The Path to Mindfulness Part 3: Emotion and Thought Awareness
Mindfulness Gives Us Perspective on Thoughts and Emotions
Mindfulness of thoughts and emotions gives us a “bird’s eye view” of what’s happening with ourselves and facilitates healthier perspective-taking. Issues are more manageable when we can observe them rather than just experiencing them without any sense of perspective.
Real-world examples of mindfulness and management of thoughts/emotions
- A simple example of basic everyday mindfulness is noticing that you’re so hungry your stomach has begun to ache. An infant will experience the pain of an empty belly and get lost in the experience and start wailing, whereas an adult can observe the experience rather than just react to the experience, and remain calm. The adult can draw from past experiences to observe that while the strong sensations of hunger and an empty belly may be uncomfortable, they represent a temporary and manageable problem.
- A more developed mindfulness would aid the experience of withdrawal from quitting cigarettes. Someone without mindful awareness would be more likely to experience strong cravings as an overwhelming tension and possibly relapse because the tension felt unbearable; whereas someone with mindful awareness would recognize the strong craving as an uncomfortable yet temporary sensation that is a normal part of smoking cessation, and focus his attention on a pre-made list of short-term strategies to manage what he knows will actually be a short-term urge.
- Mindfulness abounds in relationships as well. Consider the experience of intense sadness after going through a romantic breakup. A person without mindful awareness would get lost in the sadness and possibly even act on it by reconnecting with their ex, whereas a person with mindful awareness would realize that the sadness would almost certainly lessen with time, recognize it as a normal and predictable part of breaking up that does not necessarily mean they should reconnect with their ex, and focus on a pre-made list of ways to manage the sadness (such as calling a friend to talk or reviewing a list of reasons why the breakup happened.)
Building Up Your Mindfulness Skills
In Part 1 of this series we explored ways in which you can practice mindful awareness of an object, and Part 2 introduced the use of breathing as a way to bridge awareness of an object to awareness of the self. In this post, you will learn how to focus mindful awareness fully inward, so that you can practice becoming fully aware of your thoughts and emotions.
Think back to when you learned how to become exquisitely aware of an object in Part 1, and how you learned to describe your observations in words. Similarly, in the 3-part breathing exercises of Part 2, you learned how to feel each part of your body as the breath passed through it, taking the time to slow down and become more aware of your experience. The thought awareness exercise below builds on these techniques to help you notice your thoughts so that you can put them into perspective, understand how they affect you, and manage them if need be. You can use mindful awareness of thoughts and emotions to adjust your behavior or responses in times of need and practice better self-care.
While the 3-part breathing technique is a useful exercise by itself, it can also be an excellent way to “wake up” your mindfulness muscles, just like stretching before a workout. Practice becoming aware of your breathing regularly so that you can easily enter the mindful zone when you need it during moments of stress.
In learning how to turn your observations inward to notice your thoughts and feelings, you’ll use the skills you built in Part 1 and Part 2 practicing mindful awareness of objects and breath. Synthesize what you learned in becoming aware of an object and during the 3-part breath exercise. Mindful awareness of tangible things is easier than mindful awareness of non-tangible things like thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness of the breath falls somewhere in between tangible and intangible, so mindful breathing is a great warmup to prepare for mindfulness of thoughts and emotions. Before trying the exercise below, I suggest you take some time to reconnect by practicing your 3-part breath from Part 2.
Step 1: Create a mental image
Close your eyes and begin by thinking of a blue sky. Notice that there are clouds in this sky that move from left to right, and watch these clouds as they pass.
Step 2: Attach your thoughts to passing clouds
As you watch the clouds pass, start to become aware of any thoughts you may be having, and begin to attach these thoughts to each passing cloud. Your goal in this part of the exercise is to start to associate your thoughts with tangible objects and recognize that they are only temporary, just like passing clouds. This exercise helps people to have a healthy sense of distance from their thoughts, rather than becoming completely consumed by them.
When you are just beginning the exercise, it may feel overwhelming to begin to separate out each thought. Don’t try and force things to think about. Instead, relax your expectations and start with the most obvious thoughts, which are the thoughts that you are having about the experience. For example, you may be thinking:
- “Am I doing this right?”
- “Well, this is certainly an interesting exercise.”
- “My mind is wandering!”
- “I can’t think of anything.”
Good news: Just noticing you’re having these thoughts, and attaching them to the passing clouds “counts” as doing the exercise! Just notice them, attach them to a cloud, and let them pass. Continue to practice the exercise until you have slowed yourself down enough to feel comfortable just noticing and observing your thoughts.
Step 3: Start to classify your thoughts
Once you begin to identify your thoughts, try and start to classify what kind of thoughts they are. Some simple classifications to start with include worry thoughts (“Am I doing this right?”), critical thoughts (“I can’t do this right!”), happy thoughts (I’m doing it!”), and self-conscious thoughts (“I look like an idiot doing this”).
Once you’ve learned to become aware of your thoughts, it is time to focus on awareness of emotions. You’ll practice the same exercises as above, only this time, getting in touch with your emotions during the process. Instead of attaching your thoughts to the passing clouds, now try and do the same with your emotions. Again, start to notice your feelings and attach them to each passing cloud. Take note of feelings like curiosity about the exercise, boredom during it, pride in completing it, and even suspense when you are waiting to see if it’s all worth it!
Remember that Mindfulness is a Practice
One thing many people worry about when starting to practice thought awareness exercises is that their mind wanders or their thoughts race. That’s okay! Simply recognizing that your mind is wandering is helping to build your mindfulness muscles in that you have to keep refocusing to continue your observations. This process of bringing your attention back to focus on your thoughts will help you build your perception abilities and hone your concentration.
You can use distracting thoughts that may arise to help you practice strengthening these muscles. For example, if you are doing the thought cloud exercise and you find you keep wondering about your ex, begin to notice what your first thought is about being off topic. Did you think to yourself, “I am so frustrated that I keep getting off topic?” Congratulations, you are learning to be mindful in that you are aware of your thoughts, how they are distracting you, and how you can bring your attention back to the experience at hand.
Using your skills
The goal of identifying both your thoughts and emotions is that you want to be able to toggle back and forth between them so that when you find yourself in a moment of crisis or stress, you can identify why and how you are feeling a certain way, which can help you tailor your responses accordingly. Essentially, you can think of this as learning to have a bird’s-eye view of yourself, which notices and observes your internal responses to stimuli before you act. When you have learned to be aware of your thoughts and feelings, you are beginning to practice how meta-awareness can positively impact daily life.