The distinction between our emotions and our thoughts about those emotions is one that's been made by many people. Stephen Covey pointed to "the gap between stimulus and response". Marcus Aurelius wrote about the need to "fence off" our mind from "the agitations of the flesh". In meditation we sit and dispassionately observe the emotions that arise in us. In Your Two Minds, Mark Manson offers another way to think about this dichotomy.
Manson distinguishes between the "Thinking Mind" - the part of our mind that is constantly chattering away to itself - and our "Observing Mind" - the part of our mind that keeps an eye on what our Thinking Mind is doing.
"Our Thinking Mind is like a horny dog on a leash that keeps running after things and if we aren’t used to using our Observing Mind, then our Thinking Mind drags us along with it."
Unfortunately most of the time that's exactly what happens. Our Observing Mind starts identifying with what our Thinking Mind is feeling, fuelling those feelings and setting up a feedback loop that robs us of any self-control.
"Most of our psychological and emotional stress happens because our Thinking Mind and Observing Mind are “fused” and we don’t recognize the difference."
The solution isn't to try to avoid those emotions, however.
"You can’t control your Thinking Mind. Those emotions pop up and will continue to pop up.
The trick is to not fuse with those emotions when they arise."
Manson offers some suggestions on how to do this:
- Use language carefully. Say "I feel anger/sadness/fear" instead of "I am angry/sad/frightened". By doing so we avoid identifying with our feelings and create psychological distance from them.
- Express gratitude for negative feelings. As William Irvine suggests, if nothing else they provide us with an opportunity to put these theoretical ideas into practice.