What most people don't know about mindfulness

I've taught many people meditation and mindfulness as part of therapy, and so, I've had a great opportunity to see how it unfolds. What I notice is that most people start with their thoughts, and all too often stop there. They don’t learn to work with their feelings.


Mindfulness and thinking

First, most people notice their thoughts are relentless, both in meditation and out of it. Then, they notice the content of their thoughts: the themes that come up again and again, whether it be worry and compulsive planning, or memories and regret. This is all very helpful, and as the process unfolds, they might start to realise a profound truth: that thoughts are just thoughts.

Through getting distracted again and again while practising mindfulness, and through snapping out of distraction again and again, they start to see that their thoughts are just passing mental events. They don’t have to believe them, be controlled by them, or try to get rid of them.

With this new understanding, a new freedom opens up: to focus on and do what you really want to, instead of being yanked around by whatever thoughts your brain happens to throw up in any moment.

This is all great, as far as it goes. But many people don’t realise that it can go further, into a new relationship with feelings, which is the main thing that I want to talk about.

Mindfulness and feeling

A good start is to treat feelings the same way as we do thoughts: just let them come and go. They’re like the weather – always changing. But we can go much further, in a direction you might not expect.

The truly transformative move is to turn towards your painful feelings. To get up close and get to know them better. To embrace them, even.

This might sound odd: why would you want to embrace your fear, your sadness, your shame? Surely we want to get rid of them. Well, this is the paradox that can make mindfulness a revolutionary force in your life.

Practise in the way that I’m about to suggest, and you might discover that your painful feelings are not the problem. Rather, the problem is your efforts to get rid of them.

We twist our lives out of shape to avoid feeling bad: we don’t go to the party because we feel anxious; we drink too much because we’re stressed or sad; we overwork because it stops us feeling ashamed. If we can learn to embrace all our feelings, we don’t need to do those things anymore.

How to do it

So, what exactly should you do to embrace your painful feelings? It might not sound very appealing, but what you should do is focus your attention directly on the painful feeling and experience it as fully as you can.

"Focus on the feeling? But I hate the feeling! And won’t it just get worse? Won’t I get overwhelmed?"

The answer is: Not if you are able to focus on just the feeling, rather than your thoughts. And when I say, "focus on the feeling", I mean that in a particular way. You should focus on the feeling as it shows up in your body – the tightness and tension, the heat and pressure, the heaviness. Whatever it is that you feel in your body when you feel this emotion – focus there.

Do not focus on the thoughts that go with the emotion. They are what is causing all the trouble.

With a bit of practice, and maybe some guidance, you might start to find that your feelings aren’t as bad as you thought. They don’t actually hurt. They can’t actually harm you. When you take away the thoughts that say, "Something must be very wrong for me to feel like this", it turns out that they’re just sensations: tightness and tension, heat and pressure.

When you experience your feelings this way, you don’t need to make them stop. Maybe they will die down naturally, once you stop focusing on the thoughts that are fuelling them. Maybe, over time, you’ll get to quite like the feelings – it’s oddly satisfying to taste the subtle flavour of your feelings in the body, as you might taste wine or spicy food.

If this practice takes root, your life can change. Once you don’t need to avoid your negative emotions, you also don’t need to avoid the things that cause them. Why avoid the presentation at work, if you don’t mind the adrenaline and the pounding heart? Why work so hard, when you’re alright with the feeling of shame?

Once we are willing to feel all our feelings, we are free. We can decide what we really want to do, instead of doing whatever, in the short term, will stop us feeling bad.

A word of caution

There is a caveat. As with most strong medicines, bad reactions are possible.

People do sometimes feel overwhelmed when trying this technique. This is generally because they get caught up in their thoughts. They try to focus on the sensations of the body, but instead, their attention is pulled away by the thoughts that go with the sensations ("The presentation will be a disaster!") or thoughts about the sensations ("It’s getting stronger! I can’t stand it!"). This can intensify the painful feeling and layer new ones on top of it.

If this happens to you, focus your attention on a more neutral body sensation, for example, the feel of the soles of the feet. Or just stop.

To avoid it happening in the first place, you should have some experience with meditation and mindfulness before using this method. You will need to be able to focus your attention on the body without getting too caught up in thoughts. You will need to be able to notice, again and again, that you’re lost in thought, and then return your attention to where you had intended it to be.

This brings us full circle: to discover what most people don’t know about mindfulness – that it can take us deeper into our emotions, including the most painful ones – you first need to change your relationship to your thoughts.

You need to learn that thoughts are just thoughts and that you don’t have to give them your attention before you can learn that feelings are just feelings. And if you do all that, profound changes can result.

If you like what you’ve read here and think that mindfulness-based therapy could work for you, send me an email or book in a free initial call.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, Greater London, E17
Written by Dr Michael Eisen, DClinPsy, MSc, BA, MA (Cantab) | Clinical Psychologist
London, Greater London, E17

Dr Michael Eisen is a Clinical Psychologist and committed meditator. He is skilled in delivering mindfulness- and compassion-based approaches to therapy, and has written two self-help books based upon them. He is an Associate Clinical Tutor on the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at UCL. Learn more at www.secondarrow.co.uk

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