Excerpted from Get Some Headspace by Andy Puddicombe. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin
Often we’re simply unaware of our feelings. Sure, we notice them when they’re raging out of control, at either end of the spectrum, but the rest of the time it’s as though they’re just there in the background coloring our view of life. But also the speed at which our emotions change, one feeling morphing into the next, can make them seem impossible to separate and define. Think back to the last time you felt happy, do you remember when it began? Take a minute or so to see if you can pinpoint the very moment the emotion of happiness came into being. And then when did it end? What about the last time you felt angry? You might remember the situation or context for the anger, but can you remember when the feeling of anger began and when it finished? And what caused these emotions to suddenly vanish? Was it that they ran out of steam? Did something else more important grab your attention? Or was it simply replaced by the next feeling?
For something that’s so central to our entire experience of life, we have remarkably little understanding of emotions. Neuroscientists can tell us with amazing accuracy what’s happening physiologically, and behavioral scientists can interpret that data to give us a rational explanation for why we feel the way we do. But although this is helpful and interesting, does it change the way you feel? More importantly, does it alter the way you respond or react to the way you feel? I may know that I shouldn’t get angry because it releases harmful chemicals into my body and causes my blood pressure to rise, but that knowledge does little to stop me getting angry. Likewise, I know that taking it easy and being a bit more carefree will make me feel less stressed, but that is of little use if I’m going out of my mind with worry. Sometimes this gap between what we understand intellectually, and our actual experience of emotions in everyday life, can appear as an enormous chasm.
Just as my teacher asked me to consider a life without emotions, good or bad, can you truly say you’d want to live without emotion? The way we feel is fundamental to our experience of life. Perhaps in those moments when we’re overcome by a difficult emotion we might wish that there was some way to get rid of all of them, but this is usually fleeting.
People often begin learning meditation either trying hard to get rid of emotions, or fearful that meditation might turn them into some kind of disinterested gray blob, with no sense of emotion whatsoever. But as we’ve seen, this isn’t the case at all.
Exercise 5: Being Aware of Your Feelings
We’re not always very good at recognizing how we are feeling. That’s usually because we’re distracted by what we’re doing or what we’re thinking. But when you start to meditate you inevitably start to become more aware of how you feel—the variety of feelings, the intensity of feelings, the stubborn nature of some emotions, and the fleeting nature of others. How do you feel right now, for example? Put the book down for a couple of minutes and close your eyes. It can be useful to notice how your body feels first, as that can give you a clue as to what the underlying emotion is. Does it feel heavy or does it feel light? Is there a sense of stillness or of restlessness in the body? And is there a sense of restriction or spaciousness? Rather than rush to decide, apply the idea of gentle curiosity and take a good twenty to thirty seconds to answer each question. And how does the breath feel in the body—does it feel fast or slow, deep or shallow? Without trying to change it, take just a few moments to notice how it feels. By the end of the exercise you’ll most probably have a much better sense of how you feel emotionally. But don’t worry if not, as that’s perfectly normal at first and it will become more obvious with practice.