We may understand that living in the present, fully alive and receptive, is the key of letting the burdens of the past and the anxieties of the future go. We know that the past is dead and the future yet to come, still when the heat of anger or the heaviness of depression hits us our reasoning goes out of the window. Our emotional brain is mighty powerful and requires quite a bit of finesse to bring it under control.
I like to use the image of a calm lake when I meditate but, when I least expect it, that calm surface can be disrupted by many bubbles bursting out. I know that my emotions come up due to circumstances and conditions just as the bubbles in the lake come from some stirrings in the muddy bottom but this is as far as my knowing goes. Psychoanalysis has long been digging into the subconscious trying to find the causes of our emotional entanglements. In the eastern traditions we don’t find such an emphasis on understanding the subconscious although, of course, it is acknowledged as one of the states of consciousness together with the conscious and the superconscious.
The approach in mindfulness practices is rather to pay attention when emotions appear, acknowledge them and then release them. The principle that wherever the mind goes there follows the energy, makes ignoring, repressing or trying to understand the causes of emotions a difficult exercise because the more we dwell on them the stronger they become. This is the strategy:
1. See the surge of the emotion as a movement of energy, without trying to understand it or judge it and avoiding to label it as positive or negative.
2. With self-compassion acknowledge what is happening in your body and mind. You are aware, for example, of the fast heart beat or the heaviness in the chest. And rather than identifying with what is happening and saying “I am sad” or “I am angry”, say “sadness has appeared” or “anger has appeared”, remaining as a witness to the unfolding of that energy.
3. Then let it go, the most important. Take some deep abdominal breaths to release the tension and move on right away to the task at hand, to the present, your anchor.
It’s like meeting someone while being in a rush. You say “hello” and then you say “good bye”. You are really in a hurry trying to get back to the present because, after all, that’s where life is.
I remember Swami Vishnudevananda telling us that our identification with thoughts and emotions was like going to the movies and becoming so involved in the film that we cry and laugh with the actors but all along we forget that we are looking at a screen where some images are projected. The difficulty with emotions is that the more we insist on reinforcing them the more real or solid they appear and we forget to go home when the movie is over.
Our sense of identification is really our inability to keep things in perspective. Everything in this physical universe is in a state of flux, even the most dense of matter eventually transforms or disappears. The following words by the Buddha might help us remember the futility of hanging on not only to something as subtle and fleeting as thoughts and emotions, but to our entire conditioned existence.
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble in a stream; Like a flash of lightning in a Summer cloud, Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream. So is all conditioned existence to be seen. Diamond Sutra, chapter 32