When something happens in our environment (internal or external) the initial emotions that come up are our body’s way of alerting us, giving us information, and getting us ready to act in some way.
Sometimes our feelings are easily identifiable. Other times, they have multiple layers and can become convoluted. Why? Because our thoughts can jump in and we may interpret, judge or react to the initial feeling(s).
“The moment anything happens to you, you interpret a meaning for it. The meaning you choose governs your perception, your thinking, your faith, your choices, your feelings, your behaviours – everything” — Robert Holden, author of Shift Happens!
When we can slow it down, we can see the space between the initial emotion and our interpretation of it. Within this space, is where we have choice.
Being with our emotions
Being present is not a caricature hippy-version of being mellowed out, not caring about the past or the future. If a wave of anxiety comes up and I simply focus on the beauty of a flower to distract myself, am I really being present? Of course not. Being present is about being with ourselves fully, which includes the wave of anxiety.
When we are in tune with ourselves — body, mind and soul — and listening to what is happening around us and within us, we are better able to decipher the message within the feeling. Is it about what is happening right now? Or have I added more layers to it with the chatter in my head?
“Being caught up in your thought system is like being caught up in a storm….When you hang on to your thoughts instead of getting quiet until they pass, you often have a fight with yourself….Don’t underestimate the power of quiet to help you let go of illusionary thoughts so you can move into your heart” – Jane Nelsen, author of Serenity
Without the intensity of my thoughts adding more waves to my anxiety, I can better hear what I might need to do. Is it about trusting and letting go? Learning to surrender to the unknown? Are there steps I need to take right now, in order for the future to feel less overwhelming and scary? Or do I simply need to be with the feeling until it passes?
Think about it for a moment. The last time you felt afraid, hurt, fearful, angry, resentful – how much of it was about what was happening right then and how much of it was tied to leftovers from the past? If I didn’t say anything the last 9 times my toes were stomped on, aren’t the feelings that come up on the tenth time intensified by the past?
By gently observing, we can decipher the tendrils that are tied to the past or the future. I may discover that 20% is about what is happening right now and 80% is from the past (old scars, old messages, judgements, self-talk) or future (fears, what if’s). I can then breathe, ground myself, and shift my thoughts away from the past/future into the present. Rather than bringing in the kitchen sink from the past, I can respond to what is happening now. Afterwards, I can make another choice, around what might need to be done to further heal the past or break old patterns.
Often the intensity of our feelings can frighten us. Yet when we slow it down, we often find that it is our thoughts that are intensifying the feeling, not the actual feeling. “This is too much…I don’t want to feel this way…I can’t handle this…Don’t be so weak…Why am I feeling this way?…Quit feeling this way…Not again…Don’t go there”…
Yet when we allow our selves to observe and quiet our thoughts, we can hear the message. Our feelings are trying to tell us something. Are we listening?
If you want to do further reading, here are some interesting articles I came across while writing this post:
- Michael Schriener has written an article called Primary Emotion and Secondary Emotion that looks at how to isolate and use your primary emotions for growth while understanding the origin of your secondary emotions.
- Jennifer Lehr, MFT has written an article called Emotions and Emotional Release, which has a section that talks about her experience of allowing her feelings to come through during the practice of yoga.
- Shamash Alidina has an article called Using Mindfulness to Cope with Difficult Emotions that includes a ”Cheat Sheet” explaining the acronym R.A.I.N: Recognize your emotions, Accept the experience without judgement, Investigate where you feel the emotion in your body and your thoughts, and Non-identify with the feeling (the feeling is not me, it is simply passing through me). He also discusses the concept further in his book Mindfulness For Dummies
- Tara Brach also talks in more detail about the R.A.I.N concept in an article called Working with Difficulties: The Blessings of RAIN. She also discusses it in her book True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart