Mindfulness of Emotion

I’ve been thinking lately about how the culture in which I live relates to emotions. A brief look at common idioms tells the tale:

  • Beside oneself (i.e., overcome by emotion)
  • Blowing hot and cold (i.e., vacillating between extremes of emotion)
  • Chewing the scenery (i.e., displaying excessive emotion when performing)
  • Cold fish (i.e., an unemotional or heartless person)
  • In the heat of the moment (i.e., proceeding rashly without due thought)
  • Laying it on thick (i.e., exaggerating emotion)
  • Make a scene (i.e., garners unnecessary attention due to an emotional outburst)
  • Touchy-feely (i.e., driven by emotion or sensitivity)

They don’t cast emotion in a favorable light. Moreover, in my experience of the working world, “being emotional” is not a good thing. The preferred persona shows up as cool-headed, logical, highly skilled, prepared, confident, bullet-proof. It’s a calling to live within the seemingly controlled realm of the head and to distance oneself from messy emotions. But here’s the rub:

  • According to Dr. Bab Shiv, emotions drive choice. Human beings make snap decisions and then process all subsequent data through filters that support these subconsciously rendered assessments. (This mechanism holds true for men and women!)
  • Our moods effect how we experience the world and move within it. A positive (happy) or neutral mood primes us for action; a negative mood primes us for inaction.
  • In Atlas of the Heart, New York Times best-selling author, and highly viewed TED Talker Dr. Brené Brown notes: “If I don’t know and understand who I am and what I need, want, and believe, I can’t share myself with you. I need to be connected to myself, in my own body, and learning what makes me work.”

When Dr. Brown asked 7,500 people to identify the emotions that they could recognize and name as they experienced them, the average person only came up with three – mad, sad, and glad. Rather thin emotional literacy! But why do these three resonate?

Think about a time when you got angry. What did it feel like in your body? Perhaps a tightness in the chest and shoulders? A roiling belly? Did you feel like an Instant Pot that had built up pressure such that if anyone pressed down on the pop-up red button, you’d blow out a lot of steam? What does it feel like in the body to hold all that steam in? To try desperately not to give into anger (or even admit that you’re feeling it)?

Now think about a time when you were sad. How did that feeling show up in the body? An aching in the heart? Perhaps the body drooping forward with the head hanging low, closing in on itself, protecting the sensitive heart? A weariness? Tears forming and awaiting release?

Finally, bring to mind a joyful occasion. I’m remembering a spur of the moment break from studies, going to a comedy club with friends, and finding out that the headliner would be Robin Williams. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much! What was happening in my body? Openness. Big smile on my face. Lightness of being. Deep, deep release of built-up tension. Embraced by the warmth of community.

The common denominator: Emotions make their presence known in the body. So, how do we build awareness of our emotions and find healthy ways to make room for all of them?

My go-to practice – in fact my favorite practice – goes by the acronym R.A.I.N. for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. It presents an invitation to pause, connect to what’s happening in the moment, and take a compassionate interest in the interior landscape.

The R of R.A.I.N. invites me to recognize and name the primary emotion that I’m feeling.

The A of R.A.I.N. asks me to let that emotion just be. Not label it right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate. Not judging myself for feeling it or stuffing it in a box and putting it on a shelf. Just saying “YES” to it. This, too, is part of the human experience. And this is what I’m feeling in this moment. The A of R.A.I.N. doesn’t give me license to act unskillfully but simply acknowledge what’s there.

The I of R.A.I.N. invites me to bring an interested and kind attention to the experience. What sensations does it evoke in the body, and where are they located? Are other emotions along for the ride? What stories am I telling myself in this moment?

The N of R.A.I.N. calls for a nurturing response from the wisest and most compassionate part of my being in answer to the question: What is it that I need right now?

While it’s ideal to practice R.A.I.N. in the moment, it works just fine after the fact. After the R.A.I.N., I like to reflect on takeaways from the practice. What new insights about the situation under investigation showed up? What have I learned about myself and the practice?

Although the nurturing aspect of R.A.I.N. suggests its use for challenging emotions, it’s a wonderful practice for examining pleasant sensations – to get a visceral sense of was it feels like to be open and uplifted.