, and on bland Sundays when I’m not really sure what I’m feeling.
You can use these exercises when sitting, walking around, cooking or working. If emotions are really intense to the point that you feel like crying, it can be useful to lie down, close your eyes and focus solely on this exercise.
Step 1: Remember
The first step is really simple: you remember to do this exercise.
This might seem like an anti-step, or a step I put in to make up the numbers. But not so fast.
Consider that when we have zero awareness of our emotions, we never even reach this step. We never, ever have the realisation: “Oh, I’m experiencing this emotion. It’s time to do my awareness exercise.” Rather, we’re forever stuck in the experience of the emotion, overcome by it, at its mercy, never able to escape.
And boy, if you think this is easy, try it. You might be unpleasantly surprised. You see, emotions grip us and change our behaviour, especially the negative ones. They often grip us so hard that we’re stuck in their vice before we know it.
Even people who are highly aware of their emotions can get caught up in them, and only when the emotions pass do they realise what was happening. Forgetfulness is a recurring theme in this work, especially at the beginning.
And beyond that, this step is the trigger for the rest of the steps. By remembering, we’re setting the intention to go through the exercise and to bring deep awareness to our emotions. Mastering step one is a critical component of your emotional intelligence.
Step 2: Locate
Now that you’ve remembered to do the exercise and have the mini-realisation of “I’m experiencing this emotion, it’s time for me to do the exercise,” you want to then locate the emotion in your body.
Emotions are never, ever hidden from you. They may be difficult to locate, or subtle, or nebulous, but they’re always right in front of you.
This means that whenever you have an emotion, you can locate it. In fact, every single sensation in your body has a location.
So go for it: find the emotion, and rest your attention on it. They often reappear in the same places, and emotions tend to repeatedly arise in the same part of the body.
We have emotional centres: parts of our body where we feel emotions the most. For example, my emotion centres are my face, my stomach and my chest.
The emotion may be localised or spread out. It may be divided into several parts, all in different areas in the body.
Big tip: you may find there are high-intensity points, areas with lots of emotional juice. Target those for maximal growth. Often when I try to locate an emotion, I don’t find the juiciest bit the first time round, and I have to keep looking to find it.
Step 3: Allow and Feel
Now you’ve located the emotion, go deeper into it. It’s time to really fix your attention on it and be with it.
Our natural tendency is to repress or resist difficult emotions. This is when you hold your breath and dive in, like a marine, or you go fearlessly into battle, like a lion.
Allow the emotion as much as you can – be like water around a rock, absolutely non-resistant. You flow around the shape of the rock. Try to allow it to the point that you can say “I could experience this for the rest of my life and I would be okay with it.” Say “YES!”
A good way to reduce your resistance is to actively relax the muscles in your body and face. You’ll find that drop in muscular tension also brings a drop in your emotional resistance.
Pay attention to the different flavours of the emotion and the changes that are going on. Perhaps it changes in size, shape or intensity moment by moment. Perhaps it seems hard and impenetrable, or glowing and nebulous.
My emotions often feels like balls of energy. When I first feel a particular emotion, it usually feels dark and solid, but when I locate it, allow it and feel deeply, it becomes glowing, alive, even pleasant.
Step 4: Observe Your Thoughts
So now that you’re deeply feeling this emotion that has arisen, the next step is to bring attention to your thoughts too.
What’s tricky about difficult emotions is that they usually have multiple components: not only do we feel them, we also think them. That is, thoughts – visual and auditory – accompany unpleasant feelings in the body.
For example, if we pay attention to the mind when we’re angry, we’ll realise we’re imagining how to express the anger. When we’re sad, we’re often ruminating on moments we regret or that were painful for us.
If we aren’t aware, emotional thoughts and body sensations cross-multiply, reinforcing one another. In fact, this is happening on a subtle level all the time. When we’re walking down the street, we’re usually remembering, planning and running dialogues. These less emotionally charged thoughts still influence our emotions, and vice versa.
The trick with thoughts is to simply bring awareness to them and allow them to be there. What images are in your mind? What mental chatter is present? Can you notice the effect those thoughts have on your emotional body?
There are many, many options here. To begin with, I recommend you place around 75% of your attention on the feelings in the body and 25% on your thoughts. Then you can adapt this exercise as your needs dictate.
Step 5: Repeat
In reality, stages 1-4 are short cycles, a few seconds in length. To create spells of emotional awareness, you run these cycles for as long as you like.
You may stay with one emotion for several cycles, even dozens. You may jump from one to another, and run short cycles or long cycles. Like with weightlifting, there are many variables you can adjust to suit your needs.
With really strong emotions, I like to lie down on my back, close my eyes, head straight to the centre of the emotion and try to feel it as fully as possible. I then run many cycles on that same emotion, sometimes for half an hour or more.
Parting Tips for Mindfulness with Emotions
Looking at the big picture, this is difficult when you first begin. Even the lightest negative emotions will be challenging. You’ll want to push them out, or change them, or distract yourself.
But it’s like riding a bike. With enough practice, this exercise goes on autopilot. Your self-knowledge deepens, and you begin to expect familiar emotions to arise at certain moments in your life. You develop a taste for your emotional life and even enjoy the emotional challenges you face.
In my experience, welcoming our emotions and feeling them profoundly is a never-ending journey.
Tell me the biggest insight you’ve had from doing this exercise in the comments section!
I also have an article with a tonne of other meditation exercises, helping you bring mindfulness into daily life.
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