This article offers examples of applying mindfulness of emotions in real-life situations, beginning with a personal situation and expanding to local and world-wide situations. It offers practical tools, practices, and inquiries to help you find your center in times of fear.
About two weeks ago, I roared at my husband in a way I’d never roared before. We had just gotten off the phone with a life insurance agent. He could tell I was upset, and I told him I’m digesting the new information and feeling really emotional – and need to take a walk and take care of my feelings.
That would have been a good time to put the conversation on pause, but the next word that came out of his mouth elicited the roar. I actually surprised myself. It wasn’t a high-pitched expression of anger or frustration. It was lower-pitched and came from my center. I felt like a mountain – a solid, grounded mountain – rather than as if I were losing my footing (and mind) in tumultuous waves of emotion. It wasn’t time to engage or problem-solve. It was time to get some space, to absorb the new information and relate to my feelings in a way that would allow me to reengage in a more productive way.
We went to our separate corners for a time-out, and I took that walk and looked deeply into what was going on inside me. I reflected on why I reacted as I did to the phone conversation, through walking meditation and the RAIN practice I mention frequently in my mindfulness meditation classes. I felt grateful for those tools.
The previous day, our area made international headlines again for the wrong reason. About ten miles away, a young girl went missing from a state park campground. She could have been anybody’s daughter, granddaughter, sister, or cousin.
People in my area were not okay. This was way too close to home. It didn’t feel safe to walk alone in nature. Parents were tightening the safety reins. There were lots of prayers and people showing up to help and support the family however they could. You could feel the tension in the air.
I retreated to a nearby park, to walk the labyrinth and tend to my feelings following the failed life insurance conversation.
There was a brand new harvest goddess overlooking the labyrinth, that a group of volunteers had created over the weekend. I got up close and gazed at her in awe. The local garden club tended beautiful flower gardens all around the labyrinth, to delight both people and pollinators. The garden club worked hard to care for the earth and create a place of beauty. Even the labyrinth itself was a product of great caring, kindness, and generosity. Within sight of the labyrinth was a wonderful fairy garden provocation and some incredible fairy houses to inspire creativity. A little free library. A new reading area in which chairs were fashioned from logs.
The whole park was created through many years of caring, kindness, generosity, and community. As I walked the labyrinth, I took in all of this goodness.
Words from (Mister) Fred Rogers came to mind: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Evidence of helpers was all around me. The labyrinth was a place of refuge.
Being grounded in gratitude resourced me and put more space around the feelings. It allowed me to take a closer look at what was bothering me, without becoming identified with the feelings. I knew they were visitors that would come and go.
RAIN begins with Recognizing what emotional visitor is present. Although the roar might have sounded angry, it wasn’t Anger that was present. It was Fear. So I walked with fear, Allowing it to be there. Then I Investigated its nature. I became curious about what Fear wanted me to know and asked questions, such as: Is what I’m believing really true? Am I sure? Are there any other possibilities? (How often do we confuse partial truths with the whole truth, and create a lot of problems for ourselves and others?) Then I gave the hurting part the Nurturing it needed: kind words, reassurance, and loving touch (hand on the heart).
I went back home feeling a lot better, able to re-engage with my husband.
Fortunately, the missing girl was found alive the following evening, and we breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief.
That evening, I talked with a close friend living out-of-state and told her about how the life insurance conversation went south. After we were done talking about that, she asked about the missing girl and what it’s been like around here.
That’s when I realized the common thread of the two incidents was fear. If the life insurance conversation had taken place at another time, I probably wouldn’t have felt so emotional. But I was already on-edge from the local event, which compounded any other fears that arose and awakened what Eckhart Tolle calls the pain-body, that feeds on conflict and emotionality.
Fear can be a highly contagious virus that gets in the way of clear-seeing and blocks us from our natural wisdom, intuition, and guidance. I did not want it to be in the driver’s seat.
