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John

Taking back control of my emotions

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I am new to the mindfulness concept but in a short time I have seen it start to change my way of thinking.  A lot of the time I feel my mind is racing from one thing to another and it can be exhausting. Sometimes iT makes it difficult to sleep. I would like to get better control over my thoughts and emotions.John

 

 

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Hello John! Wonderful to meet you and welcome to the community. I'm the community manager here so if you have any specific community-related questions, feel free to ask at anytime.

I remember when I first stepped into exploring and learning about mindfulness (it was Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, that was my entry point), the first thing I noticed was how I started to think and to see the world differently. Even in a short period of time, mindfulness can really shift things for us. Sometimes its like a light bulb going off that then just needs to be integrated.

The racing mind is indeed exhausting - both mentally and physically. There are some great resources that you might like to explore to give you a hand when it's difficult to be mindful of wandering thoughts. Here are some guides that highlight a few different practices as well as some background information about stress, mindfulness, and sleep:

https://mindfulnessexercises.com/how-to-meditate-into-sleep/

https://mindfulnessexercises.com/10-mindfulness-exercises-for-sleep/

https://mindfulnessexercises.com/tranquil-meditation-sleep-music/

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At first reading this, I made myself a coffee and then listened to Joseph Goldstein on emotions and moods.

My initial thought was the question, "how do you relate to your emotions," and the description that they "flow through us" belies a mistaken impression of emotions. They are not separate from us, they are we. There is no one separate from emotions. I have found most people have a very strong emotional response to this suggestion as though it is threatening. They have strongly identified with a seemingly continual phenomenon of having awareness of emotions within their organism that seems somehow separate from emotions. Let me ask, however, which is "you," the awareness, the emotions, or what? 

Mindfulness practice can reinforce the delusion that emotions are separate from the "I" we each experience through awareness. Not only are we taught to be more mindful of emotions, we are told we can learn to "regulate" them. While there is truth to this, there also is the risk that it might reinforce a tendency to denigrate the importance of emotions in regulating and maintaining our wellbeing. Perhaps emotions are part and parcel of our awareness, although sometimes at levels below our conscious recognition. Perhaps consciousness and emotions are abilities developed over the course of evolution that arise in response to changes in states within the body to impel actions to restore and maintain those states within certain levels or even to optimize those states. Perhaps emotions and consciousness are not even separate abilities, but our mind conceives of them as being different when they are inextricable. This conception and our continual tendency to act as though it were true is one reason why Joseph Goldstein's teachings and Gillian's invitation are so skillful.

Still, it might be helpful to consider If emotions and consciousness interdependently co-arise, perceiving them as separate and distinct can exacerbate any dissonance, distress or unbalance we might feel. It might throw us into inner conflict. After I listened to Joseph, I listened to Gil Fronsdal's live online session which coincidentally was about the aspect of mindfulness practice that leads toward integration and inclusiveness. This aspect of practices accepts and embraces even difficulties, such as unsettling emotions, as being part of lived, embodied experience without our having to identify with it, take it up, become it, or get tightly entangled with it. Or, at least this aspect of practice leads to a certain acceptance of and distancing from getting all entangled with it! This part of practice takes a lot of time to develop. Now, I am just trying to suggest emotions are important, they reflect important events in our bodies and imbue our consciousness. They are not separate. My suggestion is that exploring this possibility can be life-changing. If anyone fears that viewing emotions from this perspective might make them seem too powerful and overwhelming, that is something to be honored too.

Best Wishes.

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Pointing in the direction to which I alluded, I offer this brief talk by noted neuroscientist and author Antonio Damasio.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilrelFkDYls

