Using Mindfulness to Befriend All of Our Emotions

Mindful Founding Editor Barry Boyce talks with Stephanie Domet about the power of emotions, and how we can become aware of our feelings without being overwhelmed by them.

NADEZHDA/Adobe Stock

Point of View Episode 11: Mindfulness and Emotions

  • 45:38

Stephanie Domet:  Barry I’m so glad you chose to write about emotions for the October issue. As a fiction writer, I feel obsessed with feelings and how we react to them or act on them, our own feelings and the feelings of others. What made you want to write about emotions this time out?

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: When you said feelings I’d heard that old song in my head. Feelings feelings were in, remember that?

Stephanie Domet:  Whoa whoa whoa feeling, that one?

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce:  Exactly. It’s the cliché cheesy song, it’s the ultimate cheesy song right. Feelings is a go-to for mindful. When we did our Getting Started series in 2014, it was very important to us that. Very early on we addressed working with emotions. You know we’ve always felt it’s really important to let people know that emotions are a key area of investigation for mindfulness. It’s not just about attaining some never changing kind of way of behaving and thinking and acting. Mindfulness turns its lens to the full range of emotions that we have. So I’ve been meaning to do this Point of View for quite a while, because it’s just so important.

Stephanie Domet: Because we can’t expect to stay in that space of equanimity, things happen and we feel something about them. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: I think that equanimity encompasses emotion, equanimity is about remaining steadfast in the face of ups and downs, but one might be mistaken in thinking that. That means when something bad happens that you don’t have a negative emotional reaction, so equanimity is the backdrop. But in the foreground could be the emotion. 

Stephanie Domet: So I guess a better way to think of it would be we can’t expect to remain neutral. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Exactly, it’s not a goal to have this kind of neutral faux peaceful kind of demeanor all the time. That’s a fake kind of mindfulness because it’s not human. You’re trying to have one kind of response to what’s going on in the world. And that’s not human. 

Balancing Ration and Emotion

Stephanie Domet: You write about being rational and being emotional, and it seems to me that culturally we’re kind of obsessed with that. And I wonder what you make of that obsession with being rational instead of emotional? And then I’ll tag on a secondary question while we’re at it: are those two even opposites rational and emotional? 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah, I mean that’s a great question. You know as I was exploring this topic I started looking back into the history of how emotion has been treated and discussed particularly in the West, going back to ancient times in the West. And you do seem to find a consistent almost denigration of emotion and celebration of rationality. So when you think of historically, when people uphold the great thinkers of the West they’re holding up thinkers, for one thing. 

Stephanie Domet: Rather than feelers. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah exactly. It’s Aristotle and Plato and it seems to be all about how you think things through. And in life we feel things through as much as we think things through. So this it creates a sort of false juxtaposition between the cool, calm, rational mind and the upset, unstable, emotional mind. That’s lesser, and that’s problematic. 

Stephanie Domet: Yeah that feels to me like a dichotomy that’s been used to keep women in particular out of certain arenas, this idea that rational is better than emotional. It’s something that’s always raised around women who try to get into politics or women in business. What’s at stake for us socially, culturally or even personally when we decide that emotions are the province of of one group and not another, in this case perhaps women and not men. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yes. Well there’s been quite a lot lately in the press surrounding the Serena Williams incident from the U.S. Open 2018, where she got really mad and you know it’s occasioned a great commercial that shows the absurdity of denigrating women for showing emotion, for having emotions. 

Clearly men show emotions all the time and they’re often celebrated for it, and for their passion in sports. You see that all the time and so you know it does a great disservice to emotion altogether to genderise it and to rank it, as often people are frankly doing as far as I’m concerned, when they take a very simplistic approach to neuroscience discussions around emotion. They pit the so-called executive function at the front of the brain with the emotions in the amygdala in the heart of the brain. And it’s like these two are fighting against each other and even the term executive function is a kind of a 50s, you know coat and tie button down, top down kind of way of looking at things. There is no executive in your brain sitting at a desk. 