The next day, I felt drawn to return to a place I’d explored recently for the first time: the Adirondack Labyrinth. The labyrinth itself was awe-inspiring, and the energy there was very high-vibe. After walking the labyrinth the first time, I took a deep dive into the website and learned about how it came to be – and was truly inspired and even more in awe.
This time, my husband came with me. It was a perfect autumn day, and the late afternoon sun was low in the sky, illuminating the colorful, autumn foliage surrounding the labyrinth. We had the labyrinth to ourselves. I didn’t know if my husband would be interested in walking it, but I wanted to make it a meditation. Before walking, I sent my intention and a prayer for guidance and insight into the center.
It took a few minutes to clear my mind of thoughts such as wondering if anyone else would show up while I was walking the labyrinth and noticing how hot it was. When I noticed I was caught in a thought or story, I returned to each footstep with a simple mantra: Here.
Becoming more present, I felt guided to give my fears to Mother Earth with every footstep that touches the ground. I’ve been walking labyrinths for decades and can’t recall ever walking in this way. I’ve done plenty of “kissing the ground” with each footstep but not releasing fear deep down into the earth. Fear and lack.
It worked really well. My mind became clear and open, and I began to hear whispers from deep within:
Fear is a diminishing energy.
Don’t make decisions guided by fear.
Don’t take a single footstep forward in fear.
I realized that the actions I had been telling myself I needed to take after the life insurance conversation were completely fear-based. There is another way – a path that opens when I trust my deeper knowing and follow my inner guidance. Fear blocks that channel of wisdom and inspiration.
On the way back out of the labyrinth, I felt light and joyful. Feeling eager to move forward, I walked faster, even skipped and twirled. I felt like dancing! I knew what is not my path – whatever fear wanted me to. I also knew what felt like a full-bodied YES – do this instead.
The fruits of my meditation practice became clear: If I meditate every day, this awareness is possible every day. I could find my bearings in joy and trust my inner nature, and build immunity to the fear virus.
Release fear to Mother Earth – or sense it evaporating into the vast sky. Put it on a leaf, and give it to the river. There are many ways to release what doesn’t serve and make space for what seeks to be expressed through me.
I adopted some new mantras:
I choose actions aligned with my future, not my past.
I release and compost what doesn’t help me to evolve.
When we release fear and a sense of lack or not-enoughness (or whatever comes up for you), every footstep can bring us back home to HERE – which is true freedom. That is my intention: To be HERE and NOW, where the light of inspiration and insight can reach me without clouds of fear blocking it. HERE and NOW – or in other words, presence – is where our true power lies.
HERE is spacious and open and not complicated by past accomplishments and failures, or worries about the future. It is where there is freedom from the patterns, where we can be inspired anew. Every footstep and every breath is a portal back to the here-and-now when the mind has wandered off. Sometimes we need to focus our energies on certain tasks, projects, or whatever is going on. But we can bring the sense of presence into even that, and thereby enrich it, expand the possibilities, and not get too identified with what is not aligned with our true nature (which isn’t fear). We can shake off the dust of conditioning and fear and ego, and find freedom and freshness.
Not long after the local news story resolved, a much more large-scale story of conflict and violence erupted in the Middle East. I get my news mostly from printed sources rather than television or video, and even just reading about the human suffering on both sides felt like too much.
The other day, I took a walk with my nearly four-month-old grandson in the stroller. After he fell asleep, I began thinking of the suffering of parents, grandparents, babies, and children in the Middle East. Looking at my sleeping grandson’s peaceful face, their suffering again was too much to bear. They were just like me, just like him, just like us.
What to do about it? Feeling powerless to help ease suffering in the world only deepens our own suffering. What can we do instead of getting stuck in powerlessness, heartache, and fear?
