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)

Moving through Fear

Fear seems to underlie our habitual world. Fear is covered over by habitual roles and behavior patterns. The slightest interruption of these habitual patterns brings an immediate response of fear.  Our habits can be pleasant like romantic fantasies, or unpleasant, filled with anger. These habits reflect memories of happiness, or hurt over and over again.

By maintaining our habits we are deadening ourselves to the world. An honest examination of these habits (the way we hold our body—tensing the body against the threat of the world; the way we speak—loud and fast, or softly, slurring words; the way we react to emotions—always angry and resentful; the way we think—rigid belief systems) is the way out. By becoming intimate with our fear we discover fearlessness.

Through meditation practice we learn to recognize and experience our fear more directly. Meditation here is about coming to know fear more and more intimately. How do we do that? We honestly take a look at what lies underneath the story of fear. During meditation practice we may discover how our thoughts continuously create fear. By labeling our thoughts and coming back to the breath we momentarily dissolve fear. This shows us how we constantly create and dismantle fear. We learn to experience fear in a gentle loving way and that helps us to open up more and more to life.

Habitual Patterns of Behavior – Defense Mechanisms

How often do you react to people and situations based on old habits (perceiving, thinking, feeling, behaving)? Have you ever noticed how you become defensive? Before even realizing it you automatically respond as if those old experiences were happening again (defense mechanisms). All of us have developed habitual patterns of behavior—automatic reactions are based on past experiences.

Many of the core beliefs about ourselves and the world are formed from the time of conception through adolescence from parents, relatives, teachers, society, etc. The natural response to birth or childhood trauma is to create defense mechanisms that go on to become unconscious habitual patterns. As we grow up these patterns can manifest as addictions, self-sabotage, phobias, anxiety attacks, and other self-defeating patterns that cause us to act unconsciously or negatively.

Here is a summary of excerpts from Kalsched’s understanding of defense mechanisms per Sieff (2008):

Psychological defense system

When as children we are shamed, or abused, when our caretakers can’t meet our needs, our healthy development process is compromised and psychological survival system kicks in. As highly dependent children we can’t withdraw, so a part of us withdraws. This part is our essence—the creative, authentic, innocent, vulnerable self— this part goes into hiding into the unconscious. We still grow up, but begin to develop a rigid psychological defense system that will use whatever means it can to protect that essence.

At the time we are shamed, abused, ignored as children we begin to separate from the experience (psychological dissociation) in order to survive and go into a trance, the trance of unworthiness. Our capacity for genuine and trusting human relationships disintegrates. We start to believe that we are in pain because we are fundamentally at fault: “I would not be suffering like this if I was an worthy person…There must be something wrong with me… I am not loveable…I am not good enough…”

Anger is used to create a self-blaming system, self-protecting but also self-persecuting. This is how the self-defense system ends up turning against the very person it is supposed to be protecting.

Ways in which the self-care system keeps life away

  1. Our inner voice stops us from venturing into the world by saying: “you are unlovable, you are too fat, you have nothing interesting to say, you are crap at communicating, nobody can trust you, you are a failure.”
  2. It creates additional psychological dissociation, often becoming a disembodied observer. People are cut off from experience, from feelings and from life in order to survive. This self-care system is experienced as trance covering unbearable pain.
  3. It encloses a person into a fantasy world, providing a vibrant private life where the fundamental essence can live safely.
  4. If often foster addition and looses the ability to root in real life.

This is a universal system. Not all of us have unbearable trauma, but we are all hurt to some degree. We all grew up in a home or society where only parts of us have been allowed to blossom, while others parts that were unacceptable have been locked away.

How to move beyond the prison of our self-care system

We can rewrite the shameful and self-blaming story that we developed to explain our original pain (where suffering got turned into violence and directed inwardly). The process of healing depends on transforming that violence back into rightful suffering. To do that requires a lot of grief work and this is tricky because the self-care system has a whole story about grievance we have suffered and so we have to distinguish between true grief and superficial grief.

