by Penny Fenner
Emotions have a direct way of communicating to us, and as such their power can be very valuable. They can alert us to what we need to attend to. They can wake us up and remind us that we are alive. They can move energy in and through us in ways that can be profound and transforma- tional. Intense emotions like yearning can uplift and direct us. Joy and bliss can purify and cleanse. Even consuming emotions like anxiety and doubt can give us the impetus and energy for re-creating and innovating in our lives.
The flip side of emotions is that we are often not satisfied with our emotions. We can spend an entire lifetime trying to get a better handle on our emotions. We search for the best psychological or spiritual techniques hoping to expand our capacity to either feel more or feel less. Hoping to orches- trate the right amount and selection of feelings, we hungrily pursue emotional perfection or freedom. In seeking to understand our emotions we may engage in psychological methods and theories.
With so many available techniques – many of them powerful and effective – we may eagerly apply new strategies until they no longer seem to do the trick. A down side of psychological methods is that they serve to inadvertently condition a need to change or maintain our emotional experience in their very teaching how to reframe or moderate our experiences.
When we read about the state of enlightenment or liberation, our desire to be freed from certain emotional states can be further fuelled. We engage in various spiritual practices struggling to free ourselves from unpreferred emotional or mental experiences. Even if we achieve a satisfactory relationship with our feelings and emotions we can still be locked into the need to maintain and control our current state, or further seek more subtle levels of integration and freedom. Seduced by emotional intensity
Emotional intensity can be very gratifying. Intensity reminds us that we are alive. It gives us something absorbing to do. In our Western culture we are encouraged to have strong feelings about almost everything. Being neutral or having no reaction is not encouraged. From a young age we are exposed to media, movies, education and competitive sports which are designed to stimulate strong feelings of desire and aversion. Our absorption of the culture which surrounds us and permeates our thinking can leave us feeling inadequate if we don’t have strong emotions and responses to ourselves and our world.
Desiring intense, buzzy experiences can stimulate a background of dissatisfaction. When our feelings and experiences are more ordinary for any length of time, we can feel flat and bored. If we are habituated to intensity, we may unconsciously create circumstances to produce more powerful emotionality. We will look for intensity to wake us up. This may have us focusing on something that we figure is missing in our lives-some experience that we are not having that we decide we should be having.
Perhaps our intimate relationship has been going unusually smoothly and easily. Without even noticing how this thought has germinated, we find ourselves thinking that our partner hasn’t been as attentive as he used to be; he isn’t as affectionate and spontaneous. Although we are getting along well and enjoying each other in a fairly easy way, it feels as though the passion and real connected- ness isn’t as strong as it could be.
With this simple, seemingly innocuous first set of thoughts, we start to look for, and notice little things to support the belief that something is now missing. With each additional observation we begin to feel that what we noticed is really true. Before too long we are frustrated or disappointed. In the place of earlier ease and openness is upset, preoccupation and tension.
This upset will no doubt be resolved over time, and we will again feel happy and satisfied. But unless intensity is invoked somewhere else in our lives, we will be driven to seek stimulation else- where. We might become preoccupied with our work, our extended family or friends or even with world events or social phenomena. Something will engage our desire for passionate expression and feeling.
The addicted nature of our need for emotional intensity can play itself out so precisely in our lives that we can be blind to this pattern. When we suffer and the intensity of our feelings is strong, we can feel like a victim of other people and their behavior to us. We can feel like a victim of our own emotional states, unable to do anything but experience their rawness.
Intensity is our drug. It is our high. Without an intense fix every so often, we feel starved and empty. If there is nothing external upon which to focus our attention, this internal feeling of empti- ness will readily capture our emotional need. Soon this feeling of emptiness consumes our thoughts and feelings.
The mere suggestion that we are attracted to intensity or that we in any way perpetuate it – particularly when this refers to painful examples – can seem absurd to us. We don’t feel responsible for what we are experiencing, let alone acknowledge that we may play a key role in constructing our experiences.
When this identity structure is in place, we need to believe that our intense emotions are useful for this helps to validate the role of intensity in our lives. We collect positive data to reinforce our own structure by looking for, and listening to, those psychological or spiritual processes which encourage the development and enrichment of our emotional lives. We may subscribe to the belief that strong emotions invite us to be more present to what we are thinking and feeling. We may decide that our emotions are the royal road to the unconsious assisting us to connect with who we really are. They are like a witness for our true self. A life devoid of strong emotions is one that lacks depth and substance.
