Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Inner Work


For the week of January 4, 2010

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Emotions as Emotions

(Aspect 4 of 12 of the Path to Presence)

Emotions drive us, for better or for worse. Emotions can drive us to distraction or to contact, to violence or to friendship, to self-centeredness or to service. The remarkable range of emotions, from the petty to the sublime, imparts richness to our life. All emotions share the common feature that they can and often do affect our behavior, inner and outer, as well as the quality of our experience. Emotions define our motivations and impose them on us. As such, every spiritual path addresses how to work with emotions.

In the way of presence, we begin with practicing awareness of emotions as emotions. Lack of such awareness relegates us more firmly into the grip of destructive emotions. We react emotionally to some event and we are just lost in the emotion, carried away by it. Our emotion controls us, at least inwardly, even if we do not react outwardly. Maybe someone angers us in a conversation and perhaps we choose to suppress it and not say anything. Nevertheless, the anger may seethe within. We feel angry. We may even know that we are angry. Yet the key fact is that the anger is the center of our world at that moment. We have no inner context within which to see the anger as anger, as an emotional state that arose and will pass. We collapse into the anger and have no presence, as the soul blood of our inner energies burns up. And so it goes with much of our emotional life.

One help in recognizing our emotions as emotions consists of noticing how they affect our physical body. We may experience a change in our heart rate or breathing, tightness in our chest, certain facial expressions, tones of voice, gestures, or postures. Each kind of emotion may have its own characteristic signature of physical effects. Stressful emotions also have more subtle effects on our physical health, effects not immediately noticeable. For now though, our practice is simply to see what we can see, to see our emotions in action, for example in our body.

Another help in recognizing emotions as emotions consists of noticing how they affect our thoughts. Repetitious and insistent patterns of thought can key us to their emotional driver. Thoughts can exhibit a tone that reflects the underlying emotion, just as our tone of voice often does. The tone of our inner thought-voice can manifest stressful or destructive emotions. So being aware of the qualities of our thoughts helps us recognize their emotional underpinnings.

Thankfully, the broad palette of our emotions is not all destructive. Far from it! Many emotions lift us up, both in the ordinary course of life and in our deepening spiritual practice. Awareness of emotions as emotions enables us to know which to nurture and which to let go. We allow and nurture the emotions that bring us closer to each other, to ourselves, to life, and to God. Much of our spiritual practice, such as meditation and prayer, nurtures those higher emotions.

We also allow the destructive emotions that create barriers, but we do not nurture them nor do we necessarily act from them. We allow, so as not to fight our emotions directly, which only energizes them. Any effort to suppress emotions backfires. Emotions are not illusory; they have a relative reality arising from causes within us. Suppressing emotions can, at best, only treat the symptoms, leaving their underlying causes untouched and ready to surface again and again. While we do not fight our destructive emotions, we also do not nurture them. We see and accept ourselves as we are, and our emotions they are, without layering on another level of emotional judgment and self-rejection. We see and accept and allow them to wane and disappear on their own. By opening our accepting and compassionate heart toward ourselves, including our destructive emotions, we heal their underlying causes.

Whether those causes lie in our personal history or elsewhere, they now take the shape of our identifications, our attachments, and our desires to have things be different than they are. We will address that in a later aspect of the path to presence.

For this week, please set yourself to notice your emotions as emotions, to realize in the midst of an emotion that it is an emotion that has you. If you watch television or movies you can see how the shows and commercials manipulate your emotions. If you drive, you can see how problems such as traffic and rude drivers activate your emotions. If you live with your family, you can see how the give-and-take of family life activates your emotions. In your favorite activities, in hearing a good joke, and in deep meditation, you can see and feel your joy.

Notice that this is not suggesting that we distance ourselves from our emotions. We feel and be in them, fully. We want to live fully, not impoverish our life by eliminating or stigmatizing our emotions. But we do want to heal the destructive and nurture the uplifting, without rejecting or even criticizing ourselves along the way. We open our heart and learn to love ourselves, emotions and all.


     

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