Many of us love roller coasters — for the thrill, the adrenalin rush, the sheer joy of the experience. Few, however, enjoy the same in our emotional lives. When we’re stressed, or dealing with a major issue or life transition, we may find that our emotions run the gamut — often, within short periods of time. Sudden outbursts of anger and even rage that seem disproportionate to the triggering event. Crying jags, also out of proportion or seemingly unrelated to present circumstances. Feeling quite low one day and rather ebullient the next. Certain of our decisions, choices, actions … and then consumed by self-doubt.
For a majority of us this is situational, while for some it represents a biological imbalance which can be inherited or triggered by trauma experienced during early childhood development. It’s not only uncomfortable when we don’t feel in control of our emotional responses; it can also cause damage to our relationships, our professional standing, our self-esteem. Often, a sense of failure results, as many of our cultures dictate that we be in command of our emotions.
Psychologists utilize and teach their patients skills of “containment” as well as coping and stress management. One of the most useful skills sets comes to us from Buddhism and is typically referred to as “Mindfulness” in English. This approach is two-fold: an increased awareness of both our inner state and our actions and surroundings, while at the same time a detachment from our emotions. We can observe our emotions as an “interested bystander” without holding onto them or allowing them to consume or define us.
Increased awareness restores a positive sense of control; when we’re supremely aware of both our inner states and outer surroundings, we’re less likely to be triggered into emotional reactions. Seemingly simple but requiring regular practice as in any skill, we’re meant to cultivate a careful focus on detail: to what we’re feeling both emotionally and physically, to our breathing, to the food that we eat, the actions we undertake, the people and objects and settings around us. This heightened awareness can also give us a sense of slightly altered state of consciousness, as we’re more aware of ourselves and our lives than ever before.
Emotional detachment also requires practice in order to become a finely tuned skill. As an ‘interested bystander’, if an event triggers anger or sadness, depression or extreme joy, we can experience the emotion with an “oh, isn’t that curious” sort of attitude toward it … and then, in our heightened awareness, ‘watch’ the feeling simply float away again. If we don’t accept it into our psyches, don’t let it become a thread in the fabric of our being, then we experience it — this isn’t a denial of emotional experience — but shortly thereafter let it move on.
The Buddha proposed mindfulness as one of the keys to enlightenment. This approach is more familiar to people of Asian cultures than to non-Asian, regardless of Buddhist affiliation; it has been integrated into Eastern cultures as a whole. The practice of mindfulness can be formalized as meditation; such practices can also be included in our acts of daily life, and indeed, become our conceptual framework for living.