Do you remember the scene in Disney’s animated movie when Snow White runs screaming through the woods, terrorized by what appear to be evil trees? She awakens in the morning, surrounded by new furry, forest friends.
In real life, we all get lost in the wilderness of our emotions, and those emotions cloud what we are able to see. We may think we know the difference between happiness, sadness, anger and anxiety, but any of us can get caught up and lost in our moods and feelings. We are surprised with where we have wandered.
The conventional approach to life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That we believe is the definition of success and the secret to happiness: maximal pleasure and minimal pain.
We preoccupy our thoughts and energy with the pursuit of physical comforts: nice meals, a comfortable home, attractive clothes and a variety of sensual pleasures. We work not only for the necessities of life but to buy the things we crave. We peruse catalogs, search the net and wander through shopping malls to find what we want.
At the same time, we avoid what we don’t like: pain and suffering. When we experience physical pain especially when it becomes chronic, we struggle to fight it – with fear, anger and sadness. This invariably amplifies our suffering.
Likewise, we seek positive emotional experiences: falling in love, happiness and peace, and we react with aversion to negative emotions, such as sadness, grief, anxiety and anger. We might try to suppress or ignore these difficult feelings or struggle to fight them with even greater fear, anger and loathing.
Our conventional approach to life is doomed to fail. That is reality.
There is good and bad in every life, and each of us will experience a daily mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
If our aspiration is to remain young, active and pain-free forever, we will surely be disappointed; our bodies age and breakdown, we will become ill at some time, and each of us will ultimately die. Accidents can disable us or shorten our lives.
Change – both predictable and unpredictable – is the nature of life and part of being human. It is futile to hold onto all that gives us pleasure. Pain is a part of life, but suffering – to some extent – is optional.
We don’t have to be caught up with the dramatic twists and turns of fortune or get sick on the roller coaster ride of our emotions. With a little wisdom and the application of mindfulness, we can still find peace.
Without mindfulness, we instinctively react to circumstances and get carried away with our emotions. We stab ourselves twice by clinging to negative emotions.
First, we identify with them. We say, “I am depressed”, “I am panicky” or “I am angry” instead of “I am experiencing a feeling of depression, a panic attack or a wave of anger”. By identifying with negative emotions, we add more power to their punch and stay within their reach.
Then we ruminate – repeating and recycling the negative thoughts associated with those emotions. For depression, “Everything is terrible and it’s never going to get better.” For anxiety, “I can’t handle it. I’m overwhelmed.” For anger, “I have a right to be mad, and here are the reasons . . .”
In this way, we linger in the lake of our sorrows or get caught in the quicksand of our own anger.
A mindful approach to difficult emotions is to recognize that it is normal and human to feel a variety of emotions and to notice them change as does everything else in our lives. I use the acronym, ROAR.
Recognize your emotions. What am I feeling? Is it really anger or does something else lie beneath the surface? Fear? Sadness?
Open up and accept your feelings without judgment. Feeling a wave of anger, sadness or fear does not make you a bad person.
Appreciate whatever is arising in your heart. What does it feel like? What does it physically feel like in your body? Think “This is anger or anxiety or sadness” rather than “I am angry, I am anxious, or I am sad.”
Release. Don’t identify, cling to or feed your emotional response. Let it pass through you like a weather system.
Catch and release. Breathe in and breathe out.
That is a key to mindfully managing your emotions.
Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in Burnaby Now, Royal City Record, Richmond News and Vancouver Courier.