When I was a young boy, I thought that the tender spot under the elbow was called the "funny bone" because you were supposed to laugh when you bumped it ... and that's exactly what I did. I laughed out loud, giggled, and had a pretty good time whenever I accidentally struck it against something hard. As time went by, however, I noticed that no one else thought hitting your funny bone was funny. Following the cue from the grown-up world around me, I learned to grit my teeth, bite my lip, and curse under my breath just like they did.
Most of us have taken our cues from the grown-up world when it comes to reacting to emotions too. As children, it may have been implied that anger was bad, that sadness, shyness, stress, and anxiety were weak, and pleasantness, happiness, and cheer were good. How did the grown-ups around us react to their own emotions? In other words, how did they feel about feelings? What did we pick up along the way? Did we learn to shut down, withdrawal, lash out, go numb, or in any other way deny, suppress, repress, or otherwise react to emotions rather than respond to them – in ourselves, and in others? Like the funny bone analogy, what we experience when we feel difficult emotions might be a learned or conditioned perspective. Maybe there’s something else going on. Maybe there’s something else to be seen and experienced – maybe we can laugh and be happy while we’re simultaneously in pain or discomfort.
"Never mind what I have been taught. Forget about theories and prejudgments and stereotypes. I want to understand the true nature of life. I want to know what this experience of being alive really is. I want to apprehend the true and deepest qualities of life, and I don't want to just accept somebody else's explanation. I want to see it for myself." ~ Bhante G
That sums up mindfulness perfectly and expresses a desire to ask ourselves, “What is this?” Difficult or challenging feelings/emotions in our bodies can be felt in very different ways depending on how we react or respond to them. Remember that the feeling of emotions in our bodies can be mindfully experienced apart from our thoughts and attitudes about them and apart from the thoughts that arise because of them. Isolated from thoughts, emotions can simply be felt and explored in the body with openness, curiosity, and wonder.
For example, if I happen to experience anger, tension, stress, or anxiety I first try to let go of the concepts I have for that emotion including the name of that emotion and my attitude towards it such as "bad," "unwanted," undesirable," and "uncomfortable." Next, I try to invite it into my awareness completely. I let it fill my awareness as much as I can and then begin to explore the physical experience with as much openness and curiosity as I can relax into. Sometimes the feeling of anger in my body becomes a neutral feeling and then shifts into joy, laughter, happiness, or just innocuous power.
This is often easier to experiment with in the formal practice of mindfulness meditation than it is on-the-fly in daily life, but that being said, the next time you feel an intense and unwanted emotion try to:
1. Find it in your body.
2. Let go of your reactive thoughts and conditioned judgments about the feeling.
3. Completely open to the feeling in your body - Don’t resist the discomfort or try to make it go away.
4. Open to the possibility that this emotion/feeling in your body is not what you've been taught it is. Maybe you’ve been taught that it should feel bad, and your experience is merely falling in line with the conditioned expectation.
5. Ask yourself, “What is this?” Let go of thoughts, and just feel.
Through this kind of openness, not only do we find ways of letting go of old emotional habits and conditioned reactions, we’re also less likely to pass on these old ways to our own children. Maybe we’ll find some beauty and freedom within us that has long been hidden – maybe we’ll then pass this sense of wonder and curiosity for life on to our little ones.