Our emotions don’t linger if we allow ourselves to feel them. Mindfulness practice helps you to shift out of feelings and even longer-lasting moods—if you have the physiological foundation for experiencing and sustaining emotions such as joy and excitement.
Mindfulness can awaken what is known as the witnessing or observing self, a facet of your consciousness that observes what you’re experiencing. There is the self who is immersed in the intensity of feeling an emotion and the experience you are having (such as a verbal argument), but there is also the mindful self that is noticing the event unfold and how your anger or frustration feels in your body. This mindful self can create a space between you and your emotions when you are feeling overwhelmed.
In my book Core Creativity:The Mindful Way to Unlock Your Creative Self I encourage readers to take their emotional pulse with a mindful pause at intervals throughout the day, in order to observe what they’re experiencing. Mindful pauses let you tune into what’s important and what’s not, making it easier for you to remember to let go of what is unimportant—or unwholesome. In Buddhism, we talk about wholesome, neutral, and unwholesome thoughts (“wholesome” means “supporting well-being”). If you’re not aware of your mind’s internal chatter, you might not realize how many of your thoughts are, at best, neutral and too often, damaging to your sense of well-being. Taking mindful pauses can help you become conscious of the quality of your thoughts, giving you the opportunity to consciously replace them with ones that are conducive to feeling equanimity, tranquility, and optimism.
You might even want to set aside a day to practice taking mindful pauses: Set a timer to go off every hour to remind you to tune into what you’re doing rather than letting your mind wander. Or, use sticky notes to post reminders to yourself to take a mindful pause: Affix them to spots in your home or office that you come into contact with often such as light switches, windows, and doors. Whenever you encounter them during your day, stop and take a mindful pause. Notice what’s happening, and ask yourself:
If the answer to the last question is “yes,” take a mindful breath and savor the experience. If not, ask yourself, “Where does my attention and awareness need to be refocused for me to feel that I am in a zone of calm and openness to creative flow?”
Mindfully redirecting your awareness provides you with the opportunity to reset your compass. Let’s say you’re in a conflict with someone. If your observing self is active, you might notice tightness in your muscles and a desire to forcefully voice your opinion even as the other person is talking. At the same time, your witnessing self is able to silently say, “I’m frustrated.” Then, you’ll find yourself thinking about what you want to do next. Being aware of your emotions and not trying to repress them allows you to tolerate them for a time before they shift—or before you consciously do something to change them.
For example, you might envision them taking form and then seeing this form grow smaller and smaller until your emotion feels manageable. Think of a sailboat sailing away from you toward the horizon, growing smaller and smaller, or a ball of anger or anxiety that begins to shrink until it is small enough for you to throw into the distance.
Because it activates the witnessing self, mindfulness practice can train your brain to alter any habitual resistance to feeling your emotions, making it easier for you to experience them and observe as they transform, naturally flowing and shifting like the currents of a river. And over time, being able to access your witnessing self when you’re upset develops your ability to be less emotionally reactive and have less intense reactions as well. That allows you to be more adventurous and creative, more open to experiences that might not be pleasant but could be valuable.