Emotions at their core are physical sensations in the body, coupled with shifting levels of mental energy in the mind (tired, fixated or energetic states awareness). So anxiety may be felt as a clenching in the abdomen, along with a mind that edgily jumps from external awareness to internal fantasies, back and forth.
In the case of strong emotions, such as anger or grief, we tend to seek shelter from the storm of physical sensations, which can be quite overwhelming, by focusing primarily on thoughts that divert our attention; during times of anger we may avoid the physical experience by losing ourselves in repeating the stories of outrage. Ironically, in focusing on mental content we tend to trigger, again and again, the very physical sensations we are attempting to avoid. For example, in panic attacks we strive to distract ourselves from the racing heartbeats by listening to the dire thoughts the mind conjures; these ideas only reactivate the panic.
When we are capable of feeling whatever it is that seeks our attention, the emotions arise, flow and eventually pass; ultimately resolution occurs, we develop the skill of holding emotions with tolerance. Emotions and feelings don’t simply go away when we avoid them, they ‘act out’ in other situations, without our permission. For example, if we avoid feelings of loneliness by distracting ourselves with television or Facebook, the loneliness will express itself later on as a sense of desperately seeking attention, by any means possible, while in the company of others.
Furthermore, avoidance strategies—our emotional escape patterns—quickly turn into addictions, which are simply ways to avoid feelings. It takes a great deal of energy to try to suppress emotions. When we try to avoid feelings, we wind up exhausted and edgy.
The safest way to feel emotions is to find a sympathetic friend who can listen to our experience without becoming impatient or attempting to ‘solve’ or ‘fix’ our emotions via facile suggestions. Its important to be clear, before we start expressing our feelings, to state our needs: “Please, I don’t need you to tell me what to do, I simply need you to listen.”
Of course, wise sympathetic people are not always available in abundance. So the alternative is to create a safe container to hold emotions without suppression, resistance or avoidance; this involves bringing awareness into the body. We focus our attention to the areas where emotions express themselves physically: the front and center of the body, such as the face, throat, chest/sternum and abdomen. We pay attention to muscle contractions, energetic waves of sensations, numbness, etc. If multiple emotional activations are present, simply focus on the most dominant set of sensations.
The key to holding emotions lies in developing a detailed sensory awareness:
• We can focus on three dimensional manifestation of the emotion, such as its size or location;
• We can observe the changing sensations moving through the body—emotions often flow in waves of contractive energies—developing tolerance;
• Emotional activations can often be experienced as pure feelings in the body, or they may trigger a release of talk in the mind. noting the word based thoughts that arise in the mind, which allows us to label the emotion: remorse, bliss, fear, sadness, joy, tranquility, anger and so on.
Once we’ve located an emotional center, we want to learn how to hang around with the emotions, always prioritizing the goal of developing equanimity, which is an awareness that doesn’t wish to be rid of an experience, but welcomes and observes, like a zoologist observing creatures in the wild. If the reactions become intense, we can develop calmness by focusing in on small areas of the sensations and noting the sensations shifting while repeating a phrase that instills calmness: “May I feel safe” or “I care about you.”
So, to review, we bring our awareness to the body and look for the center of the sensations, allowing them to contract or flow. The contractive energies may be subtle at the beginning, but its in the permission we give to sensations—rather than retreating our awareness into the mind—that will allow the emotional energies to express themselves clearly.