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Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Mindfulness and Negative Emotions


Mindfulness is all the rage these days.  Everyone seems to be trying to get more of it, and therapists are trying to train clients in it. One of the challenges in this effort is that it’s a bit tricky to pin down just what mindfulness might be.  

Given that we live entirely within the world of our own minds, entertained (during waking hours at least) by heavily filtered and interpreted input from the outside world, how could we be anything but mindful?

I’m not going to attempt a definition here, apart from saying that most of the definitions I have encountered have multiple components:  Mindfulness is characterized by a, b, c, and d.

One of the most recurrent elements in these definitions is a focus on the present, and it is this that many clinicians emphasize when they talk about mindfulness.

But, really, why bother?

One of the factors we deal with in therapy is extreme and ongoing negative emotion.  People feel chronically depressed, anxious, fearful, guilty, angry, and so on, and want to experience a different balance of emotions.  

Some of us would like to eliminate some flavours altogether from the emotional ice cream shop.  “I just don’t want to feel this anxiety any more.”  This, regrettably, is impossible to achieve without death, which has unpleasant and unintended side effects (such as missing out on all the other flavours).  But maybe a better balance of flavours is possible.

One way of considering the potential benefits of a mindful approach is to localize the different emotions in time.

So try it.  Imagine that you can place your mind in three different time periods:  Past, present, and future.  You can replay any episode you like (or dislike) from the past.  You can play any possible (even if very unlikely) scenario from the future, good or bad.  Or you can attend to what is happening in the present, as you read these words in this room at this moment.

Now let’s classify distressing emotions in terms of where your mind is when you feel them.

Guilt.  That’s an easy one.  I may feel guilty in the present but when I do, my mind is playing a movie from sometime in the past.  There was something I did or did not do that I know and knew then (or should have known) was a bad idea.

Regret.  Another easy one, closely linked to guilt.  My mind is in the past, on a decision I made at some point – whether or not I should have known better.  “It wasn’t evil of me not to have asked Mary-Sue on a date, but I now wish that I had.

Fear.  A flip into the future.  I’m generally focusing on one of the potential negative events in the future, playing it out in the theatre of my mind, and reacting to it with an emotion that serves no useful purpose.  (If, in the present, I am being chased and need to run quickly, then perhaps my fear is helpful.  But this happens rarely.)

Anxiety.  Anxiety is generally a fear of future events, but without any clear idea what might be about to happen, and so we’re not sure what to do to keep ourselves safe.  “Something bad, I’m just not sure what.” 

Dread.  Related to fear, but now I am all but certain that the awful event will take place, and that there is nothing I can do about it.  Dread is always of the future.

Horror.  This one pole-vaults from past to future.  In the past we did something that put us irrevocably on a path to disaster in the future.  “I made the stupid decision to spend the night in this haunted house and now I’m stuck here til morning.”  “I stupidly had that affair and now the consequences are playing out and there’s nothing I can do to stop them.”

Depression.  A m√©lange of time placements.  But if you ask a depressed person where their mind spends the most time, they will almost always say, in effect, “lots in the past, some in the awful future, and very little in the present.”

Anger.  We generally feel angry about things that others have already done (past).  Often we go from there to attribute those actions to their essential character (“that’s the kind of guy he is”), making it likely that the same transgressions will happen in the future.  

The point:  When we are experiencing painful emotions, they are most often coming from our own minds – we are playing movies from the past or future and reacting to them.  They are less often coming from our direct reactions to our immediate surroundings.

In fact, if we can manage to set aside past and future and simply sit here in the present moment in this present setting, without overinterpreting things (“that wall is going to need painting soon and I hate painting…”), we often discover a sense of calm and peace.  

Yes, we have history.  Yes, there are things we need to do.  But life in this moment, even doing this task that I often find boring, is generally all right.  There is a no-big-deal quality in the present that is always – or almost always – available to us if we develop our skills at being mindful.   

The word “mindfulness” opens a big can of philosophical worms.  There is more to it than simply sitting in the present moment.  But a big chunk of it involves reacting to what is, rather than to what was, or to what might be.  If we can learn to do that just a little more often (we’ll never manage mindfulness 24 hours a day) we can find our peaceful anchor a little more easily.  

An exercise for keeners:  Consider the full range of positive emotions (love, happiness, contentment, enjoyment, satisfaction, excitement, peace, transcendence, and so on).  Consider where in time your mind sits when you feel each one.  Some have elements of the past, others of the future.  But notice the proportion of the experience that seems to emanate from the present moment, and whether this is greater or less than for the negative emotions. 

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