MBSR week 3: Observing Thoughts, Sensations and Emotions

The third week of MBSR is now completed. How is it going? During this week’s Zoom session, on top of the body scan and sitting practice, we were introduced to mindful yoga. The purpose was to add mindful yoga to the daily practices on top of the sitting practice and body scan exercise. First this sounded a bit of a challenge to me, because the time to be spent on daily practice seems to be growing each week, however I realized that I can split the time and spend for example 15mins for body scan and another 15 minutes for the sitting practice. On top of that, I practiced mindful yoga every second day. I will cover mindful yoga in another post during the upcoming weeks. Today, I want to focus on something else.

Observing thoughts

First of all, as mentioned before, it is totally normal that our minds wonder; thoughts will come and go during meditation. I want to remind, that it is not a failure if your mind wonders. Thoughts are not our enemies, not even when practicing mindfulness. Next, I tell you how we can handle the thoughts during meditation. The purpose is to observe our thoughts instead of getting lost into them. But how to actually do it? This is not easy, but let me try to explain how to do it. When we notice that our mind has been carried away by any kind of a thought, take a few moments and just see what is on your mind. Once you have taken the moment, without any rush, reconnect the awareness of what is on your mind with the breath that is happening in this moment. Allow your mind, which is back to the breath, to allow whatever was on your mind to dissolve. Without pushing or trying to make it go away. Simply noticing the thought, welcoming it, reconnecting it with your breath and letting it go.

Once we learn to practice this on a daily basis, it becomes more and more easy to notice once our mind wonders, and bring the attention back to the present. To take this even further, it might happen that you start to observe your thoughts also outside of your mindfulness practices. You might more likely stop and observe what is on your mind rather than blindly reacting to it. All this raises your awareness and reconnects you to the present moment, helping you to act from a place of an inner peace.

Observing pleasant sensations and emotions

Then, moving to observing pleasant sensations and emotions. This is an easy one, right? It is a piece of cake to observe the sensations in your body that feel good. Also, isn’t it nice to feel positive emotions? You don’t want them to ever go away, but just stay in that great feeling. But there is something about these pleasant sensations and emotions I want to highlight. You might think that starting a mindfulness course should automatically make you feel or experience something pleasant; the feeling of being relaxed, being at ease and having better mood. That is not the reality.

I don’t want to be negative, but the truth is that the positive and pleasant emotions and sensations are as valuable as the unpleasant ones. You cannot only focus on the positive and ignore all the negative. It is of course important to observe, recognize and experience pleasant sensations and emotions. I mean who wouldn’t like it? It makes our lives better and much more enjoyable. It is easy to accept when you experience something positive, and so let it be.

How to observe pleasant sensations and emotions? The logic is exactly the same as when observing your thoughts. You just change the word “thought” into “sensation” or “emotion”.

Observing pain, unpleasant sensations and emotions

Now let’s talk about the most difficult one; observing pain, unpleasant sensations and emotions. This is something most of us struggle with. Once we experience pain or something unpleasant, all we want to do is to escape from it. To get rid of it as soon as possible, to forget it, to fight against it. We do everything we possibly can to return at ease, back to “normal” state of being. These behavioral patterns are so automatic that we don’t even realize them most of the time. Luckily, we can learn observing also these negative sensations and emotions and a great way start doing it is through meditation.

So, how to observe the pain or a very difficult emotion without reacting to it in any way? Let me explain based on my own experience. Let’s say that my lower back have started to feel very uncomfortable after 10minutes of a body scan practice. Week 1 of this MBSR course, I for sure changed the position without even thinking about it, as I didn’t want to stay in that slight pain on unease. I thought it would “ruin” my meditation, if I sensed that way.

However now I have learnt that whenever a negative sensation appears, I can notice and observe it with curiosity. I am not forced to react to it in any way. I can bring the attention back to the breath and observe, what that sensation is. Not only a sensation, but even a very difficult emotion that arises from the past for instance, is something you can observe with curiosity. There is no limit. And here, the same logic applies on how to exactly observe these emotions and sensations as in the previous sections. But my tip here is to take some time for this. Do not give up if after one week this still feels impossible.

To finish this post, one of the most empowering moments during my mindfulness journey so far has been once I noticed that I have the full power to decide not to react to an unpleasant sensation or emotion in any way. It is fully up to me. I can take it simply as a sensation, an emotion, without analyzing it, without thinking it as “bad” or “not welcome” or “wrong”, without reacting to it in any way, without acting towards it. Simply noticing it, and letting it go once it is ready to go.

Only now I start to realize how life changing observing as a skill can be.

x Mari Susanna

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