The Double-Edge of Mindfulness

by Melissa Karnaze

Balanced Stone StackMindfulness is one of those vague terms.

Subject to many interpretations.

I’ve interpreted it my own way here, with a mindfully chosen bias toward working with emotion.

But others have interpreted it with their own bias, of evading emotions.

This is the double edge of mindfulness: it can either amplify or mute your emotional experience.

But of course, it doesn’t just stop there.

Whichever path you choose leads to astounding implications on your life, how you respond to it, your emotional resilience, and how happy and healthy you and your relationships can be.

Working with your emotions enhances your chance for success.

Evading your emotions dampens it.

Because emotions signal important information about your life and your place in it — which you need to know in order to make informed, mindful decisions about what to do next.

Using mindfulness to amplify your emotional experience

Mindfulness is the sharpest tool you have to work with your emotions.

That’s because you need to accept that you are experiencing an emotion — in order to fully experience it. So that you can later learn from it, and apply what you learned constructively to your life.

Emotions are ephemeral — they’re easy to miss, or misinterpret. Which makes them really easy to avoid.

An emotion might stir up, but you have at least 10 ways to bypass actually experiencing it, by:

    • Denying that you are feeling anything
    • Ignoring your bodily reactions
    • Intellectualizing your experience
    • Putting on a smile and continuing the conversation
    • Taking a deep breath, counting backwards from 10
    • Saying to yourself that there’s nothing you “should” be reacting to
    • Taking a jog instead
    • Taking a bite of food instead
    • Turning on the television
    • Coming up with a really good “reason” to not “sink” into your feeling

And this is only the common repertoire of ways to avoid experiencing your emotions; the list goes on.

It’s really easy to ignore, suppress, rationalize away, or distract yourself from your emotions. But it’s not easy to keep them under bay for the rest of your life.

In fact, it’s easier to become mindful of your emotions.

To say to yourself:

“Yes, I am feeling this right now. I’m going to feel it for as long as I must. This feeling has an intelligence, and later on I can figure out how to work with it and let it mobilize me in constructive ways. For now though, I’m just going to feel it.”

Then feeling it, for as long as it takes for the emotion to pass.

And reaping the rewards that come with that — greater clarity, wisdom, strength, and serenity.

When you use mindfulness to amplify your emotional experience, you move through emotions faster and more effectively. Meaning, you’re much more response able to your life.

Using mindfulness to mute your emotional experience

And then there’s the growing movement that takes a different stance.

Scholars, scientists, spiritualists, and psychologists are banning together to tell you not to let yourself get jealous, angry, stressed out, or any other ugly stepchild of emotion.

This movement believes that you can “let go” of your negative emotions without ever having to feel them. By using forgiveness, the accurate push of an acupressure point, enough minutes of meditation, or the right positive reframe.

And these tactics may hide under the umbrella of mindfulness-based this, and mindfulness-based that, pitched mainstream with enough PhD endorsement for people to bypass taking a critical look at the issue and checking out the actual source studies.

Of course, the emotions don’t really “go” anywhere. The thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations (cognitive networks) that underpin them — just get buried deeper into subconsciousness or possibly abstracted in some way.

And for a time, they remain tame.

But later in life, they cause indirect problems in many subtle and devious ways.

Because the underlying cognitive networks don’t fully transform in the much-needed mindful and functional ways that working with your emotions facilitates. And because much of the mindfulness-based approaches treat symptoms rather than finding long-lasting solutions to the problems.

Using mindfulness against the Ego

And when this long-term success doesn’t pan out, the movement tells you that it’s not your fault.

No — it’s your Ego‘s fault.

And the solution is to kill it.

And if you do — try that is — the vicious cycle starts all over again.

Muting your emotional experience is not effective.

It just prolongs your suffering. You have to work through it. You have to integrate it. You have to own it and embrace it.

Which edge will you use?

As I see it, muting your emotional experience is not technically considered mindfulness at all — but the opposite of it: evasion.

But as it stands today, mindfulness does have a double-edge.

Just be mindful of which one you use.

And feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with mindfulness-as-it-relates-to-your-emotions below.

This is the 3rd article in the series, “Mindful emotion regulation: An integrative review.” Grab your feed to stay tuned.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Haider January 14, 2010 at 7:01 am

Gnarly, dude.

The first link in this article (to your own definition of mindfulness) leads to a 404 page!

Thought I’d let you know.

I see mindfulness as a conscious awareness of facts. And when we experience an emotion, that, too, is a fact. We can either expand or contract our mindfulness, to take in as many or as few facts possible to our awareness.

Therefore, we can be aware of our feelings only, or our feelings and their causes, or our feelings and their causes and the roots of their causes, and so on. The more mindful we can be, the more facts we have available to us, to make sound judgments about what we can do and how response able we can be.

