An alternative to the complete renovation of our emotional state is to embrace the experience rather than trying to change it. At first this might seem a counterintuitive action, but often what perpetuates angst felt in certain emotional states is not the emotion itself, but resistance to it. This resistance often comes as a story about why our current situation should be different or how what happened to us was unjust. Emotion depends on a kind of internal dialogue to sustain itself, for without it emotion is just energy moving through the body. The dialogue or story provides emotional resilience by creation of a logical framework, which people push against with judgments and rationalizations. This gives solidity and substance to an essentially fluid experience.
While the physically felt sensations of emotions appear difficult to stay with, nothing is quite as treacherous as the angst produced through resistance to them. If we try to deny contact with these basic physical sensations of our emotions we are essentially trying to plug a leak in the Hoover Dam with just one finger. Emotional resistance creates angst and is often what people describe as an “unbearable” aspect of the feeling. This drives many people impulsively to seek some form of escape (you might be familiar with sex, alcohol, exercise, videogames, etc…). The “unbearable” part of these experiences is our resistance to physically feeling the sensations of emotion in our body. Feelings and can very strong and because of this they appear too hard or impossible to feel. Part of growth is developing aptitude for experiencing our emotions, which in turn expands the capacity for experiencing a wide variety of different feelings. As mentioned earlier, what really makes emotions appear overwhelming is the story we create around them. We all have the capacity to embrace our emotional experience and this happens by letting go of the dialogue around our feelings.
The practice for working with (resistance to) difficult emotions is to place your attention on the physical sensations related to the emotion and let the story behind it dissolve. This deconstructs the solidity created by the conceptual mind and allows emotional energy to run its course. For example, someone cuts me off driving home and in my head I say, “I can’t believe this guy just did that!” My impulse is to ruminate over the outrage and injustice of being cut off, which can be identified as my narrative or story. This story can sustain the emotion for anywhere between a couple minutes to a couple days. Some emotions run the span of a lifetime when the story we have about the situation is very deeply rooted in our identity. After noticing that we have been triggered emotionally, the next step is to drop all narrative about it. Letting go of the story leaves only the physical sensations of it in our body. This is the essence of emotion and a very health part of human experience. To feel emotional responses to life situations is part of human development. That doesn’t mean we need to dwell in what feels good or bad, but only that we don’t completely run from the experience.
Now if you are really apprehensive about difficult emotions, time for the leap of faith, which is to turn your attention toward the physical sensations minus the story. The idea here is to notice long enough get the basic sense of what you are feeling in your body right then. In her book The Courage To Be Present, Karen Wegela describes this act of experiencing emotion as similar to tasting one of your favorite foods; you chew just long enough to get the full flavor and then swallow the bite. It is very important to put some emphasis on this act of experiencing the felt sensations of emotion. Bypassing emotional experience is very common, but the practice here is to touch into the very essence of emotion instead. This takes real courage when we are feeling pain, shame, or fear to step towards our experience. It might be surprising to hear a suggestion to turn attention toward difficult experience. We do this because such experiences cannot be truly escaped; they are always alive with us in some form on this earth.
Paradoxically it is much easier embrace the physical sensation of emotion than fighting and resisting it. Emotion (even difficult the kind) is not the overwhelming experience people often project it to be. When a difficult emotional situation arises notice how you react, what do your normal methods of working with emotion look like? Once you get a good idea of the different approaches you use to work with emotion, try this approach. What is the contrast like between your normal methods and your experience of this practice? After your introspection, take a breath and move on with your day. If the emotion returns you may repeat the practice, or just let go of it all together. Remember not to get too hung up on the whole thing; it’s just a practice. If you liked this quick read on emotions, I will continue the discussion of emotions in blogs yet to come.