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Is mindfulness about eliminating our emotions?

February 27, 2017


When I am teaching mindfulness, and we reach a certain point in the course, a number of people always ask me something like… “Ah! So are we trying to eliminate our emotions?”. My answer always has to be “No”.
The question is understandable. People who take up mindfulness often do so because they are troubled by emotions such as anxiety, anger, sadness or guilt which distort their behaviour and make them unhappy. If mindfulness helps them with this, then surely it must be removing or diminishing those emotions – in the way that medicines can diminish or remove pain?
I think of emotions in the broadest sense. They are what cause us to do something rather than nothing. It is no accident that emotions contain the word ‘motion’. Nor that we talk about being ‘moved’ by something when it makes us feel an emotion. It seems likely that even if we could eliminate our emotions in some way we would simply starve, dehydrate or succumb to hypothermia. I realise that I am lumping something like ‘appetites’ in here with much more complex and refined emotions. But that’s what I mean by ‘the broadest sense’ – these are all sensations that in some way have power to initiate action or dictate focus. Their roots lie in our evolved disposition to address challenges, take opportunities and deal with life or death prioritisation. They are the judgements in the face of which mindfulness is often characterised as non-judging.
What can start to happen when we practice mindfulness is that we are first aware of a thought, idea or image and then we become aware of a distinct accompanying sensation which offers to propel us. This may just direct us to more thoughts of a certain kind, as the felt sense of anxiety might drive us to stray into thinking, at length, about precautions and solutions. Or, at the bidding of these emotions, it may be the felt tension or gathering that would precede actually standing up and going off to do something. Thus, in mindfulness practice, we start to separate the content of our thoughts from the puppet strings that would dictate our actions.
Mindfulness does not mean overcoming these emotional drivers – without which, give or take the odd reflex, we would be totally inert. It means being aware that these drivers are there at all, and so having a greater opportunity to postpone or disregard them in favour of others. Of course, there is no obvious end or bottom to this. Our awareness of this inner situation will give rise, in part, to further emotions and impulses… and so on. What we are eliminating is not the emotions but their ability to dictate our actions and further thoughts unchallenged. Be that because we were previously unconscious of our emotions, or because we had habits of thought, beliefs, which gave them that unchallenged control.
My own experience of mindfulness practice, and then the application of mindfulness on the go, is that this “decluttering” removes many layers of complicated emotions and assumptions or “stories”. What can then emerge is not some super-logical deduction of what to do next. Rather it is just a simpler and more direct awareness of my real needs, or human motives, and of the correspondingly simpler ways to meet these.
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