I have heard some wonderful explanations of mindfulness. The writer and teacher Sylvia Boorstein calls it “awake attention to what is happening inside and outside so we can respond from a place of wisdom.” The Vietnamese Zen teacher and poet Thich Nhat Hanh says, “I like to define mindfulness as the energy that helps us to be there 100 percent. It is the energy of your true presence.” But my favorite definition comes from a fifth grader at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School in Oakland, California.
In 2007, the school launched a pilot program that offered kids five weeks of mindfulness training from a coach who visited classrooms twice a week, leading 15-minute sessions on how to have “gentle breaths and still bodies.” The students trained their attention by focusing on their breath and noting the emotions that arose. The coach also asked them to cultivate compassion by reflecting—“taking a moment”—before lashing out at someone on the playground. “I was losing at baseball and I was about to throw a bat,” one boy told his class, according to The New York Times. “The mindfulness really helped.”
The reporter asked another boy participating in the program to describe mindfulness. It’s “not hitting someone in the mouth,” he said.
His answer is wise, wide, and deep. It illustrates one of the most important uses of mindfulness: helping us deal with difficult emotions. It suggests the possibility of finding the gap between a trigger event and our usual conditioned response to it, and using that pause to collect ourselves and change our response. And it demonstrates that we can learn to make better choices.
“He doesn’t know what to do with his energy,” the student’s mother said at a parents’ meeting. He was, she explained, usually quick to strike out when he was confused or frustrated. But mindfulness training was changing that pattern. “One day after school he told me, ‘I’m taking a moment.’”
This is just what the practice of mindfulness helps us remember. Working with emotions during our meditation sessions sharpens our ability to recognize a feeling just as it begins, not 15 consequential actions later. We can then go on to develop a more balanced relationship with it—neither letting it overwhelm us so we lash out rashly nor ignoring it because we’re afraid or ashamed of it.
We learn a lot in that middle, mindful place. We begin to discover that, like the Oakland schoolboy, we can always take a moment—to re-center ourselves in our bodies, acknowledge what we’re feeling, spot our habitual reactions (whether that means erupting when we’re frustrated or silently sulking when we feel criticized), and perhaps decide on a different course of action.
When I first began my meditative practice I was only 18, and although I knew I was deeply unhappy, I wasn’t aware of the separate strands of grief, anger, and fear roiling inside me. All I felt was a single, seemingly solid bank of sadness. Then, through meditation, I began to look within more clearly and detect the various components of my sorrow. What I saw unsettled me so much that I marched up to my teacher, S. N. Goenka, and said accusingly, “I never used to be an angry person before I began meditating!” Of course I was hugely angry: my mother had died; I barely knew my father; I barely knew myself. When I blamed Mr. Goenka, he simply laughed—then reminded me of the tools I now had to deal with the difficult feelings I used to keep hidden. I could begin to forge a different relationship with my emotions—to find the middle place between denying them and giving over to them—because I had acknowledged them.
Mindfulness practice isn’t meant to eliminate thinking but aims rather to help us know what we’re thinking when we’re thinking it, just as we want to know what we’re feeling when we’re feeling it.
Mindfulness allows us to watch our thoughts, see how one thought leads to the next, decide if we’re heading toward an unhealthy path, and if so, let go and change directions. It allows us to see that who we are is much more than a fearful or envious or angry thought. We can rest in the awareness of the thought, in the compassion we extend to ourselves if the thought makes us uncomfortable, and in the balance and good sense we summon as we decide whether and how to act on the thought.
Meditation is like going into an old attic room and turning on the light. In that light we see everything—the beautiful treasures we’re grateful to have unearthed; the dusty, neglected corners that inspire us to say, “I’d better clean that up”; the unfortunate relics of the past that we thought we had gotten rid of years ago. We acknowledge them all, with an open, spacious, and loving awareness.
It’s never too late to turn on the light. Your ability to break an unhealthy habit or turn off an old tape doesn’t depend on how long it’s been running; a shift in perspective doesn’t depend on how long you’ve held the old view. When you flip the switch in that attic, it doesn’t matter whether it’s been dark for 10 minutes, 10 years, or 10 decades. The light still illuminates the room and banishes the murkiness, letting you see things you couldn’t see before. It’s never too late to take a moment to look.
Practice: Meditation on Calling Up Difficult Emotions
Sit comfortably or lie down, with your eyes closed or open. Center your attention on the feeling of the breath, wherever it’s easiest for you—just normal, natural breath. If it helps, use the mental note in, out or rising, falling.
After a few moments of following your breath, consciously bring to mind a difficult or troubling feeling or situation from the recent or distant past, a scenario that holds intense emotion for you—sadness, fear, shame, or anger. Take a moment to fully recall the situation. Doing that isn’t likely to feel comfortable, but stick with it. At any point, you can return to following your breath for respite.
What bodily sensations accompany the emotions this scenario calls up? see if you can tell where in your body you feel these emotions. When you observe the emotion that has arisen, does your mouth go dry? are you breathing shallowly? are you clenching your teeth? is there a lump in your throat? whatever is happening in your body, note it. If you can feel the emotion in the body (and we can’t always do that), it gives you a concrete way to disengage from the story and observe the emotion’s changing nature.
Bring your focus to the part of the body where those sensations are the strongest. You don’t have to do anything about them except be aware of them. Once your attention has moved to the bodily sensations, perhaps say to yourself, it’s okay; whatever it is, it’s okay; I can feel this without pushing it away or getting caught up in it. Stay with the awareness of the feelings in your body and your relationship to them, accepting them, letting them be, softening and opening to them. As you sit with them awhile, do the sensations change? How?
Remember that often what we are feeling is not just one emotion; grief may include moments of sorrow, moments of fear, of powerlessness, maybe even of relief, anticipation, or curiosity. See if you can break down the emotion into its component parts. Notice all the different things you feel. Are there any positive mind states mixed in with the mostly negative? Any negative mind states flavoring the positive? Staying with the feeling and untangling the various strands may lead you to realize that what you thought was a thick wall of misery is a constantly shifting combination of emotions. The perception alone makes the feelings more manageable.
You may notice yourself resisting these difficult emotions and the bodily sensations that accompany them—pushing them away and feeling ashamed of them. Or perhaps you find yourself getting pulled into them—replaying an argument, or reliving feelings of rage, helplessness, or humiliation.
Perhaps the emotions that the thought or situation call up are so upsetting that you start to cry. If you do, that’s okay; it’s part of your experience. You can become aware of how you’re relating to the tears—how your body reacts, what blend of emotions accompanies the crying, what stories you tell yourself about crying.
If you feel overwhelmed by emotions, use awareness of your breath to anchor your attention in your body. This helps you return to the present moment. If you find yourself thinking I will always feel this way, or If I were stronger/more patient/smarter/kinder I wouldn’t feel this way, return to the simple truth of the moment—sitting and being aware of your breath. See if you can recognize that the emotion is a temporary state, not your total self.
And when you are ready, open your eyes. Take a deep breath and relax.
During the day, if a difficult emotion arises, see if you can apply these skills of awareness to it.
This article was adapted from Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg © 2010. Reprinted with permission of Workman Press.
Related: On the Contagious Power of Presence
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