“Even when in the midst of disturbance, the stillness of the mind can offer sanctuary.” ~Stephen Richards
One night my four-year-old daughter woke up crying, startling both me and my husband from sleep. He rushed into her room and I came in shortly thereafter, and I immediately got annoyed with how he was handling the situation. I’ll admit this now: I can’t even remember what he did, but in that moment I knew I would have done it differently and it made me feel irritable and angry.
I left the room and went into the bathroom. While I sat there, I remembered something I’d heard to do in order to become a calmer, more mindful person: Observe myself and describe my emotions and what was going on in my body as if I was telling a doctor about medical symptoms.
I simply noticed what was going on inside me as if I was another person watching myself and ran through what was happening. I described how I felt agitated and how my stomach felt knotty. I described how the anger felt hot and prickly and how it was consuming my chest.
Then the most amazing thing happened: My anger completely vanished.
I was astonished. Usually I can talk myself out of negative or overwhelming emotions with some time and patience by coming up with new thoughts or convincing myself to simply let go. But this, this was something different. It happened so quickly and easily.
I was really struck by this experience, and a week or two later I tried doing something similar while I was meditating before bed one evening. That night I felt stressed out and sad, and I could feel how I was carrying a frown around with me, and a feeling of heaviness.
During my meditation, I kept pulling myself back to the present moment and noticing how and where I was carrying those feelings. I didn’t judge them or try to change them; I just observed them. Within a few moments a strong feeling overcame me. I can only describe it as a wave of knowing that told me “those feelings are not you.”
It was so soothing. I felt how I was the observer, and although my sad and anxious feelings were certainly a real part of my human experience, I saw that I didn’t have to become engulfed by them. I didn’t have to let them rule me or my life.
I’m a person with a lot of emotions. I tend toward anxiety and sadness, though I certainly have some anger, or at least irritation, thrown in there for good measure. Being able to separate myself from these emotions has been so freeing.
I’m not saying that emotions aren’t valid, or that we shouldn’t have feelings about things that happen in our lives. I do believe, though, we can move forward in the most helpful and joyful way possible if we take the time to observe those feelings and get some distance from them.
If I’d stayed mad and acted out at my husband that night, over something so inconsequential that I can’t even remember the details of it now, a month or two later, would that have been the best outcome for me? I don’t believe so; middle of the night arguments never end well.
I think noticing and describing emotions allows for the best outcome. If you’ve been mistreated by someone, by all means, allow yourself that anger and frustration. From there, though, step back. Take a look at what you’re saying to yourself and where that frustration lives.
Once you’ve done that and given yourself some distance, then make your next move. Making a decision from a place of stillness and reflection can only make your life better.
This is a practice that, well, takes practice. I have to remind myself to do it, and frankly, sometimes I don’t want to. A stubborn, bratty part of myself yells something along the lines of “I want to stay mad!”
It’s worth it though, at least to me, and I’m incorporating it into my life more and more. I’m finding myself a calmer and more centered person, and that’s something I’ve wanted for a long time. Here’s everything that’s been working for me and how it can work for you, too.
Get comfortable with the idea that you’re an observer. The older I get, the more I realize how much of what I do is just a pattern, a repetition of the ways I’ve done things before. That has allowed me to identify less with what my mind is telling me and to give myself permission to simply observe what’s happening instead of taking it all so seriously.
Avoid judging yourself and your emotions. Just this morning I started getting worried about the sadness my daughter was expressing about going back to preschool after a break for vacation. I started getting frustrated at myself for getting sucked into my feelings and not doing better, but in that moment I realized I needed to let go of criticizing myself and instead just observe. And, as usual, it helped.
Give yourself the time and space to practice. This is not what we’ve been taught to do. At all. We’ve been taught to try to control our emotions, we’ve been taught to express emotions in healthier ways, we’ve been taught to give in and feel emotions. The idea of observing our emotions? I didn’t hear of that until I was thirty-seven years old.
Try to see your emotions as separate from the real you. I believe that at our core we’re compassionate and loving beings. The stories our minds tell us—about how we’ve been wronged or how things should be different—are just that: stories.
Let yourself observe what the mind is telling you. Let yourself observe how those stories are causing you to feel. Take the time to really describe, in vivid detail, what you’re telling yourself and what you’re feeling physically. Are your shoulders up to your ears? Is your chest tight? Are your firsts clenched? What’s your face doing? Do you feel hot? Do you feel like you’re in slow motion? Describe it all.
When you take the time to do that, you’re taking the time to see that those feelings, those emotions are separate from you. You’re the loving being who is observing them. You’re the one with the power to let them go.
Just try it. Taking the time to increase my awareness and observe myself has improved my life in just a short time, and I think it can make anyone’s life more peaceful.