Identifying Emotions

Sometimes a visual reminder is necessaryVisua
Visual cues are useful for planning and problem-solving. But how about using visual cues for emotions?

Practicing mindfulness can help us to get to know and to befriend our experiences, no matter what kind of experience it may be. When first beginning practice, it can be challenging to identify various emotions and their correlated thoughts, body sensations and behavioral impulses.

Identifying emotions is helpful for a variety of reasons. On a physiological level, it transfers energy from the very primal “emotion brain” of the amygdala to the area of the brain dedicated to helping us organize, remember and make sense of information. When we identify and label an emotion, we are essentially activating a part of the brain that can help us to problem-solve, inhibit undesirable behavior or respond more effectively to what we are experiencing. We still may choose to deal with that emotion in a more primal way (say, slamming your fist into the wall) but at least more of our cognitive resources are engaged and this action is more intentional.

Furthermore, once an emotion is identified, you have more information to work with. Rather than trying to slog blindly through a muddy and sort of icky, disconcerting experience, we can instead be more aware of what we’re experiencing, how long it might last, and what kinds of things might be able to make the experience more manageable. That being said, emotional events do not consist only of the “negative” stuff. Greater awareness of joy, pride, wonder, love and all those positive (for most people) feelings can be very useful as well. When we make note of a good feeling, we are essentially saying, “Hey, this is good stuff. I am going to pay attention.” And the more we cultivate emotional recognition, the better we can be at catching and enjoying a similar emotion in the future.

Mindfulness to emotion can be a tricky topic to introduce. We humans are generally great walking cascades of emotion from one moment to the next so pinpointing what is happening takes practice. Plus, we are collections of learned emotional associations that can be triggered by very subtle or even subconscious stimuli, for instance: a barely noticeable but familiar smell -> memory of your first love -> feelings of nostalgia.

One useful tool I’ve found for helping people to practice takes the form of a handy little device, called “Feeling Magnets.” The founders recently offered me a chance to test this little metal box and its myriad magnets with mindfulness class participants. I found it to be a very useful. It is not very technical- always a plus for me- and due to its portability and discretion, facilitates regular emotional checking-in. Plus, it gives the user an opportunity to put words to their emotional experience, explore emotion/behavior patterns and ultimately, to step back and respond to emotions in a more mindful way. Seeing the emotions you are experiencing written in front of you can help to strengthen the neural connections that will ultimately contribute to the building of a new habit: checking-in, recognizing and validating your emotional experience, and choosing how to proceed.

Simple but effective, "Feeling Magnets" help with mindfulness to emotion.
Simple but effective, “Feeling Magnets” can increase mindfulness to emotion.

As a big fan of visual reminders and cues,  I recommend this simple but effective tool to mindfulness enthusiasts and those who are curious about their emotions. Anything that helps us to witness and wonder at the incredible capacity of our mind gets a gold star from me.

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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Is Mindfulness Indifference?

It is normal to have lots of questions about practicing mindfulness.
It is normal to have questions about practicing mindfulness

During this weekend’s introduction to mindfulness class, a very useful question came up: Does being mindful mean being indifferent to our experience?

This question struck me as being particularly useful in that it helps to capture and put words to the challenge of being non-reactive to our experience. From our first days, our reactions to our physical and emotional experiences are reinforced: a baby cries when he feels hungry and is fed. As we mature, we learn that not every experience requires action, and not every experience means something about the past or future. For instance, as adults, we know that the sensation of hunger does not mean that we will die if we do not eat immediately. Awareness + maturity = wisdom.

Purposeful attention to what is present in a particular moment is mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes “non-judgment” as one of the attitudes that provides a foundation for practicing mindfulness. When we notice an experience, be it physical, behavioral, emotional or cognitive, it is very common to judge that experience as important or unimportant, worthy or unworthy, or even desirable or not. And judgment leads to action- whether it means simply putting a thought into a certain mental category or engaging in some behavior. Mindfulness teaches us how to simply notice our experience fully, without being dominated by the habit of judgment or action.

If we mistake the equanimity extended to our various experiences for indifference, we risk missing out on a lot of information. We pass up the opportunity to cultivate discernment in our judgments about experiences and make a balanced response to the full range of events unfolding in a particular moment. Indifference implies that the information we gain during an experience is not important and, therefore, not worthy of our attention. In addition, most of us are not naturally indifferent to our thoughts- quite the opposite. So, it is likely that obtaining indifference to our experience would require striving for a different mind state.

Rather, mindfulness helps us to open ourselves equally to all experiences (whatever our judgment about them) exactly as they are. Being mindful helps us to recognize and validate what is present for us in a given moment (even if it does not make any sense or fit with our values), and to respond to that moment with compassion and acceptance. In practical terms, it has the capacity to create some space around our deeply ingrained mental habits, thereby opening up opportunities to do things differently in life.

It is difficult to describe what is like to relate to yourself in this way, which is why the practice part is so important. Although the concept of mindfulness is not technical or metaphysical, we English speakers do not possess the language to easily describe the experience. It is best left to experience to show us how opening to the abundant richness of any particular moment- and letting it unfold exactly as it is- can help in forging a different relationship to thoughts, feelings, behaviors and body sensations.

(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)