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Lions Roar : September 2019
With mindfulness we have some choices. When we realize we’re on the train, we can get off—it doesn’t matter how long we’ve been ruminating. Or we can never get on the train in the first place—a thought arises, we see it as a thought, and we stay on the platform while the train passes. How do we do this? Sometimes simply the power of notic- ing our thoughts in the moment is enough to help relieve them. Often we harangue ourselves without really noticing we are doing it, so this recognition is key. One more analogy: You know those thought bubbles that cartoon characters have over their heads? Imagine your critical thought is in a thought bubble. Now you can take the pin of mindfulness and pop it. Ah, sweet relief. When meditators catch a thought with their awareness, the thought may just dissolve in that moment—they’ve “popped it” or “got off the train.” This is wonderful when it happens, but it may be best case scenario. So I recommend that people also “note” thoughts: put soft mental labels on them like “self- criticism,” “ judgment,” “worrying,” “ blaming,” etc. Sometimes naming the thought can allow it to “pop.” This strategy is often called “name it to tame it.” Now let’s say that just labeling thought doesn’t do much—we find ourselves still ruminating, acting like a dog with a bone. Then it’s time to bring our attention into our body to notice if there is an emotion fueling the repetitive thought pattern. HOW TO MINDFULLY HOLD CHALLENGING EMOTIONS Study after study shows the benefit of using mindful- ness to regulate chal- lenging emotions. We can be mindful of thoughts and emo- tions together, or we can focus on a strong emotion alone. Mindfully hold- ing our emotions starts with recogni- tion—labeling and recognizing what has taken you down: fear, grief, shame, guilt, and so on. We can label emo- tions in the same way we label thoughts. Often just recognizing, naming, and letting them be there without trying to alter them may be enough. Or we can shift to investigating the emotion in real time, in our body. What’s happening in this moment? My stomach is clenched, my jaw is tight, my chest feels constricted. We sit with these sensations and hold them as a compassionate witness, just as I try to do with my daughter. One skillful approach is not to force ourselves to stay solely with the emotion, especially when it feels big and painful. It’s helpful to have a pleasant or neutral part of our body that we can move our attention to, and then return to the challenging emotion/sensations in our body when we’re ready. (If you don’t have an easeful area in your body, you can imagine a nurturing time or place.) Moving our attention back and forth allows for a bit of rest, prevents us from getting overwhelmed, and helps to integrate the challenging emotion. It helps build up our mindfulness capacity to hold the difficult emotion. As we attend to our emotions mindfully, we track them as they ebb and flow, move and shift, and intensify or dissipate. There are very specific sensations we can attend to: puls- ing, pounding, contracting, vibrating, tightness, and so on. Sometimes, mindfully being with them allows them to pass through, like weather patterns. Sometimes they don’t pass through, but we can hold them in our awareness and we are not disturbed by them. Sometimes they don’t pass, and we feel overwhelmed, but a little voice inside us knows we’re okay, even in the midst of strong, challenging feelings. The key to the mindful approach is what’s typically called “disidentification.” This is the moment of recognition that we are not our thoughts or emotions. We go from “This is my thought or emotion that I’m entirely caught in,” to “This thought is moving through me.” “My thought” becomes “the thought.” “Being the thought” is now “being with the thought.” This way we become disentangled from our pain- ful thoughts and feelings, but we LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2019 42