Noticing small feelings

Over time, I feel like I’ve gotten better at noticing my emotions – over the course of a day, the number of times I actually notice small emotional responses to things has massively increased (mostly through meditation practice, and internalising various related ideas.) As I’m able to notice these responses more, it’s also easier to detach from them, and they pass quicker. This has made me aware of just how many small emotional responses to things I’m having all the time. In the last few moments, I’ve noticed myself feeling excited about writing down some ideas, slightly stressed that I might not be able to get them down clearly, agitated by the noises of children playing (/screaming) outside, and a few other things.

One thing that’s helpful about realising this – that I’m emotionally responding to things in small ways all the time – is that it makes each response in itself feel like it has less weight, and so it’s easier to let go of. I realise that I can be stressed about something one moment and then the next moment excited, followed by a moment of pleasure at seeing something beautiful, followed by a moment of sadness at remembering something that happened last week, and so on. I think we often don’t think about emotions on this fine-grained a level – we tend to talk about feeling stressed/happy/excited todayor this week, or whatever, as if emotions are totally consistent over that time period. There can be something helpful to this, and it’s definitely true that a general emotional pattern/undertone can persist over a period of hours, days, or even weeks. But the problem is that sometimes I think this prevents us from noticing other emotions that come up that don’t fit that pattern – we sort of assume that because today we feel a bit down or stressed, that’s going to persist, and we’re obviously not going to also feel momentarily happy about some good memory or exciting thing in the future. But I think this is totally possible, and actually what happens when I properly pay attention – even if I’m generally feeling anxious, I can still have moments of calm and happiness.

In fact, I think this tendency to think about emotions in very broad terms – to decide that today I feel a certain way – prevents us from even feeling things that don’t fit the pattern, where we otherwise might. If I believe that today I’m sad, that’s going to influence how I look at things, and perhaps even how I interpret my own emotional responses. This is not to say that it’s not sometimes useful to acknowledge feeling sad, to recognise when there’s a negative emotional undertone to our experience. But I find it helpful to recognise that even if I’m generally not feeling great, that doesn’t mean I can’t have some smaller, positive, emotional responses to things – moments of pleasure. Recognising this makes it easier for me to notice those small moments when I do feel good, and even seek them out – which can be really helpful if I’m in a general pattern of responding negatively to things.

A related idea, now I think about this, is that maybe positive emotions are harder to notice than negative ones. There’s a lot of complex stuff to get into here – maybe we’ve evolved to feel negative responses more strongly, say, because they’re more important for survival, detecting threat and so on. We also tend to resist negative emotions in a way we don’t resist positive ones – which can make them stick around longer. All of this is just to say that it can be easy to fail to really pay attention to good feelings, especially when they’re relatively small and fleeting among an undercurrent of negative feelings. But, in my experience, they’re still there – even if small and fleeting. And making an explicit effort to pay more attention to them, to look out for them, to cultivate them, even, can make my days feel a lot better.

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