Takeaways: Gil Fronsdal's Intro to Mindfulness, Class 3, Emotions

I’m listening to Gil Fronsdal’s five Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation podcasts, which were recommended to me as good listening for novice meditators.  My prior posts were about Week 1, “Posture and Breath”, and Week 2, “The Body”.  This post is about Week 3, “Emotions”.

The word “emotions” in the title is a bit of a misnomer, used as shorthand for one’s general state of mind.  The idea is that mindful meditation is, in part, an exercise to focus on that state of mind, to become aware of it without judgement, and to try to explore how it is rooted physically in the body and/or how it physically manifests in the body, e.g. you might feel anxiety in your chest, or fear in your shaking hands.  And the point (I think?) is not a self-helpy one about feeling “good” or “better”, but rather that your state of mind is, in and of itself, a good thing of which to be aware.  In noticing it and labeling it, you can, as Fronsdal says at one point, “perhaps be a little freed from it.”  The aim is not to feel nothing, but is rather to better handle whatever it is you’re feeling.

Or something like that: full disclosure, I had a bit of trouble summarizing the ideas presented in this lesson, and I’m not certain the paragraph above, or my takeaways below, do them justice.  I think part of the reason is that, as I tried to be with my state of mind during my meditations following this lesson, I didn’t feel anything strongly.  Fronsdal notes several times that this is okay—being simply calm, or feeling only a “vague” state of mind, is fine and no better or worse than feeling something as clear as happiness or grief.  I can’t shake the feeling, however, that I’m fuzzy on the ultimate point of the lesson because my state of mind’s been reasonably placid, barring perhaps a mild if tenacious anxiety.

However accurate my summation is, the lesson itself is the strongest and most focused of the series so far, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s been meditating even a little.  The lesson’s highlight is an excellent guided meditation, which is what I’ll focus on in my notes and takeaways below.  And as I noted in previous posts, these don’t constitute a thorough review of the lesson, but rather are only a selection of thoughts or quotes that most stuck out to me, or that I felt were most useful for me to remember.

Notes and Takeaways

The Guided Meditation:

At around minute 18, and lasting about 20 minutes overall, Fronsdal guides his class through a meditation that nicely encapsulates everything covered in the lesson itself and in the prior lessons.  It provides a template for what you might want to do during meditation, beyond just focusing on breath:

1) At the start, ask yourself how you’re feeling.  What’s your state of mind?  “Sad, happy, anxious, peaceful, calm, agitated, bored, curious, resisting, accepting”—whatever it is, try to label it, to be aware of it, because it may color the rest of the session.

2) Take a few deep breaths, both because it calms you but also because it helps focus your thoughts on your breathing even as you allow that breathing to return to normal.

3) After focusing on your breathing a while, try shifting your focus to some neutral part of your body, something not in especial pain or discomfort.  For example, barring any unusual conditions, your right hand.  Focus on it, feel its sensations.  Try to do this for a few minutes. 

4) In the same way you focused on your breathing and your body, try now to focus on your state of mind.  Try to observe it neutrally, without judgement, as if you’ve never seen it before.  Observe it almost as if you were a naturalist observing a plant or a bird.

Step #2 might seem like a trivial thing to highlight, but I found that it actually does help me settle down and focus more quickly on my breathing.

Step #3, I have some trouble with.  Whenever I try to focus on a part of my body like this, I only end up getting antsy and itchy.  Because of this, I’ve avoided it, and because I’ve avoided it, I appreciated a reminder that it’s a good thing to do.

More on Idea of Observing Your Mood Like a Naturalist, or a Question to Repeat: What Is This?

Fronsdal suggests this simple way to help you observe and label your state of mind: “Something used in the practice [of mindful meditation] that gives you a little bit of the flavor of being a naturalist,” he says, “of being not for or against anything but just curious, just interested, is the question: What is this?”  He continues:  

“So, whatever’s going on: what is this?  If you have an emotion, some people have manifestos about what they believe about emotions, some people would push them away, and don’t want anything to do with them, some people are quick to assign meaning to them, quick to identify with them, [as if the emotion] says something about themselves. [But you should try to be very simple about it, and ask] What is this?  What is this emotion?  As if you’ve never known it before.  That’s kind of [the point of] what we’re trying to do...”

Fronsdal repeats and elaborates on this point several times in different ways.  At the risk of going on too long about this, here’s another quote I liked because it expands on the word ‘emotions’ and opens this up to be really an inquiry into you general state of mind:

“[Ask yourself,] how are you feeling?  What mood or emotion, mental state, is present for you?  It could be anything.  It could be very subtle.  Are you content, uneasy in some way, are you happy, are you sad?  Are you worried, or, delighted?  Are you bored?  Eager?  Are you feeling dull, are you feeling sharp and clean?  And not so much what you think you feel, but if you let your body show you, coming out of your body, how are you feeling right now?  What’s your emotional state, the state of being you have?  And no matter what it is, take a few moments to see if you can find that neutral place, that naturalist’s place to ask, what is this?  Giving it permission to be there, but...stepping away from it so you can see it [and] allow it to be there.”

