Master Runaway Emotions with Present Moment Awareness

by Shannon Duncan

Take a moment and ponder how often you make decisions or react based on what you are feeling in any given moment. Have you ever been angry at someone and lashed out only to find later that you were mistaken? Do you ever gossip or become judgmental when you are feeling insecure? Do you ever say things that you would not normally say when you are angry or in a bad mood? In what other ways might you blindly take action in your life, based solely on how you are feeling?

Learning to be present in the moment with our emotions is a critical part of any genuine and lasting personal or spiritual growth effort. All we ever really get out of this life is our experience of it. That experience is largely defined by our perceptions, which are realized by the feelings those perceptions create. If we want to improve our experience of life, then getting a clear understanding of our perceptions, the emotions they trigger and how we behave in the face of those emotions is an enormous step in the right direction.

Through developing our ability to stay present with our emotions, they can become less overpowering and we can then have the opportunity to choose how we will behave in our lives instead of habitually reacting. Emotions are how our minds prepare our bodies to navigate us through life. We can feel them in almost every part of our bodies as a collection of sensations of varying intensity. Our brain prepares us differently depending upon the perceived situation we are in. Fear feels different in the body than does love. Rage is a far more demanding feeling than annoyance. Grief and terror can be equally overwhelming, but they manifest in the body completely differently. So why is it that these collections of physical sensations can have so much control over our lives? It is because how we feel about a situation is usually accepted as an undeniable indicator of reality.

Our experiences, especially those early in life, create neural connections in our brains that become the instructions for how we should deal with the variety of life situations that we encounter; they create our perceptions. These experiences literally define how life feels for us. These largely unconscious perceptions exert enormous control over our lives by triggering pleasurable or non-pleasurable emotions that push us towards what our conditioned perceptions tell us is "good" and away from that which is perceived as "bad" Sometimes this is very obvious, as with an angry outburst or an overwhelming urge or compulsion, but most often it is incredibly subtle. It's usually so subtle that we don't even notice it happening, like the programming for a robot. This is why so many of us find ourselves gravitating towards the same kinds of experiences, friends and relationships as well as battling the same kinds of problems and difficulties over and over again.

All too often we simply cater to the demands of our emotions without first questioning their validity. Even though it may sometimes seem impossible, we always have the ability to choose our actions, regardless of our emotional state.

Here is a great exercise to practice for learning to be more present in your life. Do this each time you "wake up" from day dreams or fantasies, or when you find that you are being controlled by your emotions. It only takes a few seconds, and can help you to get a calmer and clearer perspective.

1. Take several deep relaxing breaths. Focus on breathing from deep down in your abdomen, not high in your chest. Breathe in for a five count, hold it for a second or two, and then out for a five count. Continue doing this as you finish the remaining steps.
2. Observe the types of thoughts and emotions that you are having at that point in time. Are you angry, bitter, resentful, sad? Do you feel self-righteous or insignificant?
3. Really pay attention to your body. Where do you feel the physical sensations of the emotions you are experiencing? Do you notice any tension? Are your shoulders or your chest tightened?
4. Fully acknowledge what ever you may be feeling and remember that even though our thoughts and emotions might not be based on the reality of that moment, the resulting physical sensations of emotion are very real. Treat them with respect.
5. Relax to the best of your ability. If the situation you are in is too intense, if possible, take some time to yourself in a quiet place to continue focusing on your breathing until you are able to calm down and be objective.

As we learn to be present in the moment with our emotions, we gain a new freedom to choose our own way in life. We discover that we have the ability to mentally step back from any situation and honestly evaluate both it and our response to it. In this way, our emotions can become our advisors rather than our rulers.

Adapted from the book Present Moment Awareness. Copyright © 2001, 2003 by Shannon Duncan with permission from New World Library, Novato, CA. For more info, visit: or call 800/972-6657 ext. 52.