A Life-long Journey: Working with Emotions

Emotions are part of our human experience. We feel the heat of anger, the despair of sadness, the dread of fear. We talk about our emotions over coffee, during a telephone conversation, in a therapist’s office. When an emotion is triggered, we feel it, react to it, and allow it to influence decisions that have important consequences for all our relationships.

Working with emotions can be considered a form of art. It requires skill, awareness, and creativity. The starting point is not struggling with the present moment, fully accepting what is occurring, being open to sensing the freedom in this open space.

This is easier said than done. It takes a lot of practice to remain open to intense emotions without habitual responses of defending our territory. Staying open, we can relax in the midst of emotional upheaval and appreciate it for what is. How we experience this openness depends on the situation. After accepting that we have been triggered and opened up to the situation we learn to discriminate: how to go toward wakefulness versus reacting from habitual patterns that are self-confirming. We sharpen our intelligence and discriminate what the next step might be.

This process can be irritating and at times disorienting. Anger strikes, our hands are sweaty, our heart beats faster, and our face goes red; we can choose to open up instead of blaming and reacting. We stay with the intensity of the anger even if we wish it were gone and the situation was resolved in some other way. We are now able to work with uncertainty, fully attentive to our feelings and our surroundings, sensing what is needed with an open mind and heart.

At this point our awareness is fully functioning, open to the novelty of sensing what the situation calls for. Creating is about not knowing. Acknowledging that our past responses didn’t work very well, we start from the present moment and look for its creative potential. We reconsider the situation; we look at the details with fresh eyes; remaining sensitive to our feelings. We begin to lighten up; we get over ourselves and look at the brilliance in every situation. Something lights up and makes it possible to create something new.

A burst of anger if expressed habitually may result in hurt for ourselves and others; whereas given some openness, it may allow us to recognize the energy available for use in a more harmonious way. Where mind, body, surroundings, people and situations all work together, there is no separation between “me” and my perception, there is simply wholeness and harmony.

Working with emotions is a life-long journey. Sometimes the scenery appeared familiar, sometimes strange and unusual, stimulating and frightening, from a serene view of a beautiful, calm lake, to a cool and claustrophobic cave, to a mountain top, vast and fresh. I would like to close with a wish: “May everyone find deep inner freedom,” and, “May everyone discover the sacred in everyday life while working with emotions.”

This is an excerpt—concluding thoughts—from Working with Emotions: A Shambhala Buddhist Approach (Stella, 2011)