Last month, we discussed how the practice of mindfulness could help us to become more attuned to the way we react every day. I mentioned that increasing our awareness to these states of mind would bring us closer to identifying with other people's experience.
I will conclude this topic this month by exploring how we can use mindfulness to balance our emotions, and harmonise our life.
The quest of everyone's existence is finding our own way to be happy. For as long as we can remember, almost everyone we have met along this journey - our parents, our friends, our colleagues - have been giving us free advice on how to improve our life. While some of this advice has undoubtedly been useful, it has often fallen short of the mark, probably because nobody knows exactly what we are looking for, not even ourselves.
In mindfulness, there is a meditation practice called "the development of loving kindness"(metttabhavana). It is based on the principle that promoting kindness and empathy towards others will bring a feeling of peace and harmony to us.
Buddhism recognises four mental /emotional states that one should aspire to in order to reach of state of peace and serenity. These four states are described as: friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.
The feeling of compassion is the ability to feel with someone, and identify with their emotional state. Sympathetic joy is the spontaneous joyful response to the good fortune of others, and equanimity is even mindedness, based from insight into the way things really are. It is a form of non-judgemental acceptance. This is probably the hardest state to cultivate, and it is regarded as the closest to the state of enlightenment.
Unfortunately, our hearts are not always receptive to these noble and tender feelings. Nobody goes through life without having been deeply hurt sometimes along the way. Throughout the years, to protect these emotional inner wounds, we have gradually built around them a protective wall of negativity, anger and hostility towards others. Without realising it, we are constraining the sap that gives the tree its vitality and lustre. By stopping ourselves from being sensitive and vulnerable, we end up destroying any feelings of heartfelt compassion and spontaneous joy within us. The reality is that we will not attain long lasting serenity and happiness until we start chipping away this hard shell that is slowly suffocating us.
Before we practise sympathising with others, we must learn to cultivate kindness towards ourselves. It is only after we are able to connect with ourselves with openness and honesty that we will be able to connect with others.
Two months ago, in my first article on this subject, I explained that the first symptom of stress was a change in our breathing pattern. If we could train ourselves to quickly intervene to stop our breath becoming constricted and shallow, and our muscles from tensing up, the hormonal surge of adrenalin invading our body would decrease, and the stressful episode would quickly recede.
Using the same breathing exercises we have previously learnt, we can tune our awareness to detect negative feelings such as resentment, cynicism, envy, or jealousy as they arise. We should not aim to get rid of these difficult emotions as they come to the surface, but look at them as a transitory experience. If we can mindfully notice constricted emotional states, they will often soften. As the author Vidyamala Burch explains in her book Living Well with Pain and Illness, "The looser relationship with our emotions will create space for more calm and positive feelings to naturally blossom."
Once again, we start with focusing on our breath to establish a sense of peace. Once we feel settled into the practice, we can gently turn our awareness towards these unpleasant sides of our personality. If we feel anger, or resentment towards someone, this is the opportunity to register how our body is affected. By concentrating on these physical echoes to our feelings, by trying to locate where these emotions are manifested in the body, we can remain grounded and detached. This allows us to automatically feel some distance from the thought, to become an outsider. As we begin to relax the affected part of the body, the emotions connected with it will gradually relax as well.
The Tibetan word for meditation is "familiarisation". It means becoming familiar with the tendencies of the heart and the mind. Developing an awareness of our emotions means finding a middle way between over identifying with their content and suppressing them.
If we feel overwhelmed by an emotion such as fear, we can broaden our field of response by concentrating on our breath, and our body. If we feel too detached, we can move closer to the emotion itself, by focusing on where the fear in the body is located, or bringing the attention to our heart with softness and care.
This can become a fascinating way to balance our emotional states. By learning when to move back, and when to get closer to our emotions, we will gain the strength to open ourselves to others without feeling threatened.
Olivier Lejus MHSc (TCM), BHSc( Acup.)is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney