3 reasons to use mindfulness to be with your feelings (and how to do it)
Feelings can be a gateway to either heaven or hell. Mindfulness offers us the freedom to choose which of these paths we take. Here are 3 reasons why using mindfulness to be present with our feelings is so important and 3 simple tips on how to do it.
1. Dispelling the happiness myth
One of the biggest myths about feelings is that they’re either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. We all know those ‘negative’ feelings, the ones we don’t like, that make us uncomfortable. But however uncomfortable they may be, they’re an important part of being human. We’re rather cleverly designed to feel the full spectrum of human emotions, each having it’s natural place in our lives. If we judge some of our feelings as negative, we struggle against natural emotions like anger and sadness. The truth is, we don’t become better people by only having some emotions and not others. We all experience sadness, anxiety, grief, anger and fear as well as joy and love. Growth rather comes from how we relate to our emotions and knowing how to be with them.
The other great myth we commonly buy into is the happiness myth. This idea is that our natural emotional state is one of happiness and if we’re not happy, there’s something wrong with us. It suggests we should be able to change our feelings and thoughts to ‘be happy’ and that if we can’t, we need help. Feeling anxious or depressed at times is completely normal, especially in our splintered and individualistic society. Rather than believing we need to change our emotions, we need to learn how to be with them, whatever they are.
2. Avoiding our feelings creates illness and alienation
Growing up, most of us heard ‘Don’t have a tanty’ or ‘Boys don’t cry’. But not feeling our feelings can lead to biological changes in our bodies, causing stress and illness. Professor Gary Schwartz, a forerunner of psychoneuroimmunology, or mind-body medicine, talked about the ACE factor (Attend, Connect, Express). He found that people who attend to, connect to and express their feelings in a healthy way, had correspondingly healthy immune systems. Those who suppressed, avoided or rationalised their feelings had underactive or overactive immune systems, which can create devastating illness in the body.
Avoiding our feelings not only affects our bodies, but our relationships with ourselves and with others. When we don’t feel our feelings, they can creep up into our minds and start creating stories. The more we overthink them, the more likely we are to get stuck in moods and attitudes that don’t serve us well. We can become overly critical, angry, impatient, intolerant, stubborn and proud. Often we then take up a position, either against ourselves or those around us.
3. Feeling are there to be felt, not solved
These days, we are usually moving at the speed of light as we struggle to fit everything in and don’t slow down often enough to listen to the softer voices within. We are also so used to utilising our thinking minds that we spend too much time analysing and judging our feelings, trying to ‘solve’ them rather than feel them.
Mindfulness gives us a chance to hit the pause button, tune in and become aware of our feelings. If we meet our feelings where they’re experienced, we can integrate and release them. We are also able to take ownership of our feelings so we don’t end up projecting them onto others or blaming others for our unhappiness.
Mindfulness also allows us to connect to background feelings which may have been bubbling away for weeks, months or even years. These feelings often act as triggers for us as the body tries to digest them. Each time we sit in mindfulness, we chip away at the store of unregistered emotion within and slowly begin to transform our relationship to it, developing courage and insight along the way.
Here are 3 simple tips on how to use mindfulness to be with your feelings:
1. Stop and feel
Stop and take a few deep breaths to really connect to your body. Focus your attention on your throat, chest cavity, solar plexus, and upper and lower belly, the places in our body where we house most of our feelings. Ask yourself, what am I feeling in these areas? Is it tight, hot, shaky or scratchy? You don’t have to be able to describe it, you just need to feel it. You can even place your hand on the area you are feeling it.
2. Acknowledge your feelings
Acknowledge and accept the sensations you are feeling. There are no wrong feelings. Gently feel and accept whatever is there. Notice if you are trying to push it away, hold it in or turn away from it and see if you can ever so softly reconnect with it. You might say to yourself, ahh, I’m feeling frightened or my heart is racing or my stomach feels knotted.
3. Keep them company
One way to just be present with your feelings is to think of it as though you are keeping them company. You don’t need to change them, deconstruct them or solve them. Just sit with them in comfortable silence as you would with a friend who is feeling blue or a child (perhaps your own inner child) who wants only to be loved, accepted and held.
Know that whatever arises is ready for releasing and healing. If you feel like talking about it, it might be useful to see a counsellor or talk to a trusted friend. Keep checking in and remember that it won’t always be so intense. Ask yourself, what is it that I need right now?
Practising mindfulness of feelings is challenging but extremely rewarding on many levels. If we keep focusing on all of the areas where we feel our emotions, then we won’t skip over what is hiding within, including the parts that are dark, cold, neglected, shameful and painful. The aim is to slowly, and with much compassion, integrate them all.
Rumi said it best in his poem entitled:
This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a sadness, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness,
Comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out,
For some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent,
As a guide from beyond.