The Issue at Hand


Chapter 14: Mindfulness of Emotions

There’s no fire like that of lust,
No grasping like that of hate,
No snare
like that of delusion,
No river like that of craving. 

– Dhammapada 251


Bringing awareness to our emotions helps us to have straightforward or uncomplicated emotions. No emotion is inappropriate within the field of our mindfulness practice. We are trying to allow them to exist as they arise, without reactivity, without the additional complications of judgment, evaluation, preferences, aversion, desires, clinging or resistance.

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.”

As long as we are alive we can expect painful experiences – the first arrow. To condemn, judge, criticize, hate, or deny the first arrow is like being struck by a second arrow. Many times the first arrow is out of our control but the arrow of reactivity is not.

Often the significant suffering associated with an emotion is not the emotion itself but the way we relate to it. Do we feel it to be unacceptable? Justified? Do we hate it? Feel pride in it? Are we ashamed of it? Do we tense around it? Are we afraid of how we are feeling?

Mindfulness itself does not condemn our reactions. Rather it is honestly aware of what happens to us and how we react to it. The more cognizant and familiar we are with our reactivity the more easily we can feel, for example, uncomplicated grief or straightforward joy, not mixed up with guilt, anger, remorse, embarrassment, judgment or other reactions. Freedom in Buddhism is not freedom from emotions; it is freedom from complicating them.

There are four aspects to mindfulness of emotions: recognition, naming, acceptance and investigation. There is no need to practice with all four each time an emotion is present. You can experiment to find out how they each encourage a non-reactive awareness towards emotions.

Recognition: A basic principle of mindfulness is that we cannot experience freedom and spaciousness unless we recognize what is happening. Recognizing certain emotions as they arise can sometimes be difficult. We have been taught that some emotions are inappropriate, or we are afraid of them, or simply don’t like them. For example, when I first started practice, I became angry when my practice on retreat didn’t go the way I expected it to. But I had an image of myself as someone who was not angry, so I didn’t acknowledge the anger. Not until I recognized the anger could the retreat really begin for me. The more we learn to recognize the range of our emotions, including the subtlest ones, the more familiar and comfortable we become with them. As this happens, their grip on us relaxes.

Naming: A steady and relaxed mental noting, or naming of the emotion of the moment-“joy”, “anger”, “frustration”, “happiness”, “boredom”, “contentment”, “desire” and the like-encourages us to stay present with what is central in our experience. Naming is a powerful way to keep us from identifying with strong emotions. There are many ways that we are caught by emotions: we can feel justified in them, condemn them, feel ashamed of them, or enthralled with them. Naming helps us step outside of the identification to a more neutral point of observation: “it’s like this.” Folk tales tell of the dragon losing its power when it is named. Likewise, emotions can lose their power over us when they are named.

Acceptance: In mindfulness, we simply allow emotions to be present, whatever they may be. This does not mean condoning or justifying our feelings. Formal meditation practice offers us the extraordinary opportunity to practice unconditional acceptance of our emotions. This does not mean expressing emotion, but letting emotions move through us without inhibitions, resistance, or encouragement. To facilitate acceptance, we can try to see that the emotion has arisen because certain conditions have come together. For example, if you had a flat tire on the way to work, and your boss gave you a new assignment with a tight deadline after you finally arrived, you might feel frustrated or angry. If your boss gave you that same assignment on a morning after you’d had a good night’s sleep and heard some great news about your stock options, you might feel excited or challenged. If we can see emotions as arising from a particular set of conditions, we can more easily accept them, and not take them personally.

Investigation: This entails dropping any fixed ideas we have about an emotion and looking at it afresh. Emotions are composite events, made up of bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, motivations and attitudes. Investigation is not abstract analysis. Instead it is more of a sensory awareness exercise: we feel our way into the present moment experience of the emotions. Particularly useful is the practice of investigating the bodily sensations of an emotion. The correlation between emotions and their physical manifestation is so strong that when we resist or suppress our emotions, we often do the same with sensations in parts of our bodies. Waking up to our body through mindfulness practice also allows us to wake up to our capacity to feel emotions. If we let the body be the container for the emotion, we can more easily disengage from the thoughts around the emotion-the stories, analysis, or attempts to fix the situation-and simply rest with the present moment experience.

Mindfulness of emotions helps us to come to a place where we don’t react habitually to our inner urges and emotions. That place is a good foundation from which to look carefully at situations and make wise decisions. The point of Buddhist meditation is not to become emotionally neutral. Through it, we can open up to our full capacity to feel emotions and be sensitive to the world around us, and yet not be overwhelmed by what we feel.


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