On one end of the continuum, we can resist, deny, blame, and numb ourselves to “what is”. On the other end, we can indulge, sustain, and get hooked in the trance of intense feelings. But there is a middle way, of caring for and learning from our visiting emotions. As the late Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh taught, our suffering can be a mindfulness bell. We can look deeply into the nature and causes of our suffering, and find the path to freedom. Then whatever actions we take will be motivated by something much wiser and more clear-sighted than fear.
While pushing my sleeping grandson in his stroller, I created an action plan for resourcing in times of fear:
- Take refuge in gratitude (for example, how fortunate I am to be with my grandson walking in this peaceful, safe neighborhood where everyone smiles and says hi).
- Send lovingkindness to those who are suffering.
- Breathe in gratitude, breathe out lovingkindness.
- Do what we can to bring more kindness into the world. Do or say something that offers evidence to others that, despite whatever else is going on, there is a lot of goodness in the world. So many people who care and want to help.
- Seek goodness, to counteract the brain’s negativity bias. Find examples of people doing the right thing. Pause to really take in the goodness – of other people, the natural world, or wherever you find it.
- Meditate daily. Make time for stillness, to more clearly access our natural wisdom and compassion that gets blocked by our busy lives and too much thinking. Even a few mindful breaths counts!
- Do what nourishes and brings us back to our center (for example, make a meal, take a walk, get a good night’s sleep, have a cup of tea, look at the sky). Give yourself permission to do what nourishes and resources you, even when others in the world are suffering. Failing to resource ourselves doesn’t ease their suffering – it only drains us, leaving us less able to show up as our best self for whatever life serves up.
- Acknowledge that this is a world of contrast. What can we learn from the contrast and conflict in our world? What is life calling forth from us?
We might not be able to stop the violence, division, and hatred in the world. But there is much we can do to usher more kindness and compassion into the world. We must not allow our kindness, compassion, and caring to be closed down by fear or anger or whatever other intense emotional reaction is activated. We need all hands on deck at this time, being the best we can be. The world needs our goodness, is calling for it.
In his book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, Dacher Keltner states that the research shows the number one place where we experience awe is in “moral beauty”. Witnessing people helping others or expressing kindness, courage, generosity, and strength inclines us to do more of the same. We can set in motion a ripple of moral beauty even by doing small things.
For instance, when I was filling up my water jugs at the spring the same day I was with my grandson, one of the other people there asked a young man if he had a spigot. He said yes and then added in a dejected tone, “…barely.” I pointed to the slow spigot and asked if it was his. It was. Then I offered to switch spigots with him. He had two very large containers, and I only had a few smaller ones left to fill. His eyes lit up, and he smiled and thanked me. When I was about to fill up my last jar, he offered to let me use the faster spigot. It seemed like he wanted to do something to repay the kindness. His energy seemed different, lighter. I imagined that maybe he was saddened by current events, and even a small act of kindness could restore his faith in humanity and the existence of goodness in the world.
More than anything else, I want to be part of a wave of positive energy.
We might not be able to resolve conflicts in the world – or even in our own community or family. But we can begin within and notice how we contribute to disharmony and conflict in the world by being easily irritated or quick to anger, etc. We can make a practice of noticing and questioning the stories behind unhelpful habits, thoughts, feelings, and reactions when they arise. Looking deeply, we can set ourselves free!
Mindfulness isn’t something we just practice when we sit in meditation. We can bring it off the meditation cushion and into our lives, to wherever suffering is present and to whatever gets in the way of us being present. In this sense, the obstacles become the path! They are bells of mindfulness.
How can I express kindness, generosity, caring, love?
How can I be helpful?
These are important questions because that’s what this world needs right now – more mindful people and awake hearts. There is always something you can do. Be open to opportunities as if you’re on a treasure hunt.
Do what you can, and trust that it matters. And maybe take a moment to imagine how many unknown others around the world are doing the same and also wanting to be part of a wave of goodness. Think of when “the wave” is set in motion in a sports stadium. It’s time to do the wave and to be the wave. And keep it going.
© 2023 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.