As we’ve discussed, emotions aren’t purely mental; they produce distinct sensations in the body. For instance, anxiety might feel like a knot in the stomach or tightness in the chest, while anger might send a rush of heat to the face. These sensations aren’t always pleasant, but they’re enormously useful. They let us use the body as a barometer for our emotions. By tuning into the body, we can spot the beginnings of stress, anxiety, and other difficult emotions before they gain momentum. We can detect the arising of anger before we do or say something we regret.
The problem is that most of us aren’t tuned into our bodies, and so we miss out on this trove of data about our emotional state. We don't pay much attention to body sensations as we go about our day. Even when we do, we lack the sensitivity to notice subtle sensations, which are often the most useful because they let us catch emotional shifts early.
Luckily, it’s not hard to develop the knack. It just takes a little practice. If you start paying deliberate attention to body sensation, your sensitivity will increase, body awareness will become more automatic, and your emotional awareness will improve as a result. Before long, you’ll be aware of even subtle emotional shifts. Here are some strategies for getting started. Try any or all of them:
- Add a number of mindful pauses* — five, ten, or more — to your day. These let you train body awareness in short bursts, in the traditional Tibetan style of “short sessions, many times.” Remember, a mindful pause takes 30 seconds, so this is not much of a time commitment.
- Pay attention to the physical sensations of getting dressed in the morning. Place a sticky note on your closet or dresser so that you remember to do it.
- The next time you notice that you’re cold, turn your attention toward your body and investigate what being cold actually feels like. What specific sensations make up the feeling of coldness? You may notice some interesting things.
- If you find yourself in a stressful, frightening, frustrating, or otherwise difficult situation, ask (if you remember, which isn’t easy!): “What sensations do I feel in my body right now?” This will help you discover your personal signals for stress, anger, fear, and other difficult emotions.
In the next workshop, I’ll also introduce a meditation technique that greatly increases your sensitivity to body sensations.
*See page five of the handbook from workshop number one.