For those fans of Buddha's teachings, I would point out that the Buddha had very similar insights, without the benefit of modern technology and science, some 2500 years ago and modern mindfulness teachings in great part derive from those insights. My personal view of his teachings on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is to immerse one in the foundations for wisdom and wellbeing as opposed to ignorance/delusion and suffering. It starts with the first foundation--mindfulness of the body, or mindfulness of the sensations of the body and developing a deep and relaxed awareness of the body, the ground of our experience. It progresses to the second foundation--mindfulness of feelings, understanding that our intentions and impulses to act even on the mental level involve basic feelings intertwined with cognition of sensations. The conditions for their arising involve body states just as sensations do. They in turn affect the quality of our conscious experience and the ways we relate to it. This is the third foundation--quality of mind, which is where things really start to get complicated and probably where we could include emotions that express how we subjectively relate to certain objects. This stage easily lends itself to misconceptions and rationalizations for indulging in all sorts of behaviors that are counterproductive in terms of our sustained wellbeing (ignorance/delusion). With practice and experience we begin to turn the corner and appreciate alternatives exist that lead to healthier states of mind. Then we are ready to train in the fourth foundation of mindfulness with various perspectives that help us attune with our nature, deepen our understanding of what those healthier alternatives are for each of us, and make them more readily available to us. This is only my personal understanding. Please feel free to refute or disregard it. I mean it, feel free to be merciless because I might learn something from it.

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Thank you for your sharing these reflections and insights @David Weiskopf! I enjoyed how in that video, Antonio Damasio explores the problems with bypassing emotions. And I agree, as you've pointed out, that there can be some challenges or consequences of taking the lens that we need to 'regulate' our emotions. Emotions and feeling states indeed have much importance (from feelings of hunger to feelings of anger). I don't think that regulation of our reactions to emotions is inherently negative, but as I'm reflecting on it now, I'm realizing that the most natural form of regulation of our reactions comes naturally. In other words, it is not something that we should necessarily force because we perceive one way to be 'good' and another 'bad'. Rather, as we practice mindfulness, our ways of perceiving our experience broadens and therefore our responses naturally shift in ways that bring us back to homeostasis more effectively. This is from my own mindfulness practice and experience anyways.

As for the question of whether our feelings are separate from us... I agree that they are not (they're as much a part of us as anything else). But I do think it can be helpful to create some cognitive distance between ourselves and our emotions simply to realize that we are not defined by them. For myself anyways, understanding that my experience of emotions flows through my awareness has helped me to not be swept away with them. Metaphorically speaking I can more effortlessly (though not always perfectly or immediately!) be the riverbed that holds the current.

I really appreciate your thoughts and reflections. It's really nice to probe these ideas from new angles.

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9 hours ago, Gillian Sanger said:

Rather, as we practice mindfulness, our ways of perceiving our experience broadens and therefore our responses naturally shift in ways that bring us back to homeostasis more effectively.

Yes. That, I believe, is what Gil Fronsdal means by, "this too." Everything in our experience is included.

9 hours ago, Gillian Sanger said:

But I do think it can be helpful to create some cognitive distance between ourselves and our emotions simply to realize that we are not defined by them. For myself anyways, understanding that my experience of emotions flows through my awareness has helped me to not be swept away with them. Metaphorically speaking I can more effortlessly (though not always perfectly or immediately!) be the riverbed that holds the current.

Beautifully said. That really describes in part how our experience broadens, as you said above. Your use of the term "cognitive distance" was unfamiliar to me and I figured in psychology there must be some concept of "cognitive distancing," so I looked it up in my browser. I thought this article really discussed the overall strategy well and listed many useful tactics.

 https://www.yvp.com.au/2017/11/14/cognitive-fusion-and-cognitive-distancing/#:~:text=Cognitive distancing is the act,by an attitude of acceptance. 

I guess your phrase about "being defined" by emotions would be part of the "cognitive fusion" discussed in the article. In my personal mindfulness practice, I think of it in terms of "identification" and "becoming" a person attached to the emotion, or maybe more precisely my ideas about the emotion, as opposed to being attuned to it and/or informed by it.

I don't deliberate nearly so much as I rely on perspectives gained from meditation practice and, based on your prior posts, I am guessing you respond similarly. These perspectives include greater spaciousness, acceptance, confidence, flexibility, openness, patience, and compassion. The attachment to an emotion or fixation on it does not happen as easily as in the past. When it does happen it carries all sorts of warnings, not that they always are heeded.

