One important goal of mindfulness is to become aware of our feelings. We can become aware of the rise and fall of feelings, and the role feelings play in our lives. We can learn to be mindful of our emotions and work to understand them, particularly uncomfortable emotions. Once we are aware of our emotions, we can more easily notice our urges associated with those emotions and choose our behavior.
Emotions are universal; everyone experiences them, and they are necessary for survival. Facial expressions and body language are a perfect example of this. Across the world, people show sadness, happiness, anger, etc. in the same way, indicating that these emotions are universal and necessary for survival. The way we perceive things affects how we feel and act, so being mindful of thoughts and feelings can help us consciously choose our behaviors.
Sometimes we think of emotions as good or bad, like happiness and sadness. When can sadness be good, though? When someone fails a test, or breaks their leg, it wouldn’t be “good” to be happy about it, right? Yes, kol man d’avid rachmana l’tav avid, everything Hashem does is for the best, but, in this world, when someone is niftar, we do not say hatov v’hameitiv, we say baruch dayan haemes. The reason is because, while we are in this world, we do not understand why everything Hashem does is for our own good, and we are supposed to feel sad sometimes to help us grieve.
It may be more effective to think of emotions as helpful or unhelpful, rather than good or bad. Sometimes anxiety is very helpful, because it motivates us to get our work done and to try our best. Sometimes anxiety is unhelpful because it can make us feel too stuck to try. It is also useful to think of emotions as pleasant or unpleasant. Being sad when our friend doesn’t show up when we arranged to spend time together isn’t fun; it feels much more pleasant to be happy that she came. It is, however, helpful to feel those feelings rather than avoiding them and perhaps yelling at our little brother later because we have painful feelings building up inside of us. When we feel unpleasant but helpful feelings, being mindful of those feelings, and sinking into a deep awareness of the emotion can be very helpful. Once we have felt our sadness, we can choose to let it go, rather than trying to cover it up with something else, like getting angry with others.
It is also important to notice and observe feelings rather than judging them. Saying to yourself, “I am worried” or “I am angry” is usually more helpful than saying, “what’s wrong with me, why am I so angry?” or “stop worrying!”
Often, when people first begin to learn about mindfulness, they think of it as a relaxation technique or a way to reach a sense of calm. This is perhaps one of the most critical mistakes made about mindfulness. This outlook does not allow the person to experience mindfulness of difficulties or challenges. It does not allow the person to use mindfulness to make better decisions in those moments and be a bigger participant in resolving difficulties.
Mindfulness is about being present for our lives. When we experience strong emotions, such as anger or shame, we may act in ways that are harmful to ourselves in the long run, even though they help us cope in the short term. We may develop a harmful internal dialogue that just serves to perpetuate the difficult feelings without giving us a way to stop it. Emotions love themselves, so whenever we feel a strong emotion, it is very easy to get carried away down the path of that emotion. We may have thoughts that encourage the emotion and behave in ways that deepen it. The key is to make a change in our behavior or our thoughts to change the emotion.
When we bring mindfulness into the challenges that we face, whether those are with friends, family members, our work, or getting to sleep at night, we use an incredible tool to engage fully in an experience, and allow ourselves a greater capacity to choose how we would like to respond.