This brings us back to the beginning of a meditation, to #1 in my list above, to labeling your state of mind.  Now that we've covered what you’re supposed to be looking for, here’s more on why you’re looking for it:

“So at a beginning of a session of meditation, it’s sometimes useful to check in with yourself in this way, because sometimes unacknowledged emotions can cast their spell on us, can cast a color on how we see, on what’s going on.  If we’re in an aversive mood, then everything we’re aware of as we meditate, we’re kind of against; if we have anxiety, whatever arises is colored by that anxiety; or if we’re in love, everything is colored by something like that.  … If you acknowledge how you’re feeling, you’re less likely to let how you’re feeling color your experience.” 

More on the Focus on Physical Sensation, on How It’s Similar to the Focus on the State of Mind, and on How the Two Tie Together

While I’ve found it relatively straightforward to focus on my breathing, I continue having trouble focusing on anything else in my body.  As I mentioned above, arbitrary focus on my hand or foot or nose just gets me antsy.  Because of the difficulty, I find it useful to hear more about what this focus is actually supposed to be and how it’s supposed to be done.  At one point, Fronsdal explains is this way: 

“Bring your attention to your right hand, with the idea that the right hand is a relatively neutral place.  ...If it isn’t, bring your attention to some other place, some simple, ordinary, neutral place in your body that has no charge to it, that doesn’t hurt.  …Explore the hand, but also explore what it’s like to bring your attention, to roam around your right hand and to just feel the hand.  Letting the hand show itself to you, the hand’s sensations reveal themselves to you independently of what you think, of commentary or ideas.  Just be very simple, allowing those sensations to be there, not being for or against them, just sensations of the hand, tingling and warm and pulsing, vibration and coolness, heaviness.”

Easier said than done!  I’m not giving up but, I pretty much hated doing this every time I've tried.  Fronsdal builds on it, though, trying it back to state of mind:

“Now in the same way, can you bring that kind of attention to how you’re feeling right now?  What is [your] emotion or attitude?  It might be very subtle.  It might be vague, what it is.  It’s all okay.  But see if, the way you just felt the sensations in your hand, see if you can take some moments just to feel or experience or sense your mood or emotional state.”

And finally, he ties the two together, physical sensation and state of mind: 

“...Is there someplace in your body that gets activated or gets energized, that somehow is the home or the house for how you’re feeling?  Some people feel…their emotions in their belly, some in their chest, some in their jaws or eyes.  And if you do feel like [there’s] a place your body associated with the emotion, the same way you felt the hand, feel that part of the body and feel what’s there associated with the emotion.

“And if it’s obvious or easy, label the emotion for what it is: sad, happy, anxious, peaceful, calm, agitated, bored, curious, resisting, accepting.  Name it like that gently, but in a way to see if it can help you not identify  so strongly with it, not be caught in its grip.  Be a little bit free from it.”

Something Repeated in Every Lesson So Far: Be Simple, Let It Be, Don't Make Stories

If you listen to these lessons, it’ll be impossible to miss this one idea Fronsdal repeats over and over, in different ways.  It can’t be accidental, it feels central to the whole enterprise:

“Some people feel emotion should be expressed, some people feel emotion should be repressed.  The approach in mindfulness meditation is neither expression nor repression, but rather just to let it be.  

“…Let the emotion be.  You don’t have to act on it, you don’t have to give voice to it.  Just let it be, you don’t have to deny it, or judge it.  Just let it be, and watch it.  Know it’s there, be aware, hold it in awareness.  Something happens in awareness that’s very different—and it’s kind of counterintuitive for a lot of us, where we feel we have to do something, [saying to ourselves], “something has to be done here”, but you don’t have to do much, just to be aware.”

This point is repeated over and over in many different ways throughout the three lessons I’ve heard Fronsdal give.  Outside of meditation, you can take action, you can form judgements, you can suppress or amp up emotions, because real-life situations may call for it.  But during meditation, no.  During meditation, just be aware, focus, be in the present, don’t judge, don’t compound, let what is be, etc.  Over and over, Fronsdal repeats this, and while this example focused on state of mind, at other times he applies the same approach to other things.  Your physical state, your style of breathing, your posture, your thoughts as they arise, your tendency to lose focus—whatever it is, just watch it, be with it, be present.  Don’t judge, don’t add, don’t make commentary.  You don’t have to *do* any one thing, you don’t have to feel any one way, you don’t need to correct, you just need to be.  For the duration of the meditation, at least, attempt to do this.

And unstated, but I think implied, is that the more you do this in meditation, the more likely you are to develop a habit of doing it outside of meditation.