Guidance from Our Emotional Compass

It’s hard to find a silver lining in the cloud of depression. But, learning to read our emotional compass can guide us to well-being.

emotional compass

Tuesday morning I was stressed. My friend Samantha Hess teased me about how uncomfortable I was using the video recording function on her smartphone. We were shooting a prototype video for the Friendliness Exercise.

I had scheduled a meeting to script the exercise intro video. Sam suggested shooting the exercise instead. I felt unprepared. Her improvised approach for shooting video is to set up a ladder and balance her folding smartphone case on one of the steps.

While shooting one of the takes, I noticed that the top of her head began sinking out of frame. I tried to steady the case, but the frame kept slipping.

I said, “Smartphones don’t like me.”

She said, “Gravity is a thing.”

She wasn’t being mean. She was stating facts in a humorous way to get at the real reason I was feeling stressed.

The Friendliness Emotional Compass

The intentions in the video we were recording were a version of the Friendliness Exercise I’d adapted from the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health. It aligns well with several key depression challenges.

The affirmation version goes as follows.

May I be well in body, thoughts, and feelings.

May I face and cope with life’s inevitable stresses.

May I work productively to benefit myself and others.

May my actions contribute to my community.

Ironically, the effect this exercise is supposed to have on users was producing a very different effect on me. Dealing with the sinking frame made me anxious that the footage would be unusable, which made me anxious that I was falling behind. I realized that I hadn’t written this week’s post yet. And I still had questions to prepare for an upcoming discussion group.


The discussion I’m leading is based on an interview with political journalist Ezra Klein from the 10% Happier with Dan Harris podcast. I chose it because Klein had said some insightful things about his experience with mindfulness meditation.

“In some ways I have found the act of meditation to be unnerving. Really confronting how little control I have over what’s going on in my head, really observing that and not quite being able to take control over it is a profound thing to realize.”

Klein started practicing meditation to deal with the stress of building the explanatory news site Vox. “You’re always dealing with the distance between the thing you’ve built in your head and the thing you actually have at that moment.”

Using Our Emotional Compass to Change Our Context

“I’ve come to think a lot more about the cues we all have in our lives and the ways in which they reinforce a certain story of our ego and reinforce certain feelings, how different I can feel when I radically change my context.”

Among the contexts that Klein chose to change were the job title he held at the organization he had created. This involved balancing the ego struggle of no longer being head honcho with the realization that he wasn’t uniquely talented to run an organization as large as Vox had become.

Technological Ambivalence   

Klein decided to change his relationship with twitter after becoming obsessed with a new feature that showed him the best performing tweets by fellow journalists. The popularity ranking triggered his competitive instincts and anxiety over falling behind in his industry. He worked hard to improve the performance of his tweets and started getting more faves and retweets. But he noticed something else, too.

“When I get up from sitting for a while I feel calm. And then the second I open my computer I don’t, so what’s going on there?”

His meditation helped him notice that twitter was stressing him out, but it took visiting the site less often to provide real relief.

Using Our Emotional Compass to Change Our Views

The most fundamental changes I noticed in Klein’s interview were in his views of news and politics.

“The signal to noise has gone very bad. It’s just a lot of yelling. I’m reading a lot more books, a lot more books than I was a couple years ago. I’m reading less news actually.”

His conversation with Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True led him to wonder whether political systems could ever resolve the perpetual dissatisfaction built into the human brain by evolution.

“How many of the problems that we want to solve through policy or changing tech have to do with just the way that humans are? How much of the suffering is just baked into the system?

“If you don’t begin with a realistic picture of the mind, of how humans operate, then no system you build is going to work.”

Mental Health Begins at Home

Klein admits to limited benefit from his mindfulness practice. “Some of the value for me is in being more mindful of what different stimuli in my life are pulling from me, what identity they’re calling forth, what feelings they’re calling forth.”

But whether meditation is responsible or not, the changes he’s made since he started have been conducive to his mental health.

Being well with his body, thoughts, and feelings emboldened him to change his job so that he could more easily face and cope with life’s inevitable stresses, allowing him to work productively to benefit himself and others. He’ll soon be taking time off to draft a book on ways to counteract our growing political divisions: actions that contribute to his community.

In my case, though shooting the Friendliness Exercise got off to a slippery start, paying attention to my emotional compass helped get me through this post. It’s also telling me that I may need to invest in a tripod.

Ten Minute Exercise

One of the most useful tools for getting in touch with our emotional compass is to practice recognizing what we’re feeling as we feel it.

1. Choose a ten minute period in which you can pay attention to your physical sensations.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. When feeling a pleasant sensation, note: “I feel a pleasant sensation.”

When feeling an unpleasant sensation, note: “I feel an unpleasant sensation.”

When feeling a neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant sensation, note: “I feel a neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant sensation.”

4. When the timer sounds, resolve to tune in to your sensations whenever you have a spare moment as you continue with your day.

This deceptively simple mindfulness practice has affected my day-to-day decision making more than any other. I’m continually shocked to discover how many things I think are relaxing cause me stress, and how many stressful activities I find deeply rewarding.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.