We learn from the rawness of our desires, fears and hatred – but to learn what emotions can teach us, we have to know how to listen, say Michael Bunting and Patrick Kearney.

One of our greatest traps is believing that our unpleasant emotions can be permanently resolved by making our external world perfect – of course, this is impossible. Emotions are typically strong and clear. They can be so strong they dominate us and cause needless suffering. Emotions are also complex. They always contain a physical, bodily sensation, usually in the torso area. Emotions are usually accompanied by a narrative, a story we tell ourselves to explain and make sense of what we are feeling. Finally, all emotion contains either pleasant or unpleasant feeling tone – or both, as the feeling tone swings from pleasant to unpleasant.

Living with emotion

When we work with emotion, we focus on two things: the body and the feeling tone. The stories we tell ourselves in the grip of emotions are not important here; we are interested only in the elemental feel of emotion. When we work with emotion we drop beneath the level of concept about the emotion to directly experience the elemental quality of that emotion. This simple change of focus can be transformative, as I can illustrate with a personal experience.

Shortly before attending a meditation retreat a few years ago, I received news that angered me deeply. Meditation practice was utterly dominated by intense scenarios of what I could do to change the situation. I was consumed with my story and the promise of resolution – I would come up with something to fix the situation. Reporting my experience to my teacher, I said, “I just need to work out a solution and then I can come back to my meditation.” Chuckling, he replied, “Do you appreciate that whatever you resolve is going to be fuelled by anger? More importantly, you are buying into the idea that peace can come only once a situation largely out of your control is fixed. That is a prison sentence.” He invited me to drop the story, and to practise being totally present with the hard, unpleasant feelings of helplessness and anger. This was revolutionary to me. I took his advice and really focused on just sitting with my feelings. Slowly but surely, I found an extraordinary peace within myself. Ironically, a few days later, a wonderful solution just popped into my mind. It was a brilliant lesson.

The feeling tone

*Begin by settling into your posture. Now find a way to access an emotion. You could remember something wonderful, or something difficult.
*Now feel the body. In particular, identify the area of the body where you feel the emotion. In the gut? Chest? Throat?
*Focus on the sensations associated with the emotion. But don't just be aware of the sensations; instead, send your awareness through the sensations to the emotion they are expressing, and find the elemental qualities of the emotion beneath it. Is it hard or soft? Rough or smooth? Sharp or dull? Moving or still? If you gave this emotion a colour, what would it be?
*As you penetrate into the emotion, name it. You will be drawn, again and again, into the narrative that explains and justifies this emotion. But do not be concerned with the story. Just focus on penetrating the felt elemental quality of the emotion.

Michael Bunting is the founder of leadership consultancy WorkSmart, and Patrick Kearney is a mindfulness teachers. Together they are the authors of A Practical Guide to Mindful Meditation ($48.99,, from which this extract is reproduced with permission.