Stephanie Domet: I picture him with is little horn rimmed glasses fedora. tapping away. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: It’s like Mad Men. And you know it’s sitting in their executive chairs trying to tame the emotions, something much more complex is going on in our brains and our minds than that. So this simplistic, the rational versus the emotional and having mindfulness on the side of the rational is just a perpetuation of the same old false dichotomy. It does a disservice to people who could benefit from mindfulness. If somebody is outraged and really upset, if they think that mindfulness is this thing where you’re supposed to waft around and in a controlled calm, then we think well this is not for me I couldn’t handle this, this is impossible I can’t do this. 

Stephanie Domet:  I tried and I never. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce:  Yeah I can’t do it and that’s that’s really unfair. We need to break out of the stigma about emotion and understand it better. 

Stephanie Domet: Yeah, break out of that dichotomy that says there’s rational and there’s emotional and they’re separates. Why would we want our emotions at the table when we’re making a decision? 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Well I think that my friend and colleague Dacher Keltner, who’s a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and he directs the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab, and he’s also the founder and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center there. And Mindful has a very close relationship with Dacher and the Greater Good Science Center. And I want to read first from an interview that we did with him that I think expresses a subtler understanding of emotion, and its relationship to how we make decisions. 

Mindfulness and awareness is saying we need to go in the direction of emotion and learn how to work with its power.

So I was asking him what exactly is an emotion. Dacher said, “In my field we think of an emotion as a brief transient process that helps us achieve a social goal like fairness taking care of people in need or avoiding danger. Those brief processes have an expressive element a signal in the face or the voice or the body. They also have other physiological components chills goosebumps heart racing, emotions aren’t irrational. They embody judgments about the world that help us live our social lives. When you feel compassion, One of the emotions like most the most devoted to studying your mind is captured by the idea that there is harm and you need to attend to it. Yes emotions are challenging and they need to be navigated with care but our rich diet of emotions allows us to engage with others and to enjoy our world. It’s when we wall ourselves off from emotional connection in a cocoon of pure self-interest that we’re in danger of weakening the pro social tendencies that hold the human world together.” 

I just think that’s just a brilliant expression and understanding of emotion, that emotion is not irrational. It’s an on the spot response, and yes it is challenging. But we needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because emotion, when it runs rampant as it is wont to do, can cloud our good judgment too, and nobody’s denying that. And emotion can be very dangerous. Somebody whose emotions are completely imbalanced then you know we could strike out at somebody, and then if that habit is spread further it can lead to real grievous harm and even death, and so that possibility and that fear I think perhaps has caused us all to run in the direction of rationality. Whereas mindfulness and awareness is saying we need to go in the direction of emotion and learn how to work with its power. 

It’s like if you get a dog. It’s going to be wild. But with training, which is essentially learning how to communicate, the power of the dog can be quite contained. And we can tame our mind. 

Stephanie Domet:  You refer to emotions in your column as “elusive shapeshifting inner beasts.” So that gives me the sense that we want to work with them. We want to ride them rather than letting them ride us.

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Absolutely. That is the challenge we set for ourselves. It becomes a study in action that we get to see how the emotions actually work. In meditation practice, one of the things we do is we set an amount of time that we’re going to meditate for and that’s usually the best approach to take. Not to say okay I’m going to meditate until I’m tired of doing it or I’m going to meditate until I achieve a particular thing. Now I’m going to meditate for this amount of time this stretch. And during that stretch An emotional thought Can and likely will emerge in your mind. But nobody is going to get hurt. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: They might hurt yourself a little bit if that emotional thought involves some beating up on yourself. But if you stay with it, with kindness you can ride through that. So we’re essentially creating a personal safe space and if we meditate together with others we’re creating a group safe space. 

Stephanie Domet: Right. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: The ultimate safe space and in that space we can observe our emotions, be intimate with and appreciate and notice in our whole body, as Dacher was saying emotions have all of these physical manifestations. So when you’re coming to know what anger is you’re coming to know this whole landscape. The different ways it can manifest. So it’s a great laboratory. 

Stephanie Domet: And one that you can spend time in before you’re kind of in the wild having an experience of anger. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce:  And then when you when you go out in the wild, I mean let’s say your spouse pisses you off and suddenly you’re having an outburst. It’s possible that meditation can help you have a little bit more of what we call meta awareness or meta cognition, where while the event is happening you also have a little bit of insight into that it is happening and you might curtail it a little bit. 

