On Emotions & Elephants
Does anything cause as much suffering as our emotions? At first glance, it might seem like the experiences in our lives are the ones causing us pain: She betrayed me, he rejected me, they passed away, etc. At second glance, though, it should be clear that rather than the experiences themselves, it’s the emotions evoked by the situation that are the ones hurting us.
Sounds simple enough, perhaps, but take a moment to let it sink. Not the situation, but the emotions are painful. Not what we can’t control, but what we can control is hurting us. The consequences of this are awe-inspiring.
It means that if we learn to handle our emotions constructively, we can reduce our suffering immensely. No longer weeks of tears after a breakup, letting out anger on people who haven’t deserved it, or freezing up in panic for days. Rather it becomes a process of feeling the sensations, identifying the emotion, giving it an expression and room to breathe and finally letting it go.
Getting there is not easy, though.
For the crux of the matter is that we experience the world from the perspective of a physical I in a physical world. Naturally we identify with what happens to us. I am this body in this situational context. However, the thing is that this little thing called consciousness is placed between the physical I and the physical world. Our consciousness inhabits our physical appearance and makes us aware of the physical context that surrounds us. Without consciousness, no awareness of our experiences. Things can happen to us even when we’re unconscious, of course, but we don’t identify with it and they don’t become part of our identity.
Having said that, I would still say that some experiences require more consciousness for us to be influenced by them and some less, or in other words, that some experiences are more influenced by our conscious awareness of them and some less so.
For example, if I step on a LEGO it feels very real and hurts like hell. If I’m stepped upon by someone I trusted it feels very real and painful too — but nevertheless the latter example takes place on a different level: We don’t identify with the pain of stepping on the LEGO, but we do with the pain of being stepped upon. The reason for this is that the pain isn’t physical but emotional instead. It’s home is not in our body, but in our mind, meaning it is directly connected to our consciousness in a different way than physical pain.
But exactly there, the magic lies, cause only where we direct our awareness, our awareness goes. As the emotion only happens in our mind, we have a much greater choice on how we handle it. Sure, it takes some practice to control it — don’t think of an elephant is a great example of that — but it is possible to direct our attention to where we want: Don’t think of an elephant, think of a giraffe.
Still, to some extent even our physical pain is subjected to our awareness. How often haven’t I suddenly noticed that I’ve been bleeding for some time without having any idea of why or when it started. Yet, as soon as I notice it, the cut starts to throb. If awareness can have such a strong effect even on physical pain, consider its effect on emotional pain. If I know that an emotion is causing me to suffer, I can simply let go of that emotion and I’m free. The stage is my mind, the actors my emotions and the director my awareness.
What should be stressed, though, is that emotions should never be suppressed. That is not a helpful strategy for letting them go; on the contrary — it’s extremely unhelpful. Instead of letting the emotion go, it gets stuck. Instead of relief, there is painful reliving. That is not what I mean by redirecting the attention. Rather, it is about redirecting the attention to certain parts of the emotion, while keeping a slightly detached standpoint.
It works like I described above: feeling the sensations, identifying the emotion, giving it an expression and room to breathe and thereby letting it go. Let’s break that down, bit by bit.
Feeling the sensations: Despite being located directly in the mind, emotions tend to have a physical sensation as well. I feel embarrassment as burning cheeks, a squeezed heart and a fluttering stomach. I feel anger as tensed hands, focused eyes and fast flowing hot blood. I feel joy as a light heart, careless and clumsy limbs and whole-body relaxation. Already in this part, there is the option to move one’s attention from the emotion itself to just the sensations of it.
Identifying the emotion: Bringing your attention to those sensations creates distance to them and makes it easier to pinpoint exactly what is going on. When we’re in the heat of an emotion, it is so easy to lose our heads and just react. Only afterwards we understand what we felt and how that influenced our actions, often causing regret. Pinpointing the emotion creates awareness of the emotion just being an emotion, distancing us one step further from the emotion itself.
Giving it expression & breath: Emotions are there to be felt and expressed, but the expression itself doesn’t have to be emotional; it can be creative too. I love to put my emotions into dance or onto paper. I feel them, let them move me and, simply put, turn my suffering into art. Some kind of outlet is necessary for the emotions not to get stuck. Creative output in whatever form is an amazing way to let go. Sing it, dance it, write it, paint it, share it — let it out! And breathe with it. Breathe is a cool tool for softening those tense hands, expanding that heart and relaxing that body and mind into a state of peace.
Letting it go: And thus, barely with any effort, the emotion slowly evaporates. All it takes is blowing it a kiss of goodbye and turning your attention to the present. The experience is over, the emotion came and went, and life has moved on.
If we describe the animal as huge and grey and sporting big ears, it’s easy to identify it as an elephant. If we then allow it to trumpete, suddenly the elephant in the room is less of a deal and might even be kinda cool. It no longer hangs around awkwardly, taking all the attention without receiving any real awareness and care.
At least, this works in my experience. Especially the more I practice. Instead of being a cause of pain, my emotions have become a source of energy for creative work and mindful focus. I no longer have to fear feeling afraid, feeling angry, feeling sad or feeling hurt. I can just be.
As a quick afterthought: Compassion is also essential for not identifying with our painful emotions. Most likely whoever caused you pain, did it from a place of pain too. Empathy creates perspective and invites forgiveness. At least if we’re willing to.