Last time we looked at practices for the body, which are also essential for emotional health and wellbeing. There’s a lot of overlap between these practices for obvious reasons: you feel your emotions via your body. So the more grounded you are, the more in touch you’ll be with your feelings and emotions. In this post, we’ll explore some practices that work with your emotions directly.
This area of spiritual practice is about dealing with feelings and emotions that cause problems for you and others. It’s a tricky area to navigate because we so often misinterpret our emotional reactions, and many of our emotions mask deeper unconscious feelings – the real source of the problem. Practices for the emotions include things like:
- Stress reduction techniques – relaxation, self-hypnosis, etc.
- Anxiety and depression management
- Anger management
- Transmuting emotions
- Feeding your demons
- Shadow work – see Shadow
Before we have a closer look at some of these practices, we need to clarify the difference between feelings and emotions. When I looked this up, there appeared to be some confusion and disagreement. Some people think feelings are felt in the body and emotions are an outward expression of those feelings, and I agree.
When you bang your knee, for example, it hurts – that’s a feeling. Then you get angry that you banged your knee – who put that table there?! – that’s an emotion. Putting it in the context of the difference between pain and suffering makes it clearer: you feel pain but suffering is an emotion.
However, there are some who swop this around and claim that emotions are somatic and come first, while feelings are conscious. For example, the 6Seconds website says:
“Emotions are chemicals released in response to our interpretation of a specific trigger.”
It goes on to say that feelings happen as we integrate the emotion and think about it. They also mention that the chemicals are released into the body too, not just the brain. But they don’t explain who or what is doing the initial interpretation of the trigger – apparently it just happens.
This neuroscience doesn’t make sense to me because it runs counter to the way we use language to describe our feelings. The word ‘emotion’ usually means things like happiness, sadness, anger, and so on. The word ‘feeling’ can mean both somatic experiences, such as feeling cold, but also emotions, such as feeling cold towards a person. But we also describe our emotions by saying, “I feel happy,” or “I feel sad.”
Perhaps this imprecise use of language creates the impression that feelings are your conscious awareness of emotion. However, the awareness of the feeling isn’t the feeling itself – it’s just awareness. And you can either be aware of your feelings and emotions or not.
This confusion probably happens because neuroscience doesn’t understand the nature of consciousness and tends to reduce it to chemical reactions. But it should be obvious that feelings and emotions don’t exist at the level of biochemistry.
The word ‘emotion’ itself gives us the biggest clue as to what it means. In Narcissism: Denial of the True Self, Alexander Lowen explains:
“a feeling is the perception of some internal bodily movement or event. If there is no such happening, there is no feeling because there is nothing to perceive. … An emotion is a movement (motion) toward (the prefix ‘e’ denotes an outward direction). Every emotion is movement from the centre to the periphery, where it is expressed in action. The feeling of love, for example, is experienced as an impulse to reach out to someone; anger, as an impulse to strike out; sadness, to cry out.”
It sounds simple, but this relationship between feelings and emotions gets messed up by negative conditioning experienced during childhood. Feelings can be suppressed, wherein they become locked into the musculature causing tension and deadening of the body. In the worst cases, feelings are denied altogether and you won’t realise you have a problem until it bites you on the arse.
It’s even possible to use spiritual practice to avoid some of this unconscious material through spiritual bypassing. But you’ll have to deal with it eventually. This can be complicated in practice because feelings and emotions are layered and multidimensional. They hide underneath each other and disguise themselves as other emotions.
Thankfully, Buddhist psychology provides a helpful blueprint for navigating this confusing world. It identifies three primary feelings (vedanā) that mean you either like, dislike, or feel neutral towards an experience. This initial reaction gets tangled up with a tendency towards ignorance, attachment or aversion. And this gives rise to more complex emotions that involve a story line.
For example, you bang your knee and react with dislike, or aversion, and that gives rise to an emotional reaction of anger because some idiot moved the table and you weren’t looking where you were going and don’t want to admit it and now you look foolish. Grrrr! 😡
If you’d like to learn more, I recommend The Wise Heart: Buddhist Psychology for the West by Jack Kornfield – a good starting point.
It’s also important to learn the difference between your emotions and your intuition if you want to navigate the spiritual path without getting lost. When you confuse intuition with unconscious feelings and desires, you might think you’re following the promptings of your higher Self when you’re actually being led around by your lower drives and the shadow. Kenneth Sørensen says:
“One way to discriminate between intuition and emotion is that emotion is always partial, only acting on behalf of one part of the personality while intuition is a holistic faculty that serves the whole.”
Of course, it’s possible to fool yourself about your motives because you want to believe you’re serving the whole when in reality you’re on an ego trip and leading yourself astray. This process of discerning between emotions, instincts and intuition is a minefield that involves a lot of shadow work – see Shadow post for more.
The key is to recognise the voice of your true Self and follow that rather than the conscious and unconscious desires of the personal self. That voice is usually hidden beneath a mound of negative emotional conditioning and it can take a lot of excavation to reveal it. But there are plenty of practices to choose from.
