I just returned from co-teaching with Paul Haller at the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center. Paul has been practicing for forty years and his manner has invigorated my practice yet again, particularly his injunction to stay “interested in experience.”
In a recent piece for the New York Times, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett outlines the ways in which emotional granularity—the ability to express a precise emotion, like despair or grief or even embarrassment on behalf of another (referred to as “pena ajena” in Mexico, she writes)—allows us to better regulate negative emotions, drink less when stressed, and mitigates the risk of retaliating against someone who has hurt us. To me, this sounds like a very precise way of practicing mindfulness.
In the 1990s, Barrett writes, her lab discovered emotional granularity. She and her colleagues asked hundreds to volunteers to follow and record their emotional experience of the world for a period of weeks or months. “Everyone we tested,” she writes, “used the same stock of emotion words, such as ‘sad’ and ‘angry’ and ‘afraid,’ to describe their experiences.” They found, however, that while many respondents used these words interchangeably to describe a sort of lumped together bad feeling, others used emotional concept words more precisely, to refer to discrete emotional experiences.
Barrett and her colleagues discovered that rather than simply being better able to recognize their emotional states and reactions, subjects with high emotional granularity were in fact “constructing” their emotional states, in turn giving their brains “more precise tools” for handling the complexity and variety of challenges they would face over the course of their lives. Moreover, subjects with low emotional granularity were also constructing their own—more vague—emotional states. Over time, Barrett writes, vague responses to negative situations can lead to emotional and physical illness.
Further, research done by Jordi Quoidbach et al. complicates earlier notions about the correlation between simple positive affect and mental and physical health. Quoidbach and her colleagues completed cross-sectional studies with 37,000 respondents, finding that emodiversity, or emotional granularity, was an independent predictor of mental and physical health, “over and above” mean levels of positive and negative emotions.
For those of us with low levels of emotional granularity, there’s hope. Barrett writes that we can cultivate better emotional granularity by learning new “emotion concepts”—like, for example, “pena ajena,” or perhaps its opposite, schadenfreude—and applying them to our daily lives and emotional responses.
Mindfulness practice happens in relationship. It’s one thing to let what we feel come and go. Sometimes we need to do the opposite – use the spaciousness of practice to get clear on what we feel, what we need, and how we can best communicate this.
Good luck with this practice.