Understanding the Process of Emotions

Dr. Eve Ekman recently presented a session on Overcoming Negativity and Judgement as part of the Wise@Work Virtual Communities series organised by Wisdom Labs.  Eve’s professional work focuses on developing emotional awareness, compassion and mindfulness. In pursuit of this goal, she draws on her knowledge, research and experience in areas such as integrative medicine, clinical social work and contemplative science. The mission of Wisdom Labs is to improve mental health in the workplace and the organisation offers guided virtual communities and a stress reduction app as a means to pursue these goals.  The positive outcomes from these tools are reduction in workplace stress, combating loneliness and burnout and improvement in teamwork.

Eve facilitates the Cultivating Emotional Balance Online Course and is Director of Training at the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), University of California Berkeley.  Eve demonstrates the benefits of her yoga and meditation practice in her concise, calm, practical and insightful presentations in many contexts, including in large organisations around the world.   Her video presentation on cultivating emotional balance and fluency at the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators (GGSC) is another example of the depth and passion of her work in developing emotional awareness

The process of emotions

Eve made the point at the outset that we have to understand the nature of emotions if we are going to learn how to keep them under control.  She explained that emotions are more than feelings (e.g. feeling good or bad about something).  In her view (informed by scientific research), emotions are really a process – a process involving “a trigger, an experience and a response”.

The trigger for a feeling of frustration and anger in the workplace could be something like the internet freezing continuously, someone who continually talks loudly in your open office workspace or the fact that your views and suggestions are ignored by management.   Working from home in the current lockdown environment of the Coronavirus can provide multiple triggers for frustration such as distractions, inadequate computer resources and managers who lack an understanding of your personal situation and associated difficulties (such as young children at home).   

Our experience of frustration and anger and associated thoughts of unfairness have a “biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are reflected in our body.  We may feel “uptight”, experience soreness in our back, arms or legs or have a stiff neck or headache.  Our response to the trigger and associated feelings and bodily sensations, can be mild, measured, “over-the-top” or involve some form of calming of ourselves and our emotions.

Eve suggests that we draw on integrative science (Western and Eastern approaches) to identify emotions as “constructive or destructive in how they are enacted” – in other words, how we respond, how our emotions play out in our words and actions.  Whether we choose a constructive or destructive way to act out our emotions will depend on how well we have our emotions under control at the time. 

The capacity to consciously chose an appropriate response to our triggers and associated feelings is described as emotional fluency or as Susan David calls it, “emotional agility”.  Eve’s facilitation in workplaces and her research, confirm that meditation and mindfulness practices are a pathway to developing emotional fluency/agility.   Without awareness of our emotions and how we enact them, we can be easily captured and controlled by them, resulting in harmful interactions and poor decision making.

Reflection

Viktor Frankl reminds us that between a stimulus (a trigger) and our response, there is a gap – wherein lies the opportunity to exercise choice in how we respond, and in the process, free ourselves from the enslavement of our emotions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices we can build our self-awareness in relation to our triggers, thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and habituated responses and develop self-regulation to deal with our emotions constructively.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Mindful Connection

Sharon Salzberg, in her presentation provided as part of the  Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, focused on the theme, The Art of Mindful Connection.  Sharon is the author of ten books, including Real Love.

Sharon made the point that real love is not a commodity to be exchanged, it is not simply about reciprocation -“I’ll do something for you, if you do something I want in return.”  In her view, love does not mean unwillingness to express your own needs or feelings or coming from a place of neediness.

At times, real love is “tough love”, expressed as a readiness to say “no”, when the context, situation or your needs require that response.  It does not mean just agreeing with the other person for the sake of peace or a false sense of making them happy.

Sharon spoke of love as a capacity – a capacity for real connection which flows out of being mindful.  Real love creates real connection and is developed through mindfulness practice and being mindful in the situation when we encounter people.

The problem is that we all bring our conditioning and assumptions to every interaction – some being more negatively impactful than others.  We each have our own conditioning and assumptions developed as a result of our family environment, our work experience and/or life events.

Our conditioning may mean that we are wary of dissenting, reticent to express our feelings and needs or have difficulty trusting others.  Adverse events in our life may contribute to a tendency to look for, and see, only the negatives we experience, e.g. when reviewing our day, we may only focus on what we did wrong, our lack of achievement and/or our disappointments.

Our assumptions play a major role in how we relate to others.  We can show interest in people (who we assess as interesting), look right past others or consider others to be not worth talking to.

Sharon told the story of a writer friend of hers who, on first sight of a woman who had approached him, assumed that she was not intelligent or not “with it”.  It turned out that the woman was very intelligent and was actually a professional proof-reader for a publisher.

This example resonated strongly with my experience of my own unfounded assumptions which I described in my previous post about removing blockages to learning and performance.

Sharon encourages us to engage in meditation practice and honestly confront ourselves – to look squarely at the impact of our conditioning and assumptions on our relations with others.

She suggests, for instance, that in conversations with ourselves that we ask penetrating questions.   We could ask, for example, “What groups do we think do not count?”, “Which of our assumptions were at play in a recent interaction with someone else that did not work out as we expected?” or “Who have we been avoiding and why?”

Sharon urges us to be honest with ourselves in these conversations and not let negative emotions such as shame or embarrassment get in the road of a genuine exploration of how our conditioning and assumptions play out in our daily interactions.

She suggests that unearthing these impediments creates a new freedom – a liberation from the constraints that prevent us from achieving mindful connection with others.  Mindfulness, in her view, is the gift of liberation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and conversations with ourselves, we can free ourselves from the conditioning and assumptions that hold us back from genuine engagement with others.  By becoming progressively unfettered in the way we relate and being able to give our full attention to the other person, we can create meaningful and mindful connections.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of sasint on Pixabay

Do You See What I See?

It is highly unlikely that you see what I see or what other people might see.

So much of what we see is filtered by our past experience and our thoughts and emotions generated by those experiences. So, what each of us see when experiencing a scene like the picture in this post of the Manly foreshore at sunrise, might be very different.

If you are a runner you might focus on the runner in the foreground, the idyllic environment for their run and their running style. If you have recently visited Stradbroke Island, you could be looking at the island in the background and searching for the tell tale sandhills while remembering an enjoyable aspect of your visit there.

If you have experienced a tsunami, the water and its calmness might remind you of your horrifying experience that followed in the wake of a calm sea. Instead of calming you, the scene might generate fear in you.

If you love trees you might focus on the different varieties of trees along the shorefront or notice the bright aura of the fir tree in the foreground.  If you have an interest in photography, you might critique the photo itself and its technical aspects of shade and light, contrast, background and foreground, positioning of key elements or the impact of the rising sun illuminating the image.  A landscape artist could be deciding whether to paint the scene in its totality or to focus on the trees.

If you are inwardly focused and preoccupied with worry or concerns about the day ahead, you might be unaware of what is actually in front of you.

What we attend to influences what we see or don’t see.  Our attention, in turn, is influenced very much by what has happened previously in our life and/or what is happening now for us.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has this to say about our limited perception and the influence of our thoughts and emotions on what we actually see:

Instead of experiencing the bare actuality of our senses, we are more experiencing our life through our thoughts about our experience – our preferences, likes, dislikes, our worries, concerns or addictions, and in a sense not fully inhabiting the full spectrum of our innate capability.

This is one reason why open awareness is a very important mindful practice if we want to grow in mindfulness and reach our full potential. Otherwise we can be lost in our thoughts and miss the world around us, its richness and beauty.

Image source: Copyright R. Passfield