When we lock in to what we feel and how powerfully we feel it, we become fixated and con- tracted in our experience. Our thinking loses its crispness and clarity. Our need to be inside an intense experience results in us losing the power to effectively discriminate between what we feel and simply what is.
Attached to emotional absence
When we see emotions triggering dysfunctional and counterproductive actions in ourselves and others, they can seem particularly negative.
The power and impact of emotional energy can be very repellent. Emotions appear as a nui- sance, a trap, an aspect of human behavior to be avoided at all cost. To support the belief that emotions should be avoided we may create different rationalizations. We may regard emotions as klesas (karmic traces), the resultant patterns of our karmic and acquired dysfunctionality. If we listen to and pay attention to emotions we invite disaster. Because of their very volatile nature, we tell ourselves that we cannot trust our emotions and as such we should try to steer clear of any strong emotional feelings, reactions or thoughts.
Whilst we may acknowledge that a little emotion is good, if emotion affects our rational think- ing, or interferes in our orderly life, then it should be avoided. This thinking has us adopt a bold and ascetic approach to emotionality. Life is not something to dive into with gusto and aplomb, like someone who hedonistically indulges every emotional whim.
When others’ emotional outbursts or swings precipitate a strong aversive reaction in us, we may readily think of the emotionally intense person as out of control, playing out their predispositions without concern. This can result in us feeling superior so that we try to maintain an aloof distance. We work hard to maintain emotional neutrality and disentanglement. A common, effective way of avoiding emotionality is to keep busy. We throw ourselves into work or other activities to keep our mind occupied so that we aren’t “distracted” by what we might be feeling. We rationalize that we can deal with the emotional side of things later, but we somehow avoid doing that. It is not that we don’t feel, it is just that we avoid attending to what we are feeling.
If we are attuned to meditating, we will readily seek out the calm, familiar refuge of our own mind. Meditation can be a haven from stressful situations in which we are triggered to experience feelings we would prefer to avoid. In the quiet confines of our own mind, we can relax into a state that is more stress-free, or at least simply experience what is there, as opposed to what is “out there”. The space of our own mind, albeit chaotic at times, can seem far more predictable than the effect of dealing with someone else’s emotional pendulum.
These recurrent patterns of avoidance and aversion perpetuate our preferred identity of being un-emotional, rational, clear headed and able to deal with things objectively. Avoiding emotionality can happen so habitually and transparently that we don’t realize or even think that we are avoiding anything! Because we are skilled at avoiding potentially painful situations, either through keeping our mind occupied or by letting it settle in its own space- whilst still enjoying pleasurable situations, we may well think that we are emotionally unentangled, even liberated! We may pride ourselves in how emotionally mature we are! Yet, thinking in this way can be self-deceptive, locking us into a way of being that is controlled and rigid.
The problem with emotions
Emotions seem to be a problem whichever way we look at it. Our desire and aversion keep us trapped within a cycle of suffering that has us trying to structure our experience so that it has just the right amount of emotional material. Some of us are predisposed to intensity, others to avoidance. Some of us oscillate between the two extremes. Within our own structure we each have a preference for how we want things to be.
Our preference means that instead of flowing with life’s current, and being open and spacious with whatever is occurring, we find ourselves wishing that something different was occurring. We either struggle with what life is presenting, and with who we are, or we hope that what is happening will continue, because we like it.
For as long as we are figuring that we, and our life should be different we give rise to continu- ing suffering. Trying to avoid suffering contains its own embedded struggles. Even working to simply “accept” how things are, creates its own struggle.
Struggling to control our experience
Much of the pain of our emotional life is created through trying to suppress, express, hold onto or eradicate what we are feeling. There are times when we listen to our intellect which is analytical and controlling and try to suppress, or be unaffected by, our emotions. At other times we connect with our emotions which are fluid and reactive, and feel that they are giving us a true indication for how we should be. Whilst our pattern may be to prefer intellect over emotion, or vice versa, we can still at times find ourselves oscillating between the logic of our intellect and the drive of our emo- tions. This battle between intellect and emotion can lead to confusion and tension. When this hap- pens we can become stuck within cycles that have us fighting or trying to hold onto what we are experiencing.
