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The Body

Mindfulness in Difficult Times

Andrea Bijou

We interviewed Sharon Salzberg for this issue to honor her remarkable career. With COVID-19 on everyone’s mind as we went to print, she graciously allowed us to share an adapted excerpt from Real Happiness.

I’VE HEARD SOME WONDERFUL EXPLANATIONS of mindfulness. Sylvia Boorstein, a writer and teacher, calls it “awake attention to what is happening inside and outside so we can respond from a place of wisdom.” The Vietnamese Zen teacher and poet Thich Nhat Hanh says, “I like to define mindfulness as the energy that helps us to be there one hundred percent; the energy of our true presence.” But my favorite definition comes from a fifth-grader at the Piedmont Avenue Elementary School in Oakland, California.

The school offered a program of five weeks of mindful- ness training from a coach who visited classrooms twice a week, leading 15-minute sessions on how to have “gentle breaths and still bodies.” The students trained their attention by focusing on their breath and noting the emotions that arose. The coach also asked them to cultivate compassion by reflecting—“taking a moment”—before lashing out at someone on the playground. A reporter asked a boy participating in the program to describe mindfulness. “It’s not hitting someone in the mouth,” the 11-year-old said.

His answer is wise, wide, and deep. It illustrates one of the most important uses of mindfulness—helping us deal with difficult emotions.

We tend to identify with our thoughts in a way we don’t identify with our bodies. When we’re feeling blue and thinking lots of sorrowful thoughts, we say to ourselves, I am a sad person. But if we bang our funny bone, we don’t usually say to ourselves, I am a sore elbow. Most of the time, we think we are our thoughts. We forget, or have never noticed, that there’s an aspect of our mind that’s watching these thoughts arise and pass away. The point of mindfulness is to get in touch with that witnessing capacity. Sometimes I ask students to imagine each thought as a visitor knocking at the door of their house. The thoughts don’t live there; you can greet them, acknowledge them, and watch them go.

Mindfulness practice isn’t meant to eliminate thinking but rather to help us know what we’re thinking when we’re thinking it, just as we want to know what we’re feeling when we’re feeling it.

Mindfulness allows us to watch our thoughts, see how one thought leads to the next, decide if we’re heading down an unhealthy path, and, if so, let go and change directions. It allows us to see that who we are is much more than a fearful or envious or angry thought. We can rest in the awareness of the thought, in the compassion we extend to ourselves if the thought makes us uncomfortable, and in the balance and good sense we summon as we decide whether and how to act on the thought.

Meditation on Calling Up Difficult Emotions

Sit comfortably or lie down, with your eyes closed or open. Center your attention on the feeling of the breath, wherever it’s easiest for you—just normal, natural breath. If it helps, use the mental note in, out, or rising, falling.

After a few moments of following your breath, consciously bring to mind a difficult or troubling feeling or situation from the recent or distant past, a scenario that holds intense emotion for you—sadness, fear, shame, or anger. Take a moment to recall fully the situation. Doing that isn’t likely to feel comfortable, but stick with it. At any point, you can return to following your breath for respite.

What bodily sensations accompany the emotions this scenario calls up?

See if you can tell where in your body you feel these emotions. When you observe the emotion that’s arisen, does your mouth go dry? Are you breathing shallowly? Are you clenching your teeth? Is there a lump in your throat? Whatever is happening in your body, note it. If you can feel the emotion in the body (and we can’t always do that), it gives you a concrete way to disengage from the story and observe the emotion’s changing nature.

Bring your focus to the part of the body where those sensations are the strongest. You don’t have to do anything about them except be aware of them. Once your attention has moved to the bodily sensations, perhaps say to yourself, It’s okay; whatever it is, it’s okay; I can feel this without pushing it away or getting caught up in it. 

Stay with the awareness of the feelings in your body and your relationship to them, accepting them, letting them be, softening and opening to them. As you sit with them awhile, do the sensations change? How? 

Remember that often what we are feeling is not just one emotion; grief may include moments of sorrow, moments of fear, of powerlessness, maybe even moments of relief, anticipation, curiosity. See if you can break down the emotion into its component parts. Notice all the different things you feel. Are there any positive mind states mixed in with the mostly negative? Any negative mind states flavoring the positive? 

Staying with the feeling and untangling the various strands may lead you to realize yourself thinking, I will always feel this way, or If only I were stronger/more patient/smarter/kinder, I wouldn’t feel this way, return to the simple truth of the moment—sitting and being aware of your breath. See if you can recognize that the emotion is a temporary state, not your total self.

And when you are ready, open your eyes. Take a deep breath and relax.

During the day, if a difficult emotion arises, see if you can apply these skills of awareness to it.

Adapted excerpt from Real Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg (Workman) © 2019.