Within the practice of mindfulness, we often talk about three categories of experiences to be mindful of: our feelings, our thoughts, and our emotions. These three work together to produce our actions and behaviors.
There are a number of theories over the order and interaction between these factors, but for the purposes of mindfulness all that really matters is our awareness of each of them. First let’s set up some working understandings of each:
Feeling is perhaps the category modern life separates us from most carelessly. When you ask someone how they feel, they’ll tell you about their thoughts and emotions. Important pieces, but not the entire story. Feeling, in this sense, relates directly to the felt bodily experience. You may have participated in a body scan meditation before. That’s feeling. We notice the lump in our throat, the moisture in our palms, the beating of our heart, the sun’s heat against our skin, the feeling of our feet in our shoes, the throbbing in the head, the lightness in our chest… these true and unquestionable sensations in the body.
Frequently we jump right past feeling to emotion. We are angry or sad or glad, but we aren’t necessarily aware of what each piece of the bodily experience informing that conclusion is. In actuality, our heart is thumping and our faced is flushed. And then we label that experience “anger.” It may be the experience that realizing we are experiencing anger makes us MORE angry, or it may be that we can use our awareness to soften to the experience and tame the bodily sensation. But more on that later.
There are multitude of nuanced labels that we use to label our emotional experience, and many are interrelated. How do we know helplessness from fear? Often it’s the third piece of the puzzle: our thoughts.
Thoughts are the stories we tell ourselves about what we feel and about our emotional label. Our palms are sweaty, we experience anger, and we’ve notice that our child is painting on the walls. It may be the case that your physiological anger is due to that, and it may be the case that you are carrying some of the physiological experience from emotions lingering from your work day. Either way, the thought “NOT PAINT ON THE WALLS!!!” is likely to enter your equation then.
Humans like explanations. When we experience a sensation or attribute an emotional label to our experience, a thought meant to rationalize that experience is soon to follow. It may or may not be “correct.” In a classic experiment on this concept, scientifically called “misattribution of arousal” (aka, “picking the ‘wrong’ story to explain why you feel the way you do”) researchers had a woman survey two groups of men and then give them her phone number. One group of men had just crossed a shaky suspension bridge, while the other had crossed a safer, more stable bridge. The men who had just crossed the shaky bridge were more likely to call her, supporting the researchers’ idea that the men would attribute their experience of adrenaline and excitement, which was actually from the bridge, to the woman.
So perhaps your child isn’t coloring on the walls, but is pestering you about finding a particular toy. And perhaps your body is stressed from work, but in a spiral you assume your child is causing you this stress and respond accordingly. In mindfulness we are less worried about correctness, and more worried about awareness and response over reaction.
These three factors mush together in one big pot of experience, typically. And we might be triggered at any point in that big pot to move to action/behavior. There are two types of behaviors, in this idea: a mindless reaction, and a mindful response. Typically, we have an experience and we react. Forever. It’s a constant cycle. Here’s one example of feelings, emotions, and thoughts connecting to each other and spiraling out of control, triggered by a challenging math problem. If this cycle were to continue, the child might go from the sensation of feeling restless and squished to an emotion of anger or helplessness.
With mindfulness, of course, we aim to turn that reaction into a mindful response. To become aware of each point of influence (feelings, thoughts, emotions), accept them without judgement, and then use mindfulness tools to take back control on the cycle of experience. Thoughts, feelings, and emotions will arrive, but we have the ability to accept them without anxiety or needs to act on them and, by accepting them, be informed by them towards ways to respond most productive to getting our needs met. That is, after all, what all this stuff is going on FOR. Two ways this chart could look differently, by generating awareness early on and letting thoughts, feelings, and emotions inform mindful responses.
Above, the child noticed herself telling herself she was worried and afraid. Noticing that feeling, she pauses and realizing she needs to ask for help. Asking for help, perhaps from parents at home or directly from her teacher, her thought pattern changes to reinforce the idea that there are people surrounding her and supporting her.
In this chart, the child remembered about mindfulness in time to catch the tightness in his chest. He remembered his mindful breathing, which restored a sense of calm by kicking in his parasympathetic nervous system. Calming down restored his confidence in his ability to regulate his body, and reminded him that his experience of worry and fear was telling him he needed to reach out to the tools and support provided to him to solve the math problem.
You’ll notice that these charts do continue even after the mindful response. The response itself creates a new thought, feeling, or emotion. It always does. We cannot really turn experience off. We can increase awareness of its various food sources — through thought, feeling, and emotion — and make use awareness to make decisions that actually meet the needs our experience is revealing.
Let’s revisit that triangle at the top.