The  life cycle of that emotion might be shortened a bit. You might end up with a place where the emotion, the power of the emotion is there. But the harming aspect of it can be greatly reduced. It’s like you think of a child reaching for a stove, and I did this when I was a kid. I touched a burner you know. But your parent is there and says no. And there is a great power there. It’s direct, but then you might also get carried away a little bit because of as Dacher was calling it your self-interest, you say “you little shit.” You add that part of it that harms. 

Stephanie Domet:  Right. Like what purpose is that serving You’re just off-guessing. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Exactly. The difference in calling out and calling in right, we’re going to call somebody out on that. 

Stephanie Domet: And make an example of them and shame them

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: And let’s say you do have that fight with your spouse and you start to feel that bad about it. You said some things you’re going to regret. So that’s also part of the process. You can bring that back to the laboratory and with kindness you can have a nonjudgmental appreciation for what occurred. 

Stephanie Domet: I guess this is why we call it practice. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Very much so. Yeah. 

A Practice to Sit With Your Emotions

Stephanie Domet:  All right. So I would like to practice this, and I think you’re just the guy that can show me how to do that. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: We often talk about it as working with difficult emotions. You know, anger being the one that probably gets us in the most trouble although frankly passion gets us in this much trouble of a different kind, but the practice that I’m going to lead us in has to do with that meta awareness of mental cognition that I was talking about. So almost in the way that an actor would we’re going to generate an emotion. 

And just be with it for a little bit. And then come back to basic meditation. 

Let’s begin by settling into your seat. Whatever kind of seat you have, if you’re on a meditation cushion on the floor then notice how your bottom is connecting with that cushion. And how you’re resting your legs and your feet on the floor. If you’re in a chair, same thing. Notice your bottom touching the chair and your feet on the floor. Your eyes may be opened or closed. And you have an upright, but not stiff posture. Let your chin drops slightly in a gesture of humbleness. And now begin by paying attention to your breath. Notice your breath as it comes in and goes out. As you have thoughts, you can simply stay thinking in your mind and come back to the breath. So you’re identifying the thought as thinking and coming back to your breath. Let’s just do that For a little while. I’m not going to say anything. 

Now within this space of mindfulness we’re going to generate an emotion. Let’s work with anger. Think of something that outrages you. Some kind of harm that people do. Like making an overtly racist comment or being harsh and pushy. And maybe you see somebody shoving someone. Just think of a specific instance that makes you upset, angry.

Right now, rocus that anger. I’m thinking right now of a specific person making a very nasty kind of statement. Feel the anger rising with that feels like. Just experience how it feels in the body. 

Feel how it changes your physiology. Get into it. 

Go with it. Be mad. You are mad mad about this. This is something that’s unfair, unpleasant. No good. You don’t want it to happen. You feel the intensity rising. Maybe it’s uncomfortable. Maybe you don’t like feeling this way. Or maybe you do. Feel the intensity of it. Now, let’s let go of it. Let go of that external stimulus. The thing you were thinking of that made you angry. If necessary think of something pleasing. Like a blossoming flower with dew on it or something like that. With someone being very kind. Now feel what it’s like to let the emotions subside. It doesn’t happen instantly. It has a life cycle, can take a little while to come back. Now just spend a little bit of time paying attention to the breath. You feel a slight afterglow. Or after burn of the emotion they’re still in your body, maybe your shoulder stiffened, drop them down and rest. Paying attention to the breath. All right. That’s it. We have concluded. Thank you very much. 

Stephanie Domet: Thank you very much. That was something. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce:  It is interesting to feel the power of the emotion and something that you can experience with the light of awareness and insight. 

