Last week we experimented with expressing our thoughts in a very present conscious way, a rather stilted awkward way, almost quoting our thoughts as we noticed them. By setting these thoughts off in quotations, we remind ourselves that we are not the thoughts.
Today I’d like to do the same thing with emotion. In our practice we will continue noticing thoughts, and also be available to notice emotions if they arise as well.
Depending on our personal nature, we each have emotions we are more familiar with. Anger is not an emotion that comes up for me very often, but it did the other day, and I had to be careful not to get too excited at having the opportunity to notice all the aspects of my experience of anger, lest the anger dissipate too quickly, before I had a chance to learn more of its nature.
Here are the things I noticed about anger:
• A sense of being disrespected, taken advantage of, taken for granted.
• A feeling of being in the right, entrenched in my position, stuck in a toxic sludge with a feeling of sinking in deeper and deeper to my entrenched position so that I could not see any other view, even if I wanted to.
• A sense of wallowing that felt kind of pleasurable, like a pig wallowing in the mud.
• Disgust and judgment at this indulgence.
• Disappointment, not getting what I wanted, which led to:
• The realization that I had had expectation as a precursor, my imagination having established a quasi-reality of a future moment to which I had become much attached. The disappointment was the wrenching away of that unlived future moment, and the anger arose quite naturally out of that wrenching away of something I wanted to experience, something I felt promised, if only by my own imagination.
• A wondering what is the fear that fuels the anger, as it is my experience that fear is at the core of all negative emotion.
• Sensing a very tender fearful aspect of self clinging to ‘a cherished moment that will never be’ because someone ‘stole’ it from me.
• Betrayal, loss.
• Confusion, a beginning to question whether I had misunderstood the agreed upon arrangement by which my expectations were meant to be fulfilled, but were instead dashed.
• An opening to the possibility that there was no disrespect intended by the other party, just a misunderstanding.
• Curiosity began to soften the feelings. Noticing an opportunity to explore and understand this emotion better. The ability to infuse some awareness into the mix with the recognition that I am not the emotion I am experiencing.
• A release of tension in my body.
• A realization that the decision to explore gives me a sense of control in the situation, whereas I was feeling uncomfortably out of control. Not so out of control that I acted out involving others, but an inner sense of being caught up in a powerful surge of something and feeling emotionally on hyper-drive and somewhat overwhelmed.
So these were the many stages that made up my experience within a matter of ten minutes sitting with it.
Some people might feel that it’s self-indulgent to take ten minutes to just follow an inner process of an emotion that would have been better just tolerated or stifled. Others might feel that ten minutes would never be enough to process an emotion, that I’m kidding myself if I think that anger is gone. Notice what you feel about it.
What I notice about this process is that it is taking something that seems like a huge thing, an all-encompassing thing, in this case anger, and bringing sufficient awareness to start noticing all the small parts that make it up; then notice how these parts change.
Does this sound familiar? It is exactly the process we explored when we talked about physical pain: how it is not just one experience but a multiplicity of smaller component experiences, in fact a symphony of sensations that rise and fall, come and go.
And so it is with emotion. We have these labels for them: anger, for example, and we have a mental construct of what anger is and what it is to ‘be angry.’ But with awareness we see that just like physical pain, it is made up of many smaller component pieces, each of which is in a state of flux, changing in every moment.
Bringing our full attention is like bringing an enzyme of awareness to break down the toxic sludge. That’s the power of spacious compassionate mindfulness!
Now anger is not an emotion I experience a lot. I have others that are more familiar. With a more familiar emotion the experience is more challenging because it is harder to really notice. Emotions we live with constantly feel normal to us and it’s hard to notice ‘normal.’ But with attention, compassion and patience, this noticing can begin to shed light on the many different aspects of the entrenched emotion and allow for insight, understanding, softening and perhaps release.
It’s important to remember that this process is not about getting rid of emotion. If we believe that we have dealt with it, we will be horrified to discover it showing up again. Instead we can be appreciative of the fact that we notice it more when it arises.
I once wrote an article titled “Emotions as Honored Guests” that helps us understand that emotions are not enemies, and that trying to lock them out or do battle with them merely transforms them into something more dangerous.
With spacious compassionate awareness, we give ourselves the gift of being fully alive, able to experience any thought, sensation and emotion as a dance of discovery.