emotions

Stories from the Field, Part X: But what is it? Defining Emotion.

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness impacts the students I work with (and in return, how they impact me), in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a STEM high school in Portland, Maine:

Anger, fear, joy, disgust, and sadness from  Inside out

Anger, fear, joy, disgust, and sadness from Inside out

I like Pixar's Inside Out as much as the next person.  If I'm being honest, I probably like it way more than the next person. I use these characters to think about my emotions as harmless little muppets who I can comfort and soothe. I think the whole film gives us great insight into our mind. However, watching the movie just offers us a way of symbolizing, and even working with, them. It does not really give us a clear picture of what emotions actually are. 

The challenge of defining "emotion" 

So take a minute to grab a pencil and paper. Write down the word "emotion."  Then, write the definition.

How'd it go?  We might we know emotions so well, but when it comes to defining them, things get muddy quickly. 

Here's how the conversation with my high schoolers went on the first day we tackled this topic. 

Me: Okay, so tell me what you wrote down as the definition of emotion.

Student: A feeling.

Me: Can you explain what you mean by feeling?

Student: Um...emotion?

Defining an "emotion" is incredibly challenging. It is not just hard for us laypeople, but even scientists are still hotly debating the issue. At article in The Atlantic titled, "Hard Feelings: Science's Struggle to Define Emotions" explores this difficulty. Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience and director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU, stated, "'It's been said that there are as many theories of emotions are there are emotion theorists.'" The field is still evolving, and what we believed to be true in the 1950s when scientists first turned their attention to emotions has been challenged repeatedly. 

Carroll Izard compiled surveys from 34 emotional researchers and created this description: 

Emotion consists of neural circuits (that are at least partially dedicated), response systems, and a feeling state/process that motivates and organizes cognition and action. Emotion also provides information to the person experiencing it, and may include antecedent cognitive appraisals and ongoing cognition including an interpretation of its feeling state, expressions or social-communicative signals, and may motivate approach or avoidant behavior, exercise control/regulation of responses, and be social or relational in nature.

Our response as a class: Huh?

Emotions....Physical sensations

Image from  PNAS study

Image from PNAS study

I asked the class to come up with our own personal, intelligible definition. We started by trying to understand the physiological component through a Mindful Schools exercise I have dubbed the "emotional vaccine." I spoke an emotion at a time and asked them to notice what sensations arose in their bodies. After three emotions, we would open our eyes and share out. While there was some consistency for what students reported out about their experiences— a swelling of the chest for "pride" or sinking in for "sadness"— there was also some diversity. For example, some students reported feeling anxiety in their heads and others in their bellies. We followed this by reading a study published in PNAS called "Bodily maps of emotions" that showed cross-cultural consistencies in body sensations in response to specific emotions. Then, we read the afore mentioned Atlantic article, which began with Paul Ekman's study demonstrating the universal correspondence of facial expressions to particular emotions.

Whether or not body sensations were universal still seemed up for debate from our experience, but we decided there is definitely a physiological component. 

 

Emotions....caused by chemical release in the brain

So it has something to do with physical sensations, but what else? This short video helped us understand where they might originate in the body:  

From it, we learned, "emotions are the effect of...chemical messages traveling from our brain to our body." By adding the two together, and doing a little word smithing, my students came to consensus on this definition:

Emotion: (n) An instinctual reaction to a circumstance that is caused by chemicals released in the brain creating bodily sensations.

"It's so sterile to describe something so...you know?" one student remarked. 

"I do know," I replied like the English teacher I once was, "that's what poetry is for."

Poetry and Pixar.

Stories from the Field: Part IX, The Rumi Trigger

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness impacts the students I work with (and in return, how they impact me), in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a STEM high school in Portland, Maine:

Yesterday, I handed out Rumi's poem The Guest House to the small portion of my class that made it back the first day after break. This poem, written by the 13th century Persian poet, is a classic that has been passed around in meditation and yoga circles for centuries. It has been one of my personal favorites since I encountered it during my yoga teacher training. I think of it in my darker moments. It reminds me of the possibility of embracing all the intensity, of sitting down with it and listening carefully, so that I may glean wisdom from the pain. 