Sometimes people don’t have a trauma story, but a conviction of not being good enough. The pain that surrounds this meaning is superficial grief—nevertheless it is painful. The self-care system is designed to prevent the deeper original pain from surfacing.

The self-care system covers our original pain with trance and feelings of unworthiness, of badness—our victim story. Hidden behind the story is the more profound original pain, or the pain of the threatened part of the child that had to go into hiding from fear of alienation.

It is the pain of the innocent child that suffered terribly (true grief). When we open to the deeper pain with self-compassion, we begin to cry the tears that bring healing.

Change and healing

Change is possible when we become aware of our own protector/persecutor system, appreciate the survival value, we accept that it is outdated and take the risk of letting go. Healing is possible once we take responsibility for the limiting destructive system we have constructed and when we grieve the trauma we have inflicted upon ourselves by our defense mechanism.

“Trauma is a loss of connection—to ourselves, to our bodies, to our families, to others, and to the world around us. This loss of connection is often hard to recognize, because it doesn’t happen all at once…We may simply sense that we do not feel quite right, without even becoming fully aware of what is taking place; that is, the gradual undermining of our self-esteem, self-confidence, feelings of well-being, and connection to life. Our choices become limited as we avoid certain feelings, people, situations and places. The result is this gradual constriction of freedom is the loss of vitality and potential for the fulfillment of our dreams” (Levine, 2008, p. 9).

Shift is possible if we are able to look at ourselves with deep compassion and forgiveness realizing that our self-traumatizing system was the only way to ensure psychological survival; thus protecting our essence.

If we remain focus on our self-blaming defense mechanism, our sense of unworthiness, we get into our victim story and get stuck in superficial grief, preventing from going into our more profound wounds. When we take responsibility for how we created our own pain we open the doors to our lost essence imprisoned within. Then we feel true grief and begin on a path of real healing—meeting our inner struggles and fears on the way.

Physiology of trauma

Have you noticed that every time you experience a shock or trauma of any sort, you stop breathing – you catch (or hold) your breath? The effect is an energetic imprint of the sights, sounds and smells of the trauma incident are energetically recorded in your body and the defense mechanism kicks in. There is an adrenaline rush with the classic ‘fight, flight and freeze’.

Sympathetic system sends messages up the spine to prepare for danger—instinct to run, high arousal. At the same time the parasympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive; the dorsal vagal part (of PNS) tends to toward shut-down—we experience fear, shame and freeze. These two responses occur within seconds of each other, almost simultaneously and they get coupled together. Healing occurs by slowly beginning to uncouple the two systems.

“When we begin to move out of immobility response we are often frightened by the intensity of our own energy and hidden aggression so we brace ourselves against the power of sensations. This un-discharged energy is stored back into the body and we get trapped by our past…When we are able to access our body memories through the felt sense then we begin to discharge the instinctive survival energy that we didn’t have a chance to use at the time of the event. This discharge can be dramatic and visible or subtle and quiet” (Levine, 2008, pp. 30-31).

According to Kalsched (Sieff, 2008):

Process of healing

  1. Many of us have grown up by learning to get by with limited creativity saying no to life.
  2. The counsellor sees the client’s as a whole, including his/her essence their potential; this has a profound effect on the client, initiating the healing. The client is fully seen and heard.
  3. Client risks letting down her/his defenses and begin to hand over their self-defense mechanism to the counsellor (uncovering habitual patterns, releasing trauma). The counsellor helps client see that there is a better healthier way to live—a more fulfilling vibrant life.
  4. Both the counsellor (by showing the client their habitual patterns/defense mechanisms) and the client (by choosing life instead of their fantasy world) have to let go and open the door to start a new life.

Every time we are successful in challenging our habitual patterns our world expands and we take a step towards being fully alive.


Brach, T (2003). Radical Acceptance. New York: Bantam Books.

