"Life can be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards"
More than three decades ago, I remember reading a book that had a profound effect on my life and ultimately influenced my decision to become a psychologist. The Road Less Travelled written by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck was memorable because the book began with the unforgettable words ‘Life is difficult’ and then went on to suggest that this is one of the greatest truths. Personally, I recognised the profound truth of this approach immediately because it stood in such sharp contrast to all my expectations about life.
Life is Suffering
In describing life on these terms, Peck acknowledged that he owed this insight to Buddha’s first teaching that life is suffering. The mindfulness tradition is founded on this assumption but, as I discussed in Chapters 10 and 12 of The Mindfulness Book, it radically challenges Western psychology’s diagnosis of the source of the problem. Happily, it also provides an incredibly effective series of approaches to dealing with our difficult emotions as well.
Most models of Western psychology quite naturally focus heavily on reducing the symptoms of distress. The mindfulness tradition, by contrast, isn’t so much concerned with reducing symptoms per se, as much as changing the nature of our relationship to them. So, instead of suggesting a range of interventions designed to stop distressing thoughts or avoid difficult emotions directly, the mindfulness tradition prefers an approach designed to change the way we relate to our emotional difficulties. In the remainder of this article I discuss five practical strategies for applying mindfulness to emotional problems.
Strategy 1 - Turning Toward Difficulties
To solve our problems effectively requires that we deal with the difficult and often distressing emotions they evoke. Yet, for many, this represents the biggest challenge. Because we fear the pain involved, almost all of us to some degree attempt to avoid problems. According to mindfulness, this is a mistake.
Before moving into the study of cognitive psychology, I spent several years training in the psychoanalytical approach to psychology. As you may know, Freud used a number of Greek myths to help explain his theories of psychological development, including the myth of Oedipus. Even if you don’t know the details of the story, you’re likely to remember Freud’s shocking theory that it was about boys’ secret desires to have sex with their mothers and kill their fathers.
Of course, the moral of the story has little to do with Freud’s ‘Oedipus complex.’ It’s more often thought of as a story about how you can’t escape your fate. However, I recently read an account by American Zen Buddhist and psychiatrist, Barry Magid who offers a radically different interpretation and one that’s consistent with the mindfulness tradition.
In an interview with Oliver Burkeman about his book, ‘Ending the Pursuit of Happiness,’ Magid, says, “The quintessential point is that if you flee it, it will come back to bite you. The very thing from which you’re in flight – well, it’s the fleeing that brings on the problem.” In other words, according to Magid, struggling to avoid your demons is what gives them power.
This is the first big insight from the mindfulness tradition. To approach your difficulties mindfully is to stop running away from the things that make you uncomfortable. Mindfulness encourages you to watch these experiences dispassionately and learn to observe them as they are.
Take negative emotions such as anxiety or fear, for example. Both generate discomfort and strong urges to get rid of them or avoid them. The more you attempt to avoid difficult thoughts and emotions through suppressing them or avoiding them, more often than not, this has the effect of amplifying them.
As you become aware of distressing or unpleasant emotions, the better strategy is to see if you can just allow these feelings to be as they are without moving away from them or trying to control them in any way. Simply observe them and see if you can label the feeling such as “here’s a feeling of anxiety” or “that’s an angry feeling.” At the very least, return your attention to your breathing to soothe the body and calm the mind if you become agitated.
Strategy 2 - Live in the Now
If the first strategy entails turning more deliberately toward your experience, the second strategy involves bringing your focus completely into the present moment. One of the core tenants of mindfulness is ‘being in the moment,’ or ‘being fully present.’ This is important because from a psychological perspective all of our suffering tends to be created as are minds are caught up in issues either in the past or the future, or both. We spend a lot of time ruminating about the past and anxious about the futures we imagine.
The main focus of attention when we’re being mindful is always the present moment.
When you decide to focus more earnestly on the present moment, the noisy emotions from the past or future that either pull your mood down or fire your fear up, can settle down.
Strategy 3 – Acceptance
The third strategy involves deciding to accept your experience as it is. Once you can create the psychological space through greater acceptance of your experience, you are able to reduce the potential negative gravitational pull of states such as depressed mood or anxiety that fog your mind.
By adopting a more accepting approach, you will likely discover that difficult emotions such as depressed mood, or anxiety, or fear are largely based on links to events in your past or imagined worries about your future, rather than an objective view of you current circumstances. Mindfulness opens up greater freedom to examine your experience dispassionately rather than being caught up in defending against it.
Strategy 4 – A New Way of Seeing
When you’ve turned toward your experience and accepted what you find, you can use the lenses of the ‘observing self’ and ‘introspection’ to recognize and begin to ‘name and explain’ the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing.
This has the effect of calming difficult emotions and helps prevent you from being overwhelmed by them.
Rather than being caught-up in ruminating about your experience or judging it, by employing your observing self you are able to adopt a level of detachment that operates like a disinterested spectator.
Strategy 5 - Let it Go
One final strategy involves the decision to let go of the tendency to be judgmental. Mindfulness proposes that the way to reduce your suffering is to reduce your degree of attachment to the objects and outcomes you desire. This entails learning to ‘let go’ of your default tendency to hold judgments like; ‘I must have this,’ or ‘I can’t stand that.’ This also involves letting to of your tendency to pass judgment on yourself; ‘I’m hopeless,’ ‘guilty,’ ‘inadequate,’ and so on.
To live mindfully is to release the tight grip that on the story about how something ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be. Once you’ve loosened your grip on the stories and ‘self structures’ that have rigidly defined you, you can pay closer attention to the values that guide your actions and make decisions accordingly.
Dealing with difficult emotions mindfully, then, begins with turning towards your experience in the present moment, however difficult. When you take the lid off and have a look inside yourself, mindfulness encourages you to examine your experience dispassionately and accept what you find. Treat yourself kindly, with compassion and integrity according to your cherished values, and act accordingly. This leads to greater psychological flexibility in your decision-making, and generates increased emotional freedom and a more peaceful mind.
To help you apply these practices in a formal way, you may like to go to the website: www.themindfulnessbook.co.uk and download the Mindfulness of Difficult Emotions MP3 and follow the guided meditation.
About The Author:
Martyn Newman, PhD is a clinical psychologist specialising in Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Mindfulness. Dr. Newman is the author of the best selling book Emotional Capitalists and newly released The Mindfulness Book, and is the cofounder of RocheMartin. He is also co-author of the Emotional Capital Report™ – the global benchmark for defining, measuring and developing EQ and leadership performance.