Developing a nonjudgmental attitude
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
in the present moment, and
Kabat-Zinn’s definition highlights that an important aspect of mindfulness is acceptance, or of avoiding harsh judgments. Acceptance means being able to be aware of our experience without either clinging to it or pushing it away. Instead we accept our experience with equanimity.
All too often we find it difficult to accept what we’re feeling. A common pattern is to experience some initial unpleasant experience, and then to feel bad because of feeling bad, and then to feel bad about feeling bad about feeling bad, and so on. It’s a vicious cycle of feeling bad about feeling bad. The feelings are generated by thinking in unhelpful ways, so this means there are several approaches to breaking the vicious cycle.
Acceptance of what you’re feeling is one tool, although it’s not so much a tool as a way of being. Acceptance means acknowledging what you’re feeling, and standing back from it so that although you experience the unpleasant emotion you don’t entirely define yourself by it.
An important approach in doing this is to locate the feeling in the body.
- What shape is the feeling?
- Where exactly is it located?
- What color – if any – is it?
- What kind of texture does it have?
- Does it change over time?
In locating the emotion in the body in this way, we realize that the emotion is smaller than we are. We’re bigger than any emotion that we experience, which means that if we stand back from the emotion then not everything we’re experiencing is colored by the emotion. In this way we create a sort of “space” between ourselves and the emotion so that we’re not so caught up in it.
This approach also allows us to surround difficult emotions with lovingkindness.
Befriending your distractions
A complementary way to develop acceptance is to be aware of your emotions in a spirit of friendly curiosity. So in doing the above exercise – as you locate the emotion in the body and sense its characteristics – you can take a kindly interest in it. You can say words like “It’s okay. Let me feel this. It’s okay to feel this.” In this way we can replace the aversion we have to the unpleasant feeling with a more creative response that won’t lead to further unpleasant reactions. In other words we’re breaking the vicious cycle by not feeling bad about feeling bad.
Then there’s the whole area of the thoughts. When you feel bad, your mind generates thoughts that are conditioned by the unpleasant feeling. These thoughts (“Here we go again. I don’t want to feel like this. I can’t stand it. If I feel like this no one will like me. I don’t think anyone likes me anyway”) are what make us feel bad about feeling bad. We take a molehill (or at least a hill) and make it into a mountain.
It’s very useful indeed to learn to stand back from our thoughts as well as our emotions. We can recognize that our thoughts are just thoughts, and not reality. When you notice thoughts arising, you can let go of the stream of thought. Thoughts only keep going as long as we put energy into this, so by letting go of the thought we’re actually withdrawing energy from it and stopping it from being perpetuated.
Labeling thoughts as thoughts can be useful. When we notice ourselves thinking we can just say the word “thinking” quietly to ourselves. When we name our experience we again create a small gap that gives us a sense of freedom.
You can adopt a skeptical attitude about your thoughts. Our thoughts often lie to us, and we can feel empowered by choosing not to automatically believe them. Instead of believing thoughts like “No one will want to be with me if I feel as bad as this” we can simply be aware of this as a thought.