Our intellect and emotions are as vital to us as our organs in that they serve to enrich and direct us. Trying to eradicate, promote or ignore either from our being sets up a pointless conflict. It is as futile as trying to escape who we are, just as trying to accept who we are invites disappointment given that we mostly don’t know who we are in the first place.
A core and often transparent addiction that belies all of this is trying to control what we experi- ence. This is generally condoned by our social environment as a valuable thing to try and do and so it remains relatively unquestioned. It seems completely obvious that if we don’t like what is happen- ing we would try to experience something else. It seems just as understandable that when we like what is happening we will try to maintain the experience for as long as possible. However, both patterns perpetuate a cycle of suffering. When we are habituated to trying to control our experience, through being preoccupied with either trying to hold onto or change what is happening, we preclude ourselves from simply being where we are, experiencing what is happening. In trying to orchestrate the right experience, we continue to perpetuate those very identities which are dictated by desire and aversion.
Becoming intimate with our emotional currents
When we view our emotions as problematic, we disconnect from any real sense of personal intimacy with our emotions. So busy running, we fail to appreciate that beneath our habituated patterns of suppression, expression and control are our own natural emotional structures which are just as valid as our intellect.
When we recognize the constricted nature of constantly trying to control our experiences and begin to ease this grip on ourselves, we allow space to open up around our emotions. It can initially take courage, and then practice, to learn to loosen our grip and not meddle with what we feel but simply experience what is there, as it is and let it be. As this happens we begin to taste the essence of our own emotional being, provoking an intimacy with our own emotional currents and bringing us into close, uncontrived contact with our own natural being.
As familiarity grows and the urge to try to manipulate our experience begins to lessen, we become increasingly able to be with whatever is there, thus dissolving the original power that was characterized by our desire or aversion. We can recognize desire and aversion for what they are, and as such are not automatically driven to resist or prolong our experience.
Contrary to any earlier preconceptions which may have had us try to avoid (or prolong) intense experiences we find ourselves being naturally open and vulnerable to our emotions and experiences. Such unconditional openness sees us taking care of ourselves in an uncontrived way, listening to what is there and responding accordingly. We expand our capacity for being with what is there so that our fear of the future loses its edge as does our resistance or attachment to the present.
Emotionally open and available to what is
We discover a new fluidity in being with others. No longer driven by desire to have to have the right circumstances, we become more open and responsive to others and their emotional structures. In familiarizing ourselves with our own emotional terrain, we become less judging and critical of others, more sensitively appreciating how their emotional structures have been constructed in an attempt to try to control their experience.
With greater intimacy and connection with ourselves, strong emotional experiences can occur without rejection. When powerful emotions arise we experience their energy and velocity without being drowned or paralysed by their presence. Instead of needing to deny, bottle up, release or suppress the emotional charge we allow our natural energies to emerge, be experienced and then dissolve in their own time. When there is little emotion present, we simply do whatever we are doing without needing to manufacture or orchestrate intensity.
Tightly-held preferences cease to hold their grip as we see them manifesting only as an attempt to maintain our experience or contrive something different. In this way we are not a victim of our emotions nor artificial directors of our world.
We see the natural inter-activity between our emotion and intellect, between what we tell ourselves should be happening and what is happening. By not suppressing either our intellect or our emotions, nor acting out of habitual impulse towards or away from either, we gain the clarity and ease to respond naturally to ourselves and others.
Any prior patterns of suppression or avoidance lose their impetus. Instead of automatically playing out our desire or aversion, we don’t try to avoid what we are feeling nor prolong it. The idea of being attached to intensity or passion seems absurd, for when we are faithful to our passion without letting it run us, we express our passion naturally and spontaneously without fixation on an outcome. We experience our feelings with a depth and richness that is uncontrived. Emotions are clearly part of the gameplan that comes with being embodied. Through appreciat- ing their place in our lives, we allow what is there to move in and through us with whatever calm- ness, force or transparency is there at the time. We cease to be concerned or preoccupied with the emotions that we do or don’t experience and in so doing, gain the freedom to be whoever we are. From this space, the richness and individuality of our emotional world ceases to intrude on our own or anyone else’s space.
We discover who we are as emoting, thinking people to be an effortless expression of our own beingness, that is not struggling to be anything other than what it is.