Have you ever felt really angry or afraid, embarrassed or lonely? Of course you have, they are just some of the common side effects of being alive! What's interesting is that whilst we may answer YES when asked directly, we may still expend enormous energy trying to not feel these common emotional states when they arise. Why is that? Well its a good question, one that I'd like to explore here and in doing so we will cover one of the most helpful concepts I've ever come across, one that's made a huge impact on my life.
Emotions are like the weather
One of the most helpful lesson I have learned from Yoga philosophy is that emotions are like the weather; they are very changeable (a concept that I grasped easily having grown up in ‘four seasons in a day’ Melbourne) but more significantly emotions are BEYOND OUR CONTROL. We have no say in whether it rains or is sunny today all we can do it adjust the way it is, if its cold we rug up, if its raining we take an umbrella. No amount of effort will change what the weather wants to do! If its sunny and we want rain….too bad!
When it comes to emotions, most of us want it to be sunny all the time, we prefer “positive” emotions like love, joy, happiness, contentment and gratitude to so called “negative” emotions like fear, sadness, anger, despair and bitterness. The problem is at some stage or other we experience all emotions, every day a hundred or more emotional states arise within us. If we like some and don’t like others we’re going to try and hang on to the one’s we like and push away the ones we don’t like…the result is tremendous tension and guaranteed misery.
Before I understood the idea that emotions were beyond my control I had been suffering under the illusion that I could make myself feel only enjoyable emotional states if I tried hard enough. If I felt bad, sad or mad I thought I must have done the wrong thing, I should have meditated more, should have exercised more, should have thought different thoughts or eaten different foods! In truth, I could have done everything "right" and yet be visited by sadness, confusion or fear. When I truly understood emotions come and go of their own accord it was an immense relief, for I could begin to accept how I felt. It was the start of a journey away from trying to make circumstances fit how I wanted them to be and towards a state of more ease with how things are.
Having a War With Reality
Yoga teacher and author Steven Cope describes the battle between how we want things to be and the way things are as our “War With Reality”. Fundamentally whenever we are suffering the root cause is this war between how we want to feel and how we actually feel. The result of denying or suppressing the unwanted feelings we have is we lose the opportunity to feel ok with how things are.
Remember the weather analogy, if its raining we’re sad, if its sunny we’re happy and even though we know its not going to last we spend our days chasing this temporary happiness and running away from (or suppressing) a temporary sadness. It’s exhausting and futile and we end up being anxious about not just how we feel but also who we are and how our life is.
What heals the dissatisfying gap between how we want to feel and how we actually are feeling is the practice of acceptance. Remember no amount of wanting the sun to come out when it’s raining is going to make a difference, so its time to stop fighting a loosing battle. A good starting point is to become curious, just like meeting new people is interesting, meeting these previously shunned feeling states is fascinating. What we find is that these yucky feelings are really not that scary when we consciously choose to be with them rather than run away from them. Some states are more challenging than others, who really wants to feel ashamed or lonely or full of dread, I’m not saying this is always fun or easy necessarily but it’s a relief to really FEEL what’s been there all the while. Each time you feel an uncomfortable emotional state without running away you start dismantling the tension built up around trying to avoid feeling it. The experience is like being able to welcome all these feelings that are just different parts of yourself, no part of you need be in exile anymore, all of you is welcome.
So the theory is very simple, feel whatever arises, whether it’s a pleasant or unpleasant emotion. I would suggest starting with a daily practice of quiet observation for 2o minutes. In that time sit or lie somewhere where you won’t be disturbed, close your eyes and take your awareness inside your body and feel what’s present. It’s a bit like sticking your head out the window to see what the weather’s doing but this time your taking a look inside of your self. Ask yourself how you feel. Is its sunny and warm and peaceful in there or is there a storm raging with wild winds or something in between. The crucial thing is to not judge what you find but practice welcoming what you feel. Imagine you are opening the door to a dear friend, as you open the door you don’t know if she is elated and smiling or upset about something and in tears, either way you welcome them in. Extend the same courtesy to yourself and welcome what you find no matter what state you’re in.
If you find it hard to feel anything, try mentally visualising the events of the day in one hour blocks and see whether it triggers any emotional states to observe. With practice you can check in with your emotional state throughout the day, it only takes a moment to stop take your awareness inside and feel what’s going on in there. In time you’ll be able to stay aware of uncomfortable feelings as they’re arising even in really challenging situations.
Avoid the Story
Try to avoid getting involved in the story of WHY you feel how you feel, for our purpose of making friends with your feelings the why is not important, it can easily become a distraction from feeling which is our goal.
Acceptance is not the same as being passive
Accepting how you feel from moment to moment isn’t the same as being passive and accepting circumstances in your life that you need to change. For instance your may observe a feeling of frustration arising frequently. Really feeling the frustration and accepting its presence (without wishing it was wasn’t there and without creating a story about why it’s occurring) lets you be comfortable with observing the feeling in yourself. Once we tap into and accept our true feelings they can be a catalyst to change and growth as we are no longer numb, no longer in such conflict with ourselves. Feeling frustration arise regularly and accepting its presence may lead to embarking on a new path, perhaps more in accord with your deep desires in life. Interestingly the more we can open to feeling the uncomfortable emotions like fear and loneliness the more open we are to feeling the enjoyable emotions like love and contentment.
You’re not alone
You’re never alone. If you feel overwhelmed by grief for example, imagine all the billions of human beings around the world, and in the very same moment that you are grieving many thousands of others are also in that exact same state. We’re all human, we all have the same challenges and experiences, that can be a comforting thought.
Sometime this work brings up sensations and feelings that are very powerful and challenging. If you feel overwhelmed and scared find a professional to support you as you do the work, such as a psychologist, or counselor.
I hope these ideas and practices help you as much as they have helped me over the years. Its an ongoing task but one that is well worth the effort.
Wishing you the best of health and happiness.