We tend to think of mindfulness as, like, being totally blissed out, man–you rest your butt comfortably, your lungs do their breathing thing, and your mind abides like a vast, crystalline ocean.
But the thing about vast, crystalline oceans is: They’ve got waves. Like waves of anger, jealousy, or guilt that don’t give a damn about whether you’re at the office trying to get some work done while that aggravating Steve guy in accounting won’t stop listening to Taylor Swift so loud.
But as psychologist-coaches Susan David and Christina Congleton write for the Harvard Business Review, we can’t get rid of–or even really directly control–our mind’s waves of unsavory feelings. And as breakthrough psychological research has shown, blocking negative emotions doesn’t get rid of them; it represses and amplifies them. They’ll rise up eventually, as surely as a beach ball held underwater will seek the surface.
So if we can’t get rid of our unsavory mental-emotional waves, what do we do about them?
When you recognize a pattern of thought without being driven around by it or repressing it, you’re acting with emotional agility, kind of like how Neo acted in the first Matrix movie–only instead of dancing around bullets, you’re moving with your resentment toward all things Taylor Swift and Aggravating Steve.
The actual practice of emotional agility is something psychologists call ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It comes in four steps:
1) You recognize your patterns: You notice when you’re getting hooked (again!) by your emotions–one telltale sign is when your thoughts become rigid and repetitive, as if you’re always thinking about how you’re not doing enough, why everybody on your team is in your way, or how you lover-parent-friend jilted you 10 years ago. Freud said that the hallmark of neurosis is repetition, so if we sense repetition, that’s great. Because then we can start working with that pattern.
2) Label the thought or emotion: When you’re hooked on hating Steve, you can’t think of anything else: His terrible office karaoke crowds your whole mental real estate. You can’t think of anything but how you knew that he was trouble all along.
So when you find yourself getting hooked in this way, David and Congleton suggest simply labeling the thought or emotion:
Just as you call a spade a spade, call a thought a thought, and an emotion an emotion. “I’m not doing enough at work or at home” becomes “I’m having the thought that I’m not doing enough at work or at home.” Similarly, “My coworker is wrong–he makes me so angry” becomes “I’m having the thought that my coworker is wrong, and I’m feeling anger.”
This is super useful, the authors argue, because it helps you see your feelings for what they actually are: “transient sources of data that may or may not prove helpful,” rather than the absolute truth about your nature or that of pop music.
3) Accept the things that are happening in your mind: “The opposite of control is acceptance,” the authors assert. This means taking the middle path between getting hooked and getting repressed: “[It’s] not acting on every thought or resigning yourself to negativity but responding to your ideas and emotions with an open attitude, paying attention to them, and letting yourself experience them.”
How do you experience them? Directly.
4) Act on your values: Instead of acting out of emotion, act from a place of long-term, well-articulated conviction–part of the reason that the happiest people have the hardest jobs. Why is this so effective? Because your emotions are changing all the time, David and Congleton say, but your values stay constant.
Hat tip: HBR