We all want to make sense of our moods and to do so we try to define them using reason and language. But what we say about our moods is only a small part of how we feel. When we feel down, saying “I am sad” is inadequate to describe the inner sensations and experiences.
Using reason to describe mood can also be misleading. For example, we hypothesize that we feel down because we are behind at work but the true reason might be that we are coming down with a cold and our body is depleted of strength and unable to deal with stress. Despite our deep yearning to explain moods, to come up with a story to justify or explain them, we usually cannot see the many important inner and outer influences that determine our moods.
Of course, making sense of our feelings is not always a hopeless task. Through thinking we look for solutions and prevent their negative recurrence. For example, we might want to give some attention to our hormonal and immune health, decrease our level of stress, do more exercise, sleep more, review our diet, etc… But this pro-active problem solving exercise is different from putting too much confidence in ‘ruminating’ on our mood, a process that will sink us into deeper depths. Experiments with mammals have shown that their state of stress or depression lasted as long as they were deprived of food or separated from the group but they recovered right away after the stressors were removed. The powers of thought, the capacity to know that we know, apparently unique to humans, can be a mixed blessing.
The yogis warn us about the danger of identifying with our mental and emotional processes. When we say “I am anxious, I am depressed” we are establishing our relationship with that mood. We are not just experiencing those emotions but we are becoming inextricably one with them until we end up defining ourselves as anxious or depressed people.
So, next time you are in a brooding mood, see if you can resist the urge to come up with a story labelling, explaining or justifying it. Instead of becoming embroiled in that exercise, practice wakeful alertness and conscious perception to notice and acknowledge the sensations and thoughts appearing in your awareness. When we do this we realize that the nastiest cognitions have the same status as any other mental object. A thought is… a thought. By turning down the volume on the mental and verbal analyzer we can break down the cycle of rumination and close off the route to lengthy moody episodes.
Here is a very simple mindfulness-based exercise to build up acceptance and tolerance of negative thoughts -in fact, any thoughts- and avoid low moods from deteriorating:
1. Sit with back erect. Close the eyes. Focus on the flow of your breath as it moves through your nostrils, in and out. (5 to 10 min.)
2. Continue focusing on the breath until feeling settled and rooted. Now focus on your mind. Observe thoughts arising and departing, one after another. Notice how one thought gives rise to another, and another. Do not try to stop the thoughts. Do not judge them. Just observe the movement.
No doubt, this requires practice! If you can do this successfully, congratulations; you have learned some of the skills involved in becoming a spectator and thus knower of your own mind.