For many years, meditators have known that emotion and physical sensations are intimately linked. More recently, researchers, psychologists and neuroscientists from all over the world have actually proven and even mapped out this phenomenon. For example, in a study of 700 participants, Dr. Lauri Nummenmaa systematically mapped out the different places in the body where we experience emotions, as well as the physical sensations that correlate to each of those emotions.
Use your body to explore your emotions
To be more aware of your emotions—and thus to understand and harness them better—it’s essential to develop mindfulness around your body. This will give you a more nuanced perception of the physical sensations that arise when you’re experiencing an emotion. You’ll also be able to spot emotions faster, and choose how you want to respond to those emotions consciously rather than reactively.
How do you develop mindfulness around your body and your emotions?
The Body Scan
The body scan is a meditation where you examine your body and its physical sensations in a systematic way, part by part. This meditation takes about 10 minutes. You can, of course, meditate for longer as well.
To get started, find a comfortable place to sit where you won’t be interrupted. Close your eyes. Do one to two minutes of meditation using whatever method you’re most used to. This will help calm your mind and get you ready to begin the body scan.
Put your attention on the very top of your head. Feel any sensation that might be there, no matter how minute. Slowly move your attention from the very tip of your head, down your scalp, until you’re just above your eyebrows. Do this very slowly and observe any and all physical sensations as you’re scanning. Spend about one minute here.
Next, bring your attention to the face. Start from the top down. What sensations do you feel around your eyes? Your nose? Your lips? Your chin? Spend about one minute feeling sensations on your face.
The Neck and Shoulders
Now move your attention to the back of your head. Start from the bottom of your scalp, move down your next, all the way to your shoulders. Look for any sensations, tensions, feelings of hotness or coldness, or just anything that moves into your awareness. Spend one minute on this area.
Scan the front of your body and the back of your body separately. Start from your shoulders and move all the way down your torso in about 1 minute. Then start again from your back and move all the way from your shoulders to your pelvis, again taking about one minute.
The Whole Body at Once
Finally, let your attention drape over your entire body. Notice any physical sensations or emotions that arise. Spend about one minute here.
If you’re extending the meditation, you can start from the bottom and go back up, or you can start over again from the top.
Break Down Emotions into Sensations
As you’re doing the body scan, try to focus on sensations, rather than emotions. For instance, instead of “I am angry,” you might notice the sensation of heat in your chest, tightness in your face and shallower breathing.
Focusing on the physical sensations of an emotion, rather than the idea of it, will allow you to spot that emotion faster in real life. The next time you notice those physical cues, you’ll notice it—faster than if you were trying to notice when you’re angry, for instance. Focusing on physical sensations also tends to give you more nuanced information, which can lead to deeper insights.