Stephanie Domet: Yeah. What really struck me was your invitation to notice. You don’t like it. You don’t want it. Or maybe you do. And that’s a really interesting place to hang out with. Challenging emotions as well. What do we create, what do we cling to? 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah I mean that speaks to the fighting or not fighting and the you know there’s a quality to the emotion. If you can take my word for it that just is. It’s not about whether you like it or not, it just is. And when we have less fear and more intimacy and familiarity, we can let the pure emotion be there a little bit more. And maybe in terms of anger the harming element can be greatly reduced. Because anger does seem to be some kind of piercing response to wrong. In the heart of it, it’s something like that feels like to me.

When we have less fear and more intimacy and familiarity, we can let the pure emotion be there a little bit more.

Stephanie Domet: Well the word righteous is sometimes paired with that, sometimes anger is righteous anger. It can be a thing that propels you to get things done to make it positive social change for instance as well as to kick over a chair. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah. You need to look at  know political groups often are fueled by righteous emotions but you know there are many stories of people burning out on that, because either themselves or the organization or both began to rely on it as a drug and you know I think as we look at examples and exemplars you think of somebody like Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa or any number of people who clearly accomplish things with great emotion and certainly indignation. I don’t think that Mother Teresa approached poverty with a simple acceptance of it, nor did Nelson Mandela approach apartheid with acceptance. There was great indignation there. But because the work was long, they couldn’t use the power of the emotion as a drug to get high on. 

Stephanie Domet:  Well even that kind of invitation to observe how it embodies the physicality of that emotion, really paying attention to the feelings in my body during that practice. That is not a place I can hang out for a long period of time. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah. And exactly it’s another way of looking at it is this guy we know who’s written for Mindful, Jeremy Hunter, who’s a management expert at Claremont Graduate University in California in Southern California. He talks about looking at your nervous system as you have all these resources at your disposal. And If you get angry you spend a certain amount of that resource right. Was it worthwhile? Was it a worthwhile use of your resource? Because it takes a while to recover. He’s looking at it from a nonjudgmental neutral perspective about the nervous system. We know that people who over respond burn out, they trash their nervous systems. This is a very sad situation for first responders, for example. They get called to action and they expend an incredible amount of energy and then it turns out it was just a cat in a tree and it was no big deal, but they have to spend all that time coming back down again. So emotions are like that, they’re part of a bank that we have so that’s part of what we can pay attention to is this resource allocation system that is our nervous system.

Stephanie Domet: You often remind me on this podcast and elsewhere that you are not a perfect paragon of mindfulness, as you once put it. So tell me about a time your emotions got the best of you. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: I came to not thinking about one particular incident but rather different landscapes of a particular emotion, this case anger, which is a lot of what we’ve been focusing on. One part of the landscape was with my children, when I was helping my children with schoolwork I often lost my temper. And rather than having that energy be channeled into intense focus, it was channeled into irritation and I lost my temper with them in the way that I am not happy about it and I’ve tried to learn a lot from that. I learned that children will perceive a statement as a judgment when it comes from a parent. And if that’s if you add to that if you put some juice into that with temper then it’s really a hard thing to put on somebody who is trying to learn how to make their way in the world. 

That’s one landscape where I have a definite experience of both the power and danger of emotion. Another one is in marriage, in a relationship with a spouse it’s the rare couple who doesn’t have fights. It’s just part of being in a relationship. And they’re very puzzling. They’re very, very puzzling. They seem necessary. Whether it’s an escape valve or you’re just negotiating so many things in a small space with somebody, it’s inevitable that the friction has to emerge. So somebody once said to me it’s important that you’re both playing by the same rules somehow. My wife and I fight very rarely, we’ve been married for extremely long time, I think that perhaps we’ve worn that out. But it definitely happens. And I would say it’s an area that that I find fascinating because I wouldn’t counsel a couple to  try not to fight. The conjecture seems unrealistic but how can the fight be healthy? And that’s one area that I find incredibly interesting. And then another area I find interesting is anger at a distance. 

Stephanie Domet: Oh, what do you mean?

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: So. You know we have media, and we forget what media really means. Media is bringing us mediated information at a distance. I’m not standing next to the president of the United States. He’s not sitting across from me. I hear his voice on media.  And I’m screaming. Suddenly he’s said something that upset me.