At the most basic level you can learn to reduce stress, manage difficult emotions like anxiety or anger, and control your negative self-talk. This might involve taking a few deep breaths, for example, or acting ‘as if,’ and saying positive affirmations. But these simple practices often fail to bring about lasting change because they don’t deal with the root of the problem. For genuine emotional transformation you need to go deeper.
The thing is, feelings and emotions aren’t necessarily the problem. The real problem is a lack of self-acceptance. The more you reject your feelings, the more you get stuck in the ego with its endless stories. And that makes real spiritual progress harder because when you try to transcend the ego, all the feelings you’ve suppressed come bursting back out, waiting for you to accept and integrate them.
Your emotions get tangled up with the stories you tell about yourself because they’re unconscious and rooted in repressed feelings. For example, instead of feeling sad and expressing that by having a good cry, you turn the unconscious feeling into a belief that you’re worthless or unlovable. That story then takes on a life of its own and begins to ruin your life. After years of misery, you might not even realise where or when the story began.
To heal these repressed feelings it can be enough to feel what you’re feeling without the attached story. The idea is to express the feeling without judgement – to give it space and then let it go. Some feelings will be easier to transform than others. The earliest (or oldest) are the hardest to work with because they’re pre-conscious and pre-verbal – primal rage, fear, and grief. But it can be done.
When you allow yourself to feel your feelings, you often discover a sense of peace or openness at the centre of the emotional whirlwind. This is a glimpse into the true nature of emotions as empty of inherent existence. In other words, they’re dependent on the story you’re telling. By dropping the story, the emotion either disappears or transmutes into its opposite.
You can also do this by detaching from the feeling by recognising that it’s impermanent. Whatever you’re feeling, it’s not your true Self because it changes, so you can let it go and rest in pure awareness. The emotion can then transform into compassion. For more read: Facing Fear on the Path
In Vajrayana Buddhism there’s a teaching that describes how to transmute negative emotions into wisdom by accepting them. This involves recognising the true nature of your mind as wisdom – the openness of your true Self, or pure awareness of Buddha nature. The negative emotions are called poisons because they stop you from seeing this truth. The five poisons are:
- Attachment or Desire
- Aversion or Anger
- Ignorance or Delusion
By working with these emotions you can learn to see through their illusory nature and in this way the five poisons are transmuted into the five wisdoms. This isn’t about getting rid of the emotions but accepting them, because without them you wouldn’t be able to see into your true nature. For more read: Seeing into the true nature of emotions
For more on how to befriend your emotions and find the wisdom they’re trying to communicate, read: The Wisdom in the Dark Emotions
For people struggling with severe emotional wounds, I highly recommend the work of Peter Gerlach and his excellent website full of resources and advice, especially for those diagnosed with mental illness. He takes issue with the labelling of the ‘mentally ill’ and provides guidance to heal and find your true Self. Read more on his perspective on mental health here, or follow his Study Guide on how to heal your psychological wounds and free your true Self.
I also recommend Positive Energy by Judith Orloff, full of advice and strategies for generating positive emotions without denying or avoiding the negative ones. And the self-help classic Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers – read my review here.
There’s a couple more practices worth mentioning that are both excellent for dealing with difficult emotions, especially those that have got stuck. First is a simple but powerful meditation practice called Tonglen where you breathe in suffering and breathe out compassion. The suffering is dissolved into the spaciousness of your true nature which transforms it into love and joy. For more read: How to Meditate: Tonglen
The second is the practice of Feeding your Demons which doesn’t sound like a good idea, but is about generating compassion and making friends with your feelings. It’s based on a Buddhist meditation and involves a lot of visualisation. The demons in question represent your repressed or stuck feelings and unconscious behaviour patterns that cause problems.
The idea is to visualise the demon and then ask it three questions in order to find out what it really wants and needs from you. Once you’ve done that, you can feed the demon its heart’s desire and that transforms it into something helpful – perhaps a hidden talent or wisdom. For more on how to do this practice read Embracing Darkness: How to Feed your Demons, or discover the Types of Demons here.
You don’t have to wait for difficult emotions to come up before using these techniques. They can be a good way to practice emotional hygiene by letting go of moods that you pick up from other people or your environment. This is especially important if you’re an empath or highly sensitive and intuitive because you need to take extra special care of your feelings.
Whatever practices you choose, they should resonate with you on a personal level. It can be challenging to uncover some of the dark feelings lurking in your subconscious and you need all the help you can get. So don’t avoid the basic practices, like taking deep breaths, because they can support you while you dive deeper using the more profound practices.
Next time we’ll explore practices for the Mind…
More useful stuff:
- An Introduction to Psychosynthesis: the Consciousness Egg
- Mental Health Awareness Week wants to know why you’re not thriving
- Surviving Bluebeard: How to Deal with the Predator
- The Twin Fears that Shape Our Identity
Read the whole series here