Have you ever seen someone laughing in the rain? Or someone stoop-shouldered, shuffling along on a green and sunny day? Perhaps in a time of crisis you’ve seen someone respond with resolve and energy, and someone else collapse into fear or despair. Maybe someone you know gets testy and then you know it’s best to leave them alone. When a loved one is dying, sometimes people are overwhelmed with pain and can barely take care of their basic needs, and sometimes they leap into frantic action to avoid their feelings, and at other times they only know one thing: profound, all-encompassing acceptance and love. I’ve seen all this in others and in myself as well.
One of the clearest insights of my years of meditation is how powerfully my emotions color my experience, my perception of the world. When I am angry, I feel isolated, and I feel the need to control, the need for swift action. When sad, I feel alone and like there’s nothing worth doing; I feel like staying in bed. When I’m afraid, I feel vulnerable, like I have to get away. When I am ashamed, I feel abandoned, like everything is pointless, and like I am fundamentally flawed. When I feel intimacy with people and my environment, on the other hand, I feel connected, I trust what’s happening, and I am patient and engaged.
Afflictive emotions are the reason the practice of mindfulness exists, and why the kind of intimacy this book is about arose as central to Buddhist thought. Buddhism is at its root a set of practices and ideas designed to free human beings from afflictive emotion. The four noble truths are known as the first and most central teaching of Buddhism, and essentially say this: you can alleviate suffering through ethical living and meditation. The ethics of this tradition are based in intimacy, on understanding our interdependence with all things. The basic practice of meditation is mindfulness.
We can alleviate suffering through mindfulness and intimacy with all kinds of things: our bodies, our minds, our families, our habits of consumption, the people who bother us. The list is long, and we’ll explore many of these in this book. However, mindfulness of emotions is central to transforming our lives—and hence the world, with which we are always already intimately connected.
The power of mindfulness of emotion is best explained using some Buddhist concepts, particularly those of the great teacher Vasubandhu, of the Yogacara school. Basically, this school says that any intentional, cognitive, or emotional impulse plants a seed in our unconscious. That seed will bear similar fruit at some later date; we don’t know when. For instance, when we are babies, we hear the sound “mom” many times, and it always points back to the same person. Seeds of cognition are planted, and we associate the sound “mom” with our mother. In the future, when we see her, those seeds bear fruit and we think, “Mom!” So words and thoughts form patterns in our minds. The same thing happens with emotions. When we have a feeling, it plants a seed, and later we will experience a similar feeling again. All the times you felt irritated waiting in line plant seeds, so that the next time you are in a line, you are more likely to be irritated. All the times you felt calm and safe at home plant seeds, so you will again feel calm and safe at home. The Buddha’s great insight about this process was that if you are mindful of any harmful fruit that is arising right now, its power will be exhausted and it will not plant another similar seed.
Even the best of us are generally not very mindful of our feelings. We are absorbed in thought, believing the stories and perceptions of the world our feelings create. For example, when angry, rather than being deeply aware of what it is like to experience anger, we just think about how someone else is wrong. When we are worried, rather than knowing the hard-beating heart, the butterflies in our stomach, and the feeling of fear itself, we are just absorbed in a long line of thoughts about dreadful outcomes. Mindfulness of emotions requires deeply experiencing our feelings and letting go of our mind’s focus on its stream of thinking. Let’s say you are anxious about a conversation you need to have with one of your parents. If you can pause from worrying and focus your attention on how you feel, you directly see the feeling, and the fruits of past worries that are manifesting melt away in the light of mindfulness, without planting new seeds. The seeds you are planting in this moment are seeds of mindfulness, which will bear fruit someday. You create a mind that is less likely to be anxious and more likely to be mindful.
Mindfulness of emotions can be developed and practiced in many ways, with varying degrees of subtlety and focus. Sitting down with someone to talk about how you feel is a good way to begin to be aware of emotions. This has been a key part of many modern psychological methods, and it is a great way to develop intimacy with friends. However, as long as we are focused on words and describing them, we are still not getting right to the heart of the matter. In a conversation like this it really helps to pause, let go of all the thinking, and direct attention toward the feeling itself. This can be hard to do. It’s good to practice in meditation to build our ability.
This blog post is an excerpt from Mindfulness and Intimacy by Ben Connelly.