Levine, P.A. (2008). Healing Trauma. Bolder: Sounds True.

Porges, S.W. (2001). The polyvagal theory: Phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42, 123-46.

Sieff, D.F. (2008) Unlocking the secrets of the Wounded Psyche – An interview with Donald Kalsched. In Psychological Perspectives 51 (2), 190-207.

How to Move through Doubt

Although doubt may be useful to question our experience, it may seize the mind and make it hard for us to stay focused. We may lose confidence in what we are doing. We may get confused and even become depressed. We may find ourselves trapped and stuck, unable to imagine any creative way out of our situation. When doubt arises we can begin to look at how our thoughts and stories disempower us—we don’t have to believe everything we think and feel!

Mindfulness practice can help us notice how we recreate negative memories and habitual reactions, accept them as moment-to-moment experiences, and allow them to be as they are—let them come and let them go. Using the breath to bring ourselves back into the freshness of the present moment, we learn about our own process, so that we are better equipped not to let doubt get in the way.

As we notice we touch into our natural awake state of being that is the only place we will ever find lasting peace and joy and the way through any doubt we are experiencing. The natural rewards of being in the moment encourage us to spend more of our time in the now and many people find they are able to do this.

Uncovering Habitual Patterns

Have we ever noticed how our lives are driven by undesirable habitual patterns? How we react, attack, and become defensive? How we get hooked by these habits? These patterns keep going all the time and cause destruction everywhere.
Through mindfulness practice we can learn to recognize our habitual patterns, discover how they affect us and those around us and learn to work with them.
Here an example in Pema Chodron’s words:

We could think of this whole process in terms of four R’s: recognizing the shenpa [habitual reaction], refraining from scratching, relaxing into the underlying urge to scratch and then resolving to continue to interrupt our habitual patterns like this for the rest of our lives. What do you do when you don’t do the habitual thing? You’re left with your urge. That’s how you become more in touch with the craving and the wanting to move away. You learn to relax with it. Then you resolve to keep practicing this way.

By accepting our undesirable habitual patterns, learn to gently and skillfully work with them, we soften, we gain confidence in our wisdom. Our negative habitual patterns turn from compost to fertile ground where we can plant new seeds.

Bringing Acceptance into our Lives

When we feel overwhelmed or shut down we are usually caught in habitual patterns, behavior and stories that separate us from our lives. It’s as if we were in a bird in a cage.

The way out of our cage begins with accepting everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience. […] It means feeling pain and sorrow without resisting. It means feeling desire or dislike for someone or something without judging ourselves for the feeling or being driven to act on it (Brach, 2003)

This process starts with becoming aware of the sensations in our bodies. By paying attention to unpleasant sensations we eventually come to realize how we hold on to stories and behavior that perpetuate our suffering.

When we meet these sensations and accept them for what they are, they begin to loosen. Instead of resisting or avoiding the unpleasant sensations we can open up to them, letting them be and allowing them to shift. This way we free ourselves from the stories and separation and experience what is like to be fully present and connected in the present moment.

Considering Different Options

Our patterns, thoughts and beliefs with our relationships to our families, our wealth, our society, and ourselves have caused us many problems and suffering. Learning to identify and work with these habitual patterns is the key to transforming our relationships.

Here are three steps to assist the process of transformation

  1. Notice what you are doing. Pay attention to how you respond habitually to any event in your life.
  2. Do something different. Consider responding to the event in a very different way. This will loosen up the pattern.
  3. Make it a way of life. Keep doing something different. This will bring about your own wisdom, strength and fundamental goodness of hearth and mind.

Pema Choldron suggests:

Whenever you see yourself spinning off in some kind of habitual way, you could aspire to catch yourself and do something different as a way of cultivating compassion for yourself and compassion for others. But don’t be surprised or give up when it’s difficult.

It takes courage to undertake this journey; however, it will open up different options so that we can choose to do it the habitual way that causes us suffering or choose a fresh alternative that transforms us along the way.