I remember this used to happen with Jimmy Carter. I felt like he said a lot of really stupid things. And I was younger then and I got really mad, or reading the newspaper, the radio, whatever it is, or you hear of crime and you want to strangle that person. Wow. That’s terrible. But you know that we have a justice system. That imperfect as it’s an attempt to not just respond to crime with vengeance but yet you feel vengeful in the moment. So that’s a very interesting area. How much do you exercise mental hygiene and put yourself on a media diet so that you’re not exposed to these things at a distance at the same time you don’t want to be a know nothing. So that’s a very interesting landscape to cover because if you think about it in personal interaction, when you get people in rooms together up close in the end they tend to behave better. By and large not always for sure. But by and large when people have to spend time actually looking really at each other sharing this space particularly if you’ve got the right configuration of people then it’s not as easy for us to be assholes together. 

Stephanie Domet: That’s right. We have to perhaps reluctantly acknowledge each other’s humanity. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Exactly. And I think this is a big part of what Dacher is talking about, about the pro-social tendencies that hold the human world together. 

Stephanie Domet:  Right. Because I can yell at the radio and I do, all by myself. But I probably wouldn’t yell those things right into the face of the person I cant see.

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Even if you did, because you’re in the contained space something more interesting and creative might come out of that. 

Stephanie Domet: Right. There’s feedback. There’s no feedback when I just yell at the radio. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: That circles back to the spousal argument right. Something creative can come out of the interaction because some stuff’s been bubbling beneath the surface and now it’s out. We’re gonna go through this. The last area of emotion that I was contemplating is free floating emotion. It just sort of suddenly you’re pissed off. I’m just like, wow what? You think there must have been some pathway to get here. I’m not always sure what that is. 

Stephanie Domet: Just that flicker. It’s like an electrical signal or something. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah and it could be passion. Suddenly you’re passionate sexually, or it could even be you know more neutral like suddenly you’re just really indifferent and bored or who cares. The way that I’ve worked with a free floating situation is to have a lighter touch on it. You know, just to let things come and go because they will have a lifespan. 

Stephanie Domet: So you’re like oh this is for now. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Exactly. I haven’t had much luck in, if there’s some underlying impetus that I need to be looking at or we need to be looking at. I have a feeling with patience it will reveal itself. If I get to you know it just becomes too much of a self-referential exploration in the echo chamber when you know why am I angry right now. And you know then you’re down a rabbit hole. Anyway that’s been my experience. 

Stephanie Domet: Last time we were together we talked about mindful vulgarian, your sort of alter ego.

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: I don’t know how “alter” it is. It’s part of a bigger part of who I am, I suppose. 

Stephanie Domet: What does he make of all this? 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Well I think that the vulgarian is mostly ticked off about the false notion of mindfulness as creating this kind of thing that I was talking about in the beginning where being mindful means being one kind of thing. So you’re always talking in a soft voice and you’re carrying yourself with an incredible sense of gentleness. And it’s very fakey and it lacks passion and humanity and it sends off the wrong message. It’s just trying to control ourselves. And if mindfulness and awareness are as valuable as we think they are then it seems to me that it ought to be able to allow humans to be fully themselves with the full range of responses available. And I want to quote Dacher again, here. This is from a little interview with him on The Daily Californian which is UC Berkeley’s Paper. 

“Relying on your passions makes you wiser. It makes you better at leading. It improves the bottom line at work. It’s better for your physical health. The people around  you will like you better if you have these passions that are guided by reason and guide reason. I come out of a school of thought that the passions are why we’re here and they are our most human qualities.” 

I love what he says, guided by reason and guide reason. 

Stephanie Domet: So we can’t separate those. 

Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Insight and emotion work together, intellect and passion, heart and head where you want to describe these things there is this wonderful interplay. And you know that’s the arena we’re in. So if you think of If something is too emotional, in a way what we’re saying is that there’s not enough light, there’s not enough insight. And if something is too intellectual, dry there’s not enough emotion. So the Goldilocks moment is those coming together. And if you think of great art it often it brings those two together in a beautiful way. Like a great speech in a play or a performance of the song. So, yes. The mindful vulgarian says, God damn it. Let your emotions run wild. And deal. 

Stephanie Domet: Well thanks to him and thanks to you. This has been fun.