Practicing mindfulness means being awake to life and non-judgmentally aware of experience. In this experience we find the vast array of emotions that comprise the feeling life of a human being. Some are pleasant, and we feel like we could mindfully bask in them all day. Some are not so pleasant, but if we apply mindfulness meditation techniques, we find that our emotions will not swallow or destroy us. We need not recoil from or reject them to find a sense of peace and freedom.
Michele McDonald, an accomplished Vipassana meditation teacher, developed a process for coping with feelings called RAIN: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Non-identification. I love this acronym because I have always found it useful to think, in mindfulness practice, of all my experience as the weather against which I, the sky, remain still and never-changing.
Naming the emotion is a powerful act: it corrals the feeling and cuts it into an appropriate size and shape. When we are able to point at something and give it a name, it is the first step in disentangling ourselves from its grasp. The part of our consciousness which does the naming becomes stronger, and it is the namer, not the emotion, that we need to connect with.
We ask with kind curiosity: What is this feeling? Loss? Anger? Fear? Despair? It is important to be honest with ourselves. At times, it is immediately obvious what we are feeling, but at other times we will be surprised when we apply clarity of language to our emotional state. Sometimes, what we thought was “shame” is more accurately “remorse,” and that clarification in itself is comforting. Sometimes, what we thought was “anxiety” is actually, upon investigation, “excitement.” In these cases, we have begin to make our emotions easier to cope with by simply naming them.
Murky or confusing feelings that resist being named at all will sometimes occur. When we don’t know what to call our emotion, there is no need to agonize over what, exactly, it is. We can simply name it, “discomfort” or “chaos,” or even more simply name it “feeling.”
The best way out is always through.
We cannot reject our emotions because we don’t like having them. We ARE having them, and therefore, the only way to find peace is to accept them absolutely as they are in this moment. Mindfulness practice is an “inside job,” and our minds are a safe place to acknowledge our truth– we must give ourselves permission to feel what we feel.
Let us say that a sibling or good friend is purchasing a home, and because you are not in a financial place to do so, you feel envious and angry. This is an instance where we may think we shouldn’t be feeling what we are feeling. We think we ought to be happy for them, so we turn from our true reaction because we think it indicates a character defect or that it means we are bad people. This rejection of emotion is self-destructive– rejecting something as bad doesn’t make it disappear! We must remember that in the safety of mindfulness and meditation, we not only have permission to emote honestly, we have a responsibility to do so. We don’t need to have a good and just reason for our feelings.
Even when our emotions are easily justifiable, it can still be uncomfortable to sit with them. Anger is a good example of this because it is a feeling that we like to express physically in order to get out of sitting with it. We like to yell or exercise or hit something or overeat or drink alcohol, and the last thing we want to do is mindfully hold the feeling in our awareness. It is as though we are trying to physically push the feeling out of us– we don’t like it, and so it must go!
In these and all cases, we have to move into a place of acceptance: “I feel X and how interesting it is. It is neither good nor bad. It simply is.”
Investigation does NOT mean getting wrapped up in the story of why we are feeling what we are feeling. If we are sitting with sadness, we do not silently build a case for why we are sad. Instead, we turn our attention to the present-moment experience of having the emotion. Compassionate curiosity is the attitude: how do I know I am feeling sad? What signals indicate to me that I am sad?
As Rocky’s coach Mick Goldmill would say, “Go to the body!” Search for physical manifestations of the feeling and explore sensations in the body. Sadness might manifest as a heaviness in the limbs or heart, anxiety as tension in the neck and back, or fear as heat in the chest. We may be surprised what we discover when we look for how emotions express themselves in our flesh.
The strategy of going to the body is meant to anchor us in the present moment and quiet the inner narrator who is constantly chatting with us about the past experience that led to this emotion and what future things will be affected by it. Stay in the body and stay with the breath– the inner narrator will recede and get quieter with practice.
Feeling something does not mean we are that thing. There is a difference between feeling depressed and being depressed, between, “I am experiencing sadness” and “I am a sad person.”
When we are entangled with an emotion, there is almost always some aspect of identification with it, a feeling of “I, me, or mine,” or identification with the story that is associated with it.
Having recognized, accepted, and investigated our feeling(s), we are able to step back and not to mistake emotion as being part of us but rather as an experience we are having. We need to remember that we are not the feeling: we are the human being having the feeling.
If we can only experience serenity when we feel good, we will be constantly diving in and out of it, with even our serene moments colored by the knowledge that the next unpleasant feeling will take it from us. Mindfulness of emotions teaches us that our feelings, good and bad, simply exist and pass, like an internal rainstorm, and we can be peaceful and free no matter what the weather.