Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of May 8, 2006

Choosing Your Emotions

We usually choose, but sometimes fail to choose, how we express our emotions. We may modulate them, adapting to our immediate circumstances. Or we might let loose an emotional outburst or implosion. Or we might try to push them down and away, repressing our emotions. But actually choosing how you will feel is a different matter entirely, a matter of changing the character of your emotions. Instead of your emotions controlling themselves, reacting in their conditioned and predictable patterns to the events of your life, you start to influence the very nature of your emotions, intentionally and directly

Why do this? Our difficult, discordant, destructive and reactive emotions make life unpleasant and painful for us, and sometimes also for the people around us. Those emotions usually make us less effective, although in certain fairly rare situations they can be properly channeled toward positive results. But inwardly our reactive emotions spell disaster, enslaving us in attachment and burning up precious inner energies that could otherwise go toward our spiritual work. Repressing emotions exacerbates the damage by planting a bad seed in our heart. The bottom line: destructive emotions embody our suffering.

Choosing our emotions begins with noticing our thoughts, which so often serve as precursors to emotion. When our thoughts turn negative about a situation or a person, our emotions soon follow. We may become very upset. By that time it is too late to choose to feel differently. The storm must pass first. But if you catch your reaction at its earliest stages, you can channel your thoughts toward a more benign, even positive, joyous, or compassionate pattern. And again your emotions will follow.

The Buddha discussed this in relation to what he called the chain of dependent origination. The essence of the chain can be summarized as perception, reaction, and attachment. If we can be present at the moment of perception, we may choose not to react and thereby break the chain. If our presence is strong and clear enough, it does not even require a choice: the conditioned reaction simply does not materialize. More typically, though, we might notice the chain at a slightly later stage, when the reaction has already started and begins to drive our thoughts toward negative patterns. By watching our thoughts and their results, we acquire a taste for where they are leading us.

At this point we may be able to choose an alternative direction. We might begin to think differently about the situation, or we might distract our thoughts onto another subject entirely, or we exert a mitigating influence on the developing negative thought pattern. Of course, some difficult situations do require thought and consideration. And we give that, but with clarity, not negativity.

Notice that this is not a matter of repressing our emotions. Once a destructive emotion involves us, we face it and feel it as we normally would. But before the reactive emotion gets started, we can choose to direct our thoughts so that it never does start. Out of compassion for ourselves, we choose not to go down that path of suffering.

For this week, work at choosing your emotions.


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