The treatment of emotion dysregulation is one of the most common contexts in which psychotherapy professionals have their first introduction to mindfulness. Though most of us don’t experience consistent problems with our emotions, human life is filled with lots of moments of intense emotion and emotional responses. So we can all relate to our emotions feeling like a tidal wave towering over us. This can cause harmful reactivity, over-excitement, or create fears of being swept away, overwhelmed, or drowned by emotions.
Mindfulness helps us wake up in moments like this so we can know directly what we are feeling. This knowing can transform a tidal wave of emotion into a manageable wave that will rise and fall in due course, allowing emotions to freely take their natural course, unimpeded by our own over-excitement, fearfulness, or catastrophic internal narratives. Then our perception becomes wise and we know emotion “as it is.” When we perceive strong emotions as they are, we can meet them with the kindness and generosity they deserve.
The combination of wise, compassionate knowing of distressful or over-exaggerated thoughts and feelings is probably the single most-used intervention in my work with patients. Learning how to apply these skills helps us know when and how to exercise restraint, a quality that was highly regarded by the Buddha. Restraint is probably the most important skill for living a wise and conscious life. Knowing when to act is as important as knowing how to act wisely.
There are so many passages throughout the Pali Suttas where the Buddha talks about restraint. He often refers to mindful guardedness as the proximate cause for cultivating restraint of the six sense bases (the five senses and the sense base of mind or consciousness.) So let’s look at the instructions for cultivating restraint that the Buddha gave Kandaraka the Ascetic, in the Majjhima Nikaya Kandarakasutta 51:
“Seeing a form with the eye, one does not grasp at its signs and features. Since if one left the faculty of the eye unguarded, unwholesome states of covetousness and grief might invade him/her. One practices the way of restraint, by guarding the eye faculty and undertaking restraint of the eye faculty. On hearing a sound with the ear… on smelling an odor with the nose… on tasting a flavor with the tongue…on touching a tangible with the body… on cognizing a mind-object with the mind, one does not grasp at its signs and features. Since if the mind faculty was left unguarded, unwholesome states of covetousness and grief may invade her/him. One practices the way of restraint, by guarding the mind faculty and undertaking restraint of the mind faculty.”
We make contact with external experience through our five senses and internal experience through mind. As information is processed in the brain, the perception of phenomena can trigger a range of responses from desire to aversion or ambivalence. The Buddha teaches a method of non-grasping at external or internal phenomena. Non-grasping happens when we meet experience with mindful guardedness; watchful of our response to what he calls unwholesome states of mind—like hatred, anger, jealousy, or overwhelming desire—that may arise in the presence of strong emotion or intense experiences. This watchfulness creates the conditions for applying restraint.
The Buddha continues, “Possessing this noble strength of the faculties, one experiences within a bliss that is unsullied. They become one who acts in full awareness when going forward and returning; who acts in full awareness when looking ahead and looking away; flexing and extending his limbs; when eating, drinking, walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking and keeping silent.” So restraint becomes the path of wise action and pure bliss.
Further on in this passage the Buddha goes even further in his extolling the rewards of applying restraint, “This is the kind of person who does not torture oneself or others—the one who since he torments neither him/herself or others is here and now hungerless, quenched, and cooled, and abides experiencing bliss, having become holy.” Ultimately, restraint clears our perception allowing pure awareness to be known. Therefore, all emotions, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, when known with restraint, are equal and become the cause for the equanimity of an awakened mind.
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Anam Thubten says it another way, “Full awareness doesn’t judge anything. In that way, accomplishments and disappointments are actually one, and are merely aspects of that ever-changing wave of human experience in the sea of vast consciousness whose true nature is the mind of the Buddha. All of our experiences are in a constant state of flux; the feeling of a constricted heart or one of melting into love. They are like the cyclical movements of the moon waxing and waning… while the sky is like the unchangeable state within, or unmanifested consciousness.”
So the next time you find yourself in a moment of big emotion, remember you can bring full awareness to that moment, mindfully recognize emotions as they are, apply compassion and kindness to any difficulty you might be experiencing, wisely apply restraint, and freely allow the mind to relax into its own true Buddhanature of bliss, clarity, and unimpededness.