One small trick for dealing with big emotions

Posted by on Jun 24, 2013 in featured, Philosophy, Yoga Lifestyle | 1 comment

One small trick for dealing with big emotions

I hate crying! I’m not talking about the occasional tear of either joy, empathy, or sadness. I’m referring to the racking sobs that make my face puff up, my nose stuff up, and my brain shut up. I’m willing to admit that such cathartic release of emotions is probably healthy on some level but the physical sensations plus the mental reaction that follows cause me to avoid anything that might trigger such a downpour. I think I spent nearly a decade of my life doing just that. I can’t remember crying, really crying, between the ages of about 15 and 24. At 24 the catalyst that re-opened my tear ducts for real were the hormonal changes of pregnancy. All of a sudden I was crying all the time. Really crying. And I hated it.

What happened to me, little by little, over the ten years that followed my emotional re-awakening, is that I figured out that most of the suffering I experienced through these “negative” emotions was caused by my resistance to them. I learned this on an intellectual level as I studied yoga philosophy and related wisdom traditions, but that type of knowledge only goes so far – we can know a great number of things intellectually that we have no idea how to put into practice. I also learned it on a subconscious intuitive level, which it turns out was much more practical.

In the yoga sutras, patanjali describes aversion (dvesha) as being one of the five kleshas or causes of suffering. Perhaps you have heard the saying “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. This concisely points to the difference between the emotion or sensation of pain and our reaction to it. Surrender is the opposite of resistance, the antidote to aversion, and the enemy of suffering. This use of the word surrender is a personal and internal state that is different from the use that implies defeat. I am not suggesting that every time there is a struggle that one should give in on a physical level. Indeed, I believe that when we let go of internal struggle our capacity to act increases and thereby our ability to protect ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally as well as work for justice and our personal goals.

A few nights ago, I noticed fear tugging at my attention, striving to take hold. My first reaction was: “surrender”. This happened almost unconsciously, but as soothing spacious acceptance filled the space that fear was trying to occupy, I became aware the it had been initiated by an internal command: “surrender first”. The implication of that command was that no problems can be solved from a place of resistance. That no matter what was to come of my fears, I would handle them better from a place of acceptance. And unsurprisingly, as my resistance faded, so did the fear. What was surprising to me was how automatic and natural this reaction felt. Yes, I’ve been trying to practice this for over a decade, but the work is so gradual that it’s difficult to notice progress. It’s only after taking many, many tiny steps that we are able to look back and see how far we’ve come.

I’ll be the first to point out that this does not mean I have “mastered” my emotions. They are not there to master. They are there to teach us, to point us in the direction of something significant. Something that we will have a much more difficult time noticing if we are busy resisting. This one experience does not even mean that I will always be successful at practicing acceptance in times of high emotion – human experience is vast and unpredictable and this was a relatively mild variation on the theme of fear. What it does mean is that I have one small tool that is embedded deeply enough in my subconscious that it is available to me even in times of heightened emotion.

If you knew me as a child you would know just how big a leap I am looking back on – I had no control over my emotions. If I was angry, it was a tantrum. If I was sad, it was a national disaster. I’m embarrassed to admit that I threw laying on the floor thrashing around tantrums (like a toddler does) until I was thirteen years old! I had no idea what to do with my big feelings and no guidance on where to start. The best coping strategy I could come up with was to stuff my feelings and leave them unfelt or hide them if I couldn’t fight them. This led to my decade long hiatus on crying.

In perfect irony, the little being whose presence in my body let loose the flood of emotions that I had been trying to suppress for a decade faces the same overwhelming emotions as I did as a child. My bright loving daughter feels things so strongly – and resists pain so fiercely that I am frequently transported back to my own childhood anguish. I wish I could say that I know just how to help her through her suffering, but I often feel helpless. “Just breathe” I tell her, my own emotions rising to a peak. On my good days, I remember that the best way to teach her is to practice. So I surrender. I allow her to have her own struggle. And I love her, just as she is.

This tool isn’t limited to “negative” emotions. Sometimes I feel so much joy welling up in my body that I can hardly stand it. When I surrender, ah – a relief, my container expands. Suddenly, yes – I can stand it. All this joy and a whole lot more!

This morning, I was running. I’m one of those who, you guessed it, hates running. But I do love how I feel afterward and increasing my cardiovascular endurance is one of my goals. So there I am, running and hating it and I remember – resistance is a waste of energy. So I surrender. I have no idea if it improved my running, but I sure did enjoy a whole lot more.

One Comment

  1. I learned by being told as well as by watching the “big people” in my childhood that anger is “bad” (certainly not how to express it) and that crying is something of which one must be ashamed. For seven years after the death of my grandmother, I was unable to speak her name because even the conscious thought of her brought tears–no, no! Today I cry without (much) embarrassment (I don’t like the puffy eyes, runny nose, etc. either, though). Thank you for showing this very human side of yourself, Mado…it is supportive, courageous, and inspiring.

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