by Daron Larson
Using a mindfulness exercise to pay attention to your feelings differently doesn’t replace other possible responses.
Figuring out what is causing you to feel sad, for example, and trying to intervene in order to feel better is natural and often effective.
But it can also be useful to feel the sadness at times — to temporarily suspend the impulse to understand or resolve the discomfort — just to get better acquainted with it.
Learning to recognize the difference between these complementary approaches can be empowering. It can lead to a kind of freedom that comes from consciously deciding which one to use.
A key distinction has to do with duration.
Thinking your way through unpleasant emotions takes time while a single repetition of any mindfulness exercise only takes a few seconds.
Longer periods of practice are made up of multiple repetitions of short, direct observation. This is one of the reasons that breath awareness is such a popular mindfulness option. The average length of a regular breath tends to be just the right amount of challenge to strengthen the skill of concentration.
To feel your feelings directly, practice detecting and observing them for the length of one breath. You can even shorten the observation to a single inhale or exhale. When your attention refuses to rest on one sensory experience, try to shorten the duration of your observations.
Scale down instead of giving up.
Noticing a sensation for 3-5 seconds not only counts, it’s more realistic than thinking you can sustain it for much longer. Gradually extend your explorations over time by increasing repetitions instead of the duration of each repetition.
You can also practice directly observing the sensation for a few seconds without connecting it to the breath.
Try to make a habit of sneaking in several periods of practice throughout the day. The benefits of attentional fitness training accumulate a few seconds at a time.
Not every instance of an unpleasant emotion can be solved like a story problem. The skills of attention strengthened by mindfulness practice enhance both the resolving of unpleasant emotions and the acceptance of them.
It’s a relief when an unpleasant emotion comes to an end, but there is also a kind of freedom that can emerge when we cultivate options for relating to emotional discomforts whether they go away quickly or hang around indefinitely.