Bringing Mindfulness To the Heart
All emotional intelligence begins with awareness. If we aren’t aware that we are feeling an emotion, our responses to that emotion will be habitual and automatic - and this habitual response may not be what we want.
For some, they simply express the emotion without inhibition, which can be damaging to the people on the receiving end of them. For others, their knee-jerk emotional responses may tend toward repression and shutting down the feeling, which is not good for their own health and wellbeing.
Luckily there is a third option, just like the Buddhist concept of the Middle Way. I call it emotional mindfulness. By becoming aware of what we are feeling, we can consciously choose to act on those feelings in intelligent and appropriate ways.
The first step in this practice of mindfulness is to create a cognitive “pause” between feeling an emotion and acting on it.
This cognitive pause is vitally important whenever we find ourselves in the throes of a really strong emotion, because those are the times when we would otherwise be most likely to fall into our emotional patterns.
But in addition to these moments of strong feeling, I advise taking at least 10 minutes out of each day to bring our awareness inward to notice what we are feeling. Taking time to simply be with what we are feeling (as opposed to focusing on our thoughts, daydreams, or other mental pursuits) is vitally important in order for us to stay in touch with the quiet voice of our hearts, so that we can allow our true hearts’ desires to guide us.
This time of witnessing our own feelings - whatever they are - is how we create true intimacy with ourselves… and we can only connect with others to the depth that we are willing to connect with ourselves.
In this time of self-reflection, it helps to get as specific about what we are feeling as we can. We must not only notice what we are feeling, but must also identify what the specific emotions are, because we can’t work with our emotions very well if we can’t accurately identify them!
Neuroscientist Lisa Feldmen-Barrett recently wrote a book about her research called How Emotions Are Made, which shows that the more specifically we can name what we are feeling, the wider the range of emotions we actually can feel. So rather than "I feel upset", we might search for more accurate words such as "I feel frustrated and dismayed".
This awareness is essential, and it is also just the beginning.
In order to turn our emotional mindfulness into emotional intelligence, we must take the next step of engaging with what we are feeling and exploring what our emotions have to say. Our emotions always arise for a reason!
Our intuition and instincts are informed by our full range of emotions, including the heavy and unpleasant ones. Many people out there will tell you to avoid feeling “negative emotions”, but what they don’t realize is that by refusing to feel these emotions, we diminish our ability to access the innate wisdom in our emotional body.
In order for our emotions to be helpful to us, we must engage with what we are truly feeling, not what we would rather be feeling instead. The goal of emotional mindfulness is to be "in presence with" whatever we find within us, without judgement or analysis.
From the perspective of a neutral witness, we approach our feelings as separate parts of ourselves that we are in relationship with - as if they are different people inside of us. Any feeling or perspective that arises in us other than compassionate curiosity (such as the feeling that we shouldn’t be angry at someone) is another part of ourselves that needs to be heard.
This detachment is a tricky business though. Unlike in many other forms of meditation, here detachment from our emotions isn’t the goal… and in fact, if we were to get too detached from them, we would lose our connection to them altogether.
In emotional mindfulness, we must find the sweet spot of just enough detachment to observe our emotions as a compassionate witness, while also feeling them strongly enough to maintain our felt sense of them. We are seeking to be in relationship with them instead of simply being them.
Once we’ve connected to our emotions successfully, the most direct way to access the innate intelligence they hold is to imagine ourselves asking each one questions, such as:
Why are you feeling this way?
What do you not like about this situation?
What do you want to happen instead?
What should I do about this? And so on.
By approaching all of our feelings as a compassionate witness and listening to their perspectives, we are able to then take action in a way that is informed by our emotions instead of automatically reacting from them.
And we can take this to an even more advanced level by asking questions that are specific to each emotion, such as asking an angry feeling “What needs to be protected?” These emotion-specific question speak directly to the social, practical, and energetic function of each emotion, so they can be very powerful tools in accessing our innate emotional wisdom.
Outlining the specific questions for each emotion would take too much space here (after all, there are 17 different emotions!) But if you are struggling to make sense of a particular feeling that you’re having and it is causing you problems in your life, I can assist you right now in two ways:
In The Unlocked Heart’s email newsletter, I talk more in depth about the function of each emotion and how to work with them. And by signing up, you’ll receive a free guide that includes all of the specific questions to ask of each of the 17 emotions.
I offer free Emotional Breakthrough sessions that can help you shed light on why your emotions are doing what they’re doing, and how to shift them. Discovering what is really going on in your emotional life and helping you to create change is precisely what I do!
I believe that bringing mindfulness to our heart and applying it to our emotions can catapult us forward in our path of personal growth.
This practice of emotional mindfulness cultivates an immense depth of self-awareness and self-intimacy. And this in turn allows us to be fully present in each moment in the most powerful way possible - a presence that includes all of who we are: our mind and our heart.