False beliefs, judgments, associations or any construct that conflicts with facts also conflicts with being mindful, although you can be aware of your belief in a false belief, which is a fact. In other words, if I acknowledge that I believe in the tooth fairy, I am being mindful. Believing in the tooth fairy, and using that as a basis for life decisions, isn’t being mindful, since mindfulness depends on facts.

OK, I now have 9 more browser tabs to Mindful Construct articles. Hope I don’t end up following any more links! :P

Melissa Karnaze January 17, 2010 at 10:39 am

Thanks Haider, the link is working now. :)

“We can either expand or contract our mindfulness, to take in as many or as few facts possible to our awareness.”

I like this. It’s an eloquent summary of the article. :P

The interesting thing is that “fact” is not always represented in its “purest” form by the brain. Several “facts” are encoded as experience, or even memory, which are subjective. But yes, it’s possible to be more mindful of that process in general, and therefore more able to refine the “fact list.”

I hope you do tumble down more links! I’m really enjoying your comments. :)

Haider January 17, 2010 at 11:55 am

And I’m really enjoying your articles! (I guess that shows, already :P)

Kristian October 15, 2012 at 3:55 am

I think this site and the articles you have wrtitten are fantastic. I’ve been using the wrong side of mindfulness, trying to not feel for so long! This article has made me more aware enough to start using the other side of mindfulness and use it to start working with emotions that have been repressed for so long. Thank you for your gifts. Much love x

Jacob October 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being mindful of negative emotions and wanting to be rid of them. There is also nothing wrong with “killing” our ego.

The only reason that these things could be wrong is that we often try to go about it in the same way. Most people suffer from an extreme lack of self esteem (http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Selvarajah13.html) which is why when they even decide to stop thoughts like “I am ugly” they just perpetuate the BASIC habit of criticizing and not loving one’s self.

“I am stupid for thinking negative thoughts.” And then by using negative energy they try to remove more negative energy.

Kamal S. May 28, 2013 at 9:48 pm

Jacob, with respect I disagree with you and agree with the author of this piece – in this sense that follows.

To kill your ego is to become inauthentic. Your ego literally is you “I”, your individuality. To kill it is an artificiality and hence inauthentic for how can removing the source of your authenticity, your authentic self, be authentic?

I come from a large family, and as I’ve grown older many friends and relatives in turn have had children. I have reflected, and noticed, that even little babies, children of my friends, my younger siblings when they came into this world, whenever I see babies infants even at the age of a week or so they display subtle signs of a personality.

Some are more grave and serious others are docile, others are active, some like one dear friend’s little girl seemed to have a puckish sense of humor. She was a puckish punster at the age of months and would play little practical jokes like holding her arm out for her mother to try to hold her tiny hand, then snatching her arm away and giggling with joy.

As she grew older any doubt concerning this aspect of her personality vanished. The girl, now 3, is a vivacious witty, ironic, and silly practical joker. She jokes with words and actions. It is part of her character that manifested, however, long before any socially constructed sense of a personality could manifest. She was just innately a punster.

I knew someone who when very young was always shy and contemplative, intensely thoughtful, this was something of his character noticed from before he even turned one. He would just silently observe and seem to muse over things. He would rarely cry, even if he felt hurt he would stoically just silently shed a tear or two and seem to retreat inside of himself. As he grew older into his teens these traits prevailed and remained.

I have witnessed other similar things. These traits persisted in these children as they grew older. I do believe that our personalities, emotional responses, and “egos” are innate and part of ourselves from a very early age.

I believe that the misunderstanding in self-development or spiritual type literature lies in the misunderstanding of the ego, the self, and it’s socially conditioned responses which can be disfunctional.

The Sufis use a three part gradation taken from Islamic sources to describe the concept of the Nafs, the self, the world being the Arabic equivilant to the concept of the ego. At no stage is it “killed” per se, rather it is transmuted to the final stage. The Nafs Mutmaina, “The Ego at Peace.”

Why would you want to destroy your Ego, when you could just render it content and peaceful?

Emotional responses, negative and positive, are natural parts of humanity.

Justin Dupree June 6, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I love that “top ten” list… something that has always irked me about the wildly popular teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh is how simplistic they are.. how they try to make one’s whole mental world, even that part of it which is violent and destructive, seem “cute”. He tells you, for instance, too look at your anger as a little baby that needs to be taken care of. Well whose anger is a little baby? My anger is a vicious monster. It wants to eat me!

Nhat Hahn also suggests you walk around all day with a half smile on. Whenever you’re upset, return to that half-smile. What kind of dissociative nonsense is this? I can’t believe how popular this man is. I bet Jack the Ripper had a little half smile on his face all the time too.

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