Our emotions are trying to tell us something important. They are trying to move us toward undertaking some satisfying action. The problem of discerning what action might be most appropriate is greatly compounded by the fact that we can have emotions about our emotions and our emotions arrive with memories, some conscious and some latent, about which we also can have emotions.

How to untangle such a knot! The intellect cannot do it alone, even with the assistance of such useful ideas as in the above article, because all it understands is the surface or outer appearance of the knot. I think just the impossibility of penetrating the depths of the problem often leads us to act out impulsively in troubling ways. It is so understandable, but then we get caught in the rut of having to rationalize and validate our actions while minimizing the havoc they cause. So, we get more caught up in knots. For me, blaming formed a big part of this picture, "It must be somebody's fault...probably somebody else's, but if not him or her, then it must be me." But, in the most important sense, it simply "IS," and we have to start there if we are going to make it better in the future.

So, as I see it, part of mindfulness practice is creating a safe and spacious container in which we can recognize our habitual impulses, start letting them go, and begin to see what bubbles up that formed conditions for those impulses. We know when this is working because we feel more whole, more integrated, more balanced, and more contented and relaxed. It is gratifying. I think of this as a different sort of "cognitive distancing" that helps us better see the greater context of experience in our daily affairs as well. It causes shifts in both attitudinal and cognitive predispositions. I would think both types of cognitive distancing would have their uses and benefits.

I am so glad you posted what you did. I think this is such an important topic and I was a little distressed that no one was talking about it. I also worried that my post might have put people off. So, thanks for your input. Have a great week.

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14 hours ago, David Weiskopf said:

Our emotions are trying to tell us something important. They are trying to move us toward undertaking some satisfying action. The problem of discerning what action might be most appropriate is greatly compounded by the fact that we can have emotions about our emotions and our emotions arrive with memories, some conscious and some latent, about which we also can have emotions.

How to untangle such a knot! The intellect cannot do it alone, even with the assistance of such useful ideas as in the above article, because all it understands is the surface or outer appearance of the knot. I think just the impossibility of penetrating the depths of the problem often leads us to act out impulsively in troubling ways. It is so understandable, but then we get caught in the rut of having to rationalize and validate our actions while minimizing the havoc they cause. So, we get more caught up in knots.

When I read that first paragraph, I thought "what a mind bender!" and then immediately read your description of it as a knot. Very appropriate. I agree that the intellect alone cannot untangle this. It does play a role to some degree, but heart plays into it... soul plays into it... and spirit plays into it too - however we might understand those. I also think tuning into space and silence is a powerful way of unraveling the mysterious nature of our habits and thought patterns. I also really like the notion of the safe container - something that holds it all.

One way I practice 'making peace' with my difficult emotions is, when they arise (and when I remember to do this), to silently whisper to them, "It's okay that you're here. It's okay that you're here." For me this helps me to validate what is present without jumping into righteousness about what I'm feeling.

Thanks again for all that you've shared on this! 🙂

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Also - great resource on cognitive fusion & distancing! I like many of the strategies and metaphors shared there.

15 hours ago, David Weiskopf said:

Beautifully said. That really describes in part how our experience broadens, as you said above. Your use of the term "cognitive distance" was unfamiliar to me and I figured in psychology there must be some concept of "cognitive distancing," so I looked it up in my browser. I thought this article really discussed the overall strategy well and listed many useful tactics.

 https://www.yvp.com.au/2017/11/14/cognitive-fusion-and-cognitive-distancing/#:~:text=Cognitive distancing is the act,by an attitude of acceptance. 

 

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Gillian, instead of worrying about being engulfed by a wave of emotion or how to deal with it as a challenge, suppose we surrender any distance and completely give ourselves to being the wave and knowing it fully?

As I have suggested, my sense is that some deficiency or excess in the body gives rise to an emotion, but not just to an emotion. The emotion is inextricably bound-up with associated memories sensed as being our personal history and projected onto a stage for which we are urged to write the next action. It frames our consciousness; our awareness is not separate from it.

Cognitive distancing therefore creates an artificial separation and moves us out of the action, making us observers. Why not move so close that there is no separation, but only the stirrings and fragments for writing the next movements? Wouldn't it be useful to hear them out completely and understand their context? We would have to have ardent and intimate interest because there might not be even a minute before the emotion gives way to something new. So, we would have to settle completely into it without the wish to accomplish anything or make anything different, being as still as we could be so as not to disrupt it. There can be a perspective of stillness with a wave in the same manner we can sense our bodies to be still even though we are rotating the earth's center at around 1000 miles per hour. But, to achieve that we would have to eliminate separation from the wave of emotion, stop judging it or preferring it to be different. Think what we might learn. Think how doing so, without introducing separation, might change the way subsequent moments of consciousness are framed. With practice I think this alternative can be available to us, as I am sure you know. If so, I am hoping we can find words that point to it.

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Lovely reflection. I definitely agree that being fully present to or immersed with our emotions is a powerful practice - to open to it completely. I guess my feeling is that different practices are better suited for different people and in different moments - or even within a single wave. For myself, the ability to do more of what you've suggested only really came after learning to create space between myself and my thoughts. I guess it's a bit tricky because as you say, emotions arise from within the body - but they also arise from thought. When thought patterns are perpetuating the experience of a particular emotion, I think it can be valuable to witness that thought as the observer, which suggests that there is some sort of division. However, I certainly agree that with practice, we can learn to just 'be' with our emotions as they are. It can take some time to learn what this really means though.

This idea of being with the raw experience of any moment was presented to me first through the teachings of Amoda Maa (at least that's when it first 'clicked'). I'm not sure if you've heard of her. I would share a specific link but I can't remember which ones she presents this idea in. Probably many though I'm sure.

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Hey @David Weiskopf,

I watched this video this morning and thought about this discussion we were having. Have you listened to the teachings of Rupert Spira at all? I listen to him quite often and really resonated with this talk, which highlights both the approach of distancing from emotions and in contrast becoming more intimate with them. You may enjoy it.

 

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Wow, that was a beautiful exposition of the two approaches. I only know Spira through your postings.

I think it might be nice to add Kristin Neff's perspective on self-compassion.  https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/self-compassion.break_.mp3 I know both Sean and Tara Brach have emphasized how important it is to spend time with the last part, really abiding with how one is feeling after having done the exercise. I suspect Spira was suggesting something similar when he told the questioner where she would find the "resolution" she is seeking.

From my own perspective, there is one thing I would like to add and get your viewpoint on, Gillian. For many of us, I suspect most of us, the vedantic approach is the only one really available to us because we are so strongly identified with our first-person, autobiographical perspective. "This emotion is happening to me...What can I do!" I really don't know what Spira would say, but I suspect it would be something along the lines, "No, you and the emotion are one and an expression of the natural universe...Why would you fight that while you could delight in it?" If only that were easily done! We do not indulge this self-centered, dualistic tendency simply because it is useful to our survival nor because the sense of "Me" seems logically associated with the locus of our sensory experience. We do it out of subconscious processes that, speaking of emotions, involve a basic and root terror--of dying. Check out this video, which also by the way helps explain the denial of science we currently are experiencing in the political arena: 

Unconsciously we cling to perspectives rooted in ignorance and fear. We cannot help it (and demagogues and con artists exploit it)! Through practice the veil of delusion can be penetrated, freeing and expanding qualities of the heart that otherwise would remain closely guarded. Simply intellectually understanding this is not enough to get the job done, but it can help. Moreover, the job is not something one can push too quickly because it can be discomforting and overwhelming. Please share your thoughts.

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Hey David,

I definitely sense as well that our (largely unconscious) fear of death is beneath many of our strong emotions and associated reactions. I found that video really interesting as it elaborated on this basic notion. And I also feel that intellectually understanding it can be a good start, but that in order to fully grasp it and overcome it, we need to practice. I've often said I want to practice mindfulness of death more but then have never made a really commitment to doing so (maybe that's some unconscious resistance!). But in any case, I think there would be great value in that practice. As you said, it's not something to push or rush into. I think it is a good idea to have a basic mindfulness practice/understanding established first. Then, when we're ready to move deeper into understanding our thoughts, actions, and reactions, the topic of death might be the next terrain to explore.

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