Listen to Music, Observe Emotions in Your Body

by Daron Larson

Being able to notice the physical aspect of emotions as they are expressed in the body contributes to feeling more at home in my life.

The more familiar I become with the physical composition of emotions, the more I’m able to observe how they contribute to my own perception of myself. Noticing how pleasant and unpleasant emotions play off each other, fuel thoughts, build, play out, and fade make their weather-like patterns seem a lot less personal.

When I feel unpleasant feelings, I’m less convinced now that the world and people around me need to change in order for me to feel comfortable again. I can watch how my mind tries to think me out of the emotional discomfort. It’s great at brainstorming possible ways for me to avoid feeling lonely, sad, angry, afraid, or embarrassed.

But most of these ideas involve altering people and situations that are outside of my control. Observing this with a bit of objectivity reinforces the impulse to try to allow the feelings to run their course with less interference and urgency.

However, it can be challenging to learn to detect emotions in the body. For one thing, it’s not unusual for the body to be at rest emotionally. Such a state is an opportunity to get better acquainted with what emotional peace feels like physically, but it’s easy to consider restful sensory states to be problematic when we’re on the lookout for active sensory states.

This gets easier with practice. We eventually get that it’s the noticing itself that really matters. When we let go the way emotions should feel, we can begin to experience their richness and complexity.  

It also gets easier if we begin to remember to scan the body when we are upset, agitated, or moved.

Many situations provide opportunities for this type of exploration:

  • Watching news, movies, television shows, boring presentations, interesting presentations

  • Listening to music, podcast, news, conversations

  • Giving a presentation, defending an opinion, being praised, making mistakes

We listened to music while focusing on body sensations during last night’s mindfulness practice session to make it easier to recognize emotionality in the body in the midst or ordinary life.

Here’s the exercise:

  • Let your attention move freely throughout the body

  • Pick one of the following to notice for a few seconds at a time: physical sensations, relaxation, and emotional-type sensations

  • Establish and maintain a rhythm of selecting and noticing in this way

  • When you realize that your attention has moved completely away from the exploration of the body, gently guide it back

We spent some time exploring this before adding a dash of Yo-Yo Ma to the recipe.

This lead to a rich discussion of the various physical sensations people were able to detect.

I played another piece to begin the final period of practice.

It was during the final few minutes after the music ended that I experienced a connection that I’ve stumbled into before.

The ambient sounds in the room seemed musical.

Giving my full attention to observing the body sensations evoked by the music for a few minutes had impacted my perception of ordinary sounds.

It wasn’t dramatic. There was no melody line. There was no narrative shape. But the buzz of the fluorescent lights, the whir of the HVAC, the woosh of passing cars, and the slow drone of an occasional airplane sounded like instruments in an avant-garde composition–one that required patience and emotional openness appreciate.

This wasn’t a conceptual insight. It only sounds like one in the effort to describe it.

It felt like letting the composer and musician teach me how to hear the beauty in what we consider to be noise.

It felt like experiencing the human capacity for transforming ordinary sound into art.

It felt like allowing the ice that tends to guard my heart to thaw a bit.

I felt warm and alive.

I felt at home.