I have shared this with hundreds of adults in my life through yoga classes, mindfulness classes, and personal exchanges. Usually adults admire its profundity and wisdom.

My students, never ones to passively internalize what I offer, had a different response.  We started by reading the poem aloud. I asked the students to write down what they thought the author meant, and if they agreed or disagreed with the message at the bottom. After a few minutes of writing, I asked them to share out loud.

"Clearly this author is romanticizing negative emotions, or has never felt them himself," one student began.

"Yeah, I mean, maybe this is a good poem for people who are generally happy, but you can't just invite it all in."

"Has this person even ever been depressed?"

So...not moved to a higher plane of understanding through this great 13th century Persian's words then?

What I was so struck by, what made my heartache for them, was not their words, but the known pain that was welling up just behind those words. My students were not speaking abstractly. They were speaking from their own personal experiences. They were terrified of their own pain and darker emotions. They weren't just in disagreement, they were mad at him for even suggesting they should sit with them, welcome them, entertain them. 

"We shouldn't be pandering to these emotions," one girl asserted.

The words of Rumi have always spoken so clearly to me that I wasn't sure what to do when they were shot from the sky and sent to a fiery death. I know I myself struggle to be with the full spectrum of emotions, but I have also always thought that I am working towards a place where I can more fully be with them. I wanted to know more.

So I left them with two questions:

1. Why might someone believe that we should be with our emotions and see them as "guides from beyond"? What benefit could there be to sitting with emotions?

2. If not this, if not, "welcoming and entertaining them all," then what? 

We came back together the next day with a full class and these reflection questions clearing the way. I wasn't sure where we were going to land, but I knew we had to dig back in because I wanted students to have more time to explore that idea and to deepen my understanding of their perspective.

 After rereading the poem, I had students reflect in their journals, discuss in groups of three, then rejoin the whole class for a complete discussion. This time, greater nuance came through. One student discussed how pushing emotions away isn't going to help, but sometimes when you have an "inappropriate" emotional response to an event, you should try getting into the other person's shoes instead of entertaining that emotion. Another talked about how emotions are an essential part of processing, and she can't actually choose whether or not they occur, so the poem didn't seem to make sense. A few thought you should accept whatever comes, because you can't actually fight it, like it or not. 

I still find the initial response of those few students, from the first reading, so telling. We are incredibly resistant to our negative emotions, and even the idea that we should have to be with them can be triggering. It is counterintuitive to imagine that actually sinking in and being with an emotion can be the way to make it dissipate. But the monster in the closet grows larger and uglier until we finally work up the nerve to crack open the door and peer inside. Only then can we see reality. 

Stories from the Field, Part I: Trying it out in real life

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness is impacting the students I am working with, in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a large high school in Portland, Maine:

 

We started last class by discussing the above quote, and how when we continue to be angry, it actually punishes ourselves rather than the person towards whom we hold anger. We then explored the physical sensations associated with different emotions. Students noticed things like anger in their fists and jaw, gratitude in their stomach, and worry in their chest. These physical sensations are indicators for us about what's going on, and often go unnoticed. We closed by practicing mindful breathing as a way to anchor ourselves when we feel strong emotions arising.

Two days later, a beautiful thing happened:

One of the big boys (when did high schoolers get so big?) came in and told us he used mindfulness just that morning when he was furious. He said he was the kind of person who would usually go off, but he thought about what we talked about last class and went and found a counselor instead of what he would normally do. There was a round of applause from his classmates. 

My lesson: I don't always know who mindfulness is going to stick with nor how they are going to use it. I was was most excited that he seemed proud of himself taking a different course of action that may actually help him in the long run.

Addressing the emotional toll of teaching

Teaching is hard. The demands can feel insurmountable, and because of this, we see teachers leaving the classroom, and avoiding the profession all together, at alarmingly high rates. While we are waiting for structural changes from the political world, on the ground we can give teachers tools to fortify their internal worlds. By teaching them how to develop their own inner strength, they can cultivate a resilience to withstand the professional pressures.