Day Three: Being Mindful of Emotions Part 2

Human Emotions and Animal Emotions

Let’s continue our study of emotions by looking at how our feelings compare to those of other mammals. Even though we share the same emotions with animals, they don’t seem to experience the emotional cycles that plague us humans. Take my dog, Marty, for example. Like you and me, he feels anger, fear, excitement, happiness, and sadness. And those emotions carry the same purpose for both Marty and us. That purpose is to motivate us to take action to change or maintain what is taking place in his environment. If I try to take Marty’s bone, he gets angry. He shows his teeth and growls. He even makes biting motions at me, but he never bites because he’s a good dog. But to a stranger, his expression of anger would certainly cause the person to back off.

Sometimes I come home and Marty meets me at the door because he is happy to see me. His feelings of happiness cause him to move toward me so that he can share his joy. Other times, I come home and find that Marty has gotten in the trash. In these instances, Marty hides from me because he knows he’s in trouble. Marty’s feelings of fear cause him to run and take cover.

For animals, emotions are precise. They occur in an appropriate time and place. They are physiological, not psychological. Another way of saying this is their emotions are rooted in reality rather than mentality. When I pull my hand away from Marty’s bone, he stops growling and begins chewing again. He stops growling because he stops thinking about it. I’ve yet to see him hold a grudge. Marty is happy to see me, but not until he actually sees me. He doesn’t spend his day ecstatically waiting by the door to greet me. Also, Marty doesn’t feel fear until I bust him for getting in the garbage. As soon as he senses that I’m not a threat to him, the fear is gone and he continues living. Marty doesn’t seem to hold onto things like people do.

Marty is capable of this because he doesn’t have a human brain that adds stories to physical sensation. His brain functions in such a way that the sensory information coming from his body is processed in the moment. He doesn’t have the powerful memory capacity that we humans have, and his brain lacks the power to add to what is happening. He cannot add meaning. He cannot add assumptions about the future. He can’t even conceive of such concepts. Marty’s experience is the only possible experience. No other experiences could conceivably exist in his mind, thus he doesn’t experience psychological suffering. His outlook is mindfulness at its purest. In this way, he is a wise sage. I’ve actually learned a great deal about living mindfully from spending time with him.

In each of the ways Marty appears to have it together, we humans seem to miss the mark due to our brains’ ability to interpret, judge, separate, label, and complicate the moment with the past, future, and fantasy. This is important because it illustrates how our interpreting minds contribute to our emotions. Marty feels an emotion in the moment, as sensation and thoughts about a present environmental stimulus combine. As soon as the environmental stimulus changes, so does his emotion.

Like Marty, we humans experience an emotion when sensation and thoughts about a present stimulus combine, but at this point, we split off from the rest of the animal kingdom. For us, the emotion continues expressing itself, as the mind begins spinning stories about the meaning of the stimulus that has just occurred, even when the stimulus has ceased.

Here’s an example to help illustrate this: Let’s say Marty is relaxing on his bed, and for no reason, I walk up to him and kick him as hard as I can—something I would never do by the way. He would feel an emotion as painful sensation arises and thoughts appear about the sensation. This combination would likely lead to anger or fear. If he felt anger, he would growl and show his teeth. If he felt fear, he would run and hide. But the emotion and subsequent behavior would be dropped as soon as I was no longer present, and he knew I was no longer a threat. I recently read that within 90 seconds the chemical component of an emotion dissipates in the bloodstream, ending the emotional response. So, even if I came back moments later, Marty would probably be happy to see me! Now, what would happen if I kicked you?

Breaking the Emotional Cycle

Remember, there are two factors of emotion—sensation and thought. To break the cycle, all you need to do is isolate one of the parts and mindfully observe it. Remember the lesson from the first day—if you want to change a thought or feeling, don’t try to change it; just observe it because observation has the power to bring the change you desire. To begin, I recommend you observe sensation.

A thought about reality is not the same as reality. A mental description of a sensation is not the same as the actual sensation. If you feel butterflies in your stomach, there’s no denying that it’s happening, although any mental story about what’s causing the butterflies is open to interpretation. Remember the story from yesterday about the science experiment from the 60’s? What’s interesting is none of the participants got it right. No one said, “Hey! The sensation I’m experiencing feels an awful lot like adrenaline. Are you sure you didn’t give me adrenaline?” All of the participants were feeling the same sensation, yet their conclusions varied across the board and all were incorrect. And this makes sense considering all interpretations are by nature open to interpretation and likely not 100% true. For this reason, I typically advise you learn first to isolate and observe physical sensation, rather than thoughts, in order to break the emotional cycle because the body never lies. The sensation is always true.

Next time you notice a strong sensation—let’s say fear—notice the sensation in your chest expressed as a pounding heart. Bring your full awareness to the sensation without labeling, describing, judging, or attaching any story to it. Observe and accept the sensation simply as sensation, and not sensation that is bad, wrong, or undesirable. You may even find it interesting or useful to imagine that you have no body, as if you were simply observing sensation in space. Or try imagining your body as an unbiased vessel that simply contains the feeling of the sensation in much the same way a cup doesn’t judge or analyze the liquid that it holds. By practicing in this way, you will see that mindfully observing and accepting sensation interrupts the story-stream. This gives the sensation room to begin decreasing in a way similar to how Marty manages his emotions. You simply observe and accept the sensation until it changes.

The Loved One Exercise

We will conclude today’s lesson with an audio exercise similar to the video we did last week. The purpose is to continue developing your ability to distinguish between thoughts, sensations, and emotions to bring clarity to your emotional experience. And just like yesterday, try using the “Thoughts, Sensations, and Emotions Worksheet” to document your emotional experience throughout the day. To continue, click play on the video below. 

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