Emotions can be tricky.
They’re the building blocks of life, I think. We can build a reality based on how we’d like to feel. But when our feelings take over and our reality becomes a slave to our feelings, well, that can be an inhospitable place to be. It can be a living nightmare for some. When our limbic system, the primitive part of the brain that among other things regulates emotion (which also includes the amygdala, our fight or flight center), takes complete control of the driver’s seat, we’re left helpless, positioned shotgun to a wild ride of emotional ups and downs.
I recently read of a concept that, for me, really nailed the true nature of emotions. It’s something the Taoists call “the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows”, which is what they believe we cycle through on a daily basis. We are constantly feeling little ups and little downs, which we could check in the “joys” or “sorrows” column if we were keeping track, but we so rarely pay attention to that depth of feeling. So all of our ten thousand daily emotions just get poured into one giant pot, and we become oblivious to the fact that we haven’t really paid attention to what we were feeling on a subtle level for the past thirty-five years or so. We label ourselves generally happy or generally sad, or mostly pissed-off, but the other 9, 999 emotions we feel every day get forgotten about, overlooked. This is an incredibly widespread phenomenon in our culture.
In my mindfulness group last week we talked about that thing that happens every now and then, when you’re just wandering down the sidewalk, nothing happening spectacularly out of the ordinary, when suddenly you’re struck by a fleeting moment of profound peace or happiness so powerful it feels like a jolt straight to the heart. The first thing I used to do when something like that happens was to think, “Whoa! Where’d that come from? How long will it last? Why can’t I always feel that? Sad that it can’t stay…” essentially crushing the life out of a totally pure moment of euphoric emotion that wasn’t meant to be analyzed or understood, just received with gratitude. Most of those in my mindfulness group agreed they were occasionally guilty of the same.
We are so aggravating at times, aren’t we?
Emotions, the very nature of their being, are meant to be transitory. They aren’t meant to harden upon us like a layer of drying concrete. But we want so badly to hold onto the beautiful ones and evict the not-so-beautiful ones and that very practice ends up causing us more suffering than any emotion could.
I was once in the middle of an alpine forest, photographing butterflies. Or trying to. I wasn’t having all that much success. I was in the center of a mad symphony of wildflowers with a hundred butterflies of varying species and I was so excited I became a complete idiot with my camera. I was running after one, then chasing another, and would see one even more magnificent so I’d tip-toe off in that direction.
Finally I think the universe got tired of my ridiculousness and sent a messenger. Out of nowhere this ancient looking guy with an expensive camera appeared and yelled across the glen. “You’re doing it wrong!” he said, kinda grumpy. “You don’t chase the butterflies! If you want to photograph them, you pick a spot, you sit real still, and you just appreciate those who land near you.”
Thank you, woodland Zen master! Of course he was right!
That advice can be directly translated to our relationship with emotions. To deny we have them is like living in a world with no butterflies. But to constantly chase them, trying to hold the pretty ones in our hand and reject the ones we consider ugly is as fruitful as chasing a wild animal in hopes of capturing a great photo.
We’re not ever going to control which emotions we feel, when we feel them, and for what duration. But we can learn to control our response to them. We don’t have to be carried away in a tidal wave. We can learn to strengthen our relationship to our emotions, so they can enrich our lives (even the dark ones) without taking complete control.
So when we have that unpredictable moment, that fleeting and unexpected moment of pure joy, we can pause, breathe into it, and say, “Beautiful…” Nothing more. No need to want more of it, or clutch it in our hands, hungry for permanence. We can simply understand that emotions will come, emotions will go, and that is their very nature. We can start to live the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, every single day.
The journey of strengthening our relationship to emotions is complex and important. It’s one that requires, among other things, encouraging our brain’s left prefrontal cortex to get stronger, so the limbic system can relax a little. It takes some time, it takes commitment, and if done with patient and loving resolve can absolutely result in giant leaps forward. Neuroscience has taught us that we truly can rewire our brain, at any age.
But complexity aside, I’d like to share just a few essential reminders for the journey to emotional balance.
1.) Deep breaths reset the nervous system. If you’re feeling like your emotions are spinning painfully out of control, stop what you’re doing and take three deep, slow breaths. Put your hand on your chest so you can feel your lungs expanding and contracting. This inhibits stress-producing hormones and triggers a relaxation response.
2.) Understand that whatever you are feeling is not meant to be “kept”. Let go of your desire to possess or control emotions. They are designed to be transitory, the good and the bad. They come, they go. Denying this fact can result in long-term distress.
3.) Pay attention to what you’re feeling throughout the day. Say it out loud when you can. “I’m feeling afraid.” “I feel peaceful.” This is highly soothing to the nervous system. Appreciate the gift of feeling, no matter what you’re feeling throughout the day. Emotions make us human.
4.) Try to refrain from building stories around your emotions. Emotions just are. They come and go, we all feel them. If you start to build walls around emotions through stories, such as, “I am a depressed person and always will be” then you essentially adopt depression as a facet of your identity. You start to build a foundation made of depression. Nobody is “an angry person” or “a happy person” without denying a thousand other emotions they also have the capacity to feel.
5.) Accept that no emotion is good or bad. They all build on one another, they’re a team. There is nothing wrong with sadness and nobody should want to be in a state of elation every minute of the day. The ephemeral nature of emotion is its very power.
Whatever your relationship to your own emotional state, I hope these thoughts help you ponder for a moment how it is that you notice, process or translate your feelings in everyday life. So much of our suffering can be eliminated when we learn to have a new conversation with emotions in general, when we learn to take control where we can and relinquish control, ride it out for a bit, when a feeling just needs a little healthy expression.