The Dungeon of Difficult Emotions

We’ve seen how holding tight to our established identity creates contraction as we grasp and cling to that hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be. This contraction can also be an aversion to who we believe ourselves to be. We’ve talked about how when we let go of that contracted state by relaxing, releasing, letting go in a mindful way, we create the space to see things more clearly and compassionately, including our emotions.

The emotions themselves are free agents. None of us can claim emotions as our identity though we often try to do so. Emotions float through our present experience like the weather, as natural as fog, rain, snow, heat, clouds, storms and rainbows. Emotions simply exist. Understanding this frees us from believing that we are the emotions we experience or that the emotions reflect on us. We can simply notice them as they pass through our experience with compassionate curiosity.

We are certainly responsible for how we behave in response or reaction to the emotions we experience. We all have habituated ways of dealing with them. We may feel the helpless victim of emotions, letting them dictate our behavior. We may feel ashamed of certain emotions and shield them from sight, sometimes so effectively that we shield them from ourselves.

It’s very likely we were taught to put forth acceptable emotions and hide, deny or push down unacceptable ones. Our parents and teachers may have been uncomfortable with their own negative emotions, and so were unwilling to acknowledge ours. In my case if I said, “I feel (a particular emotion), I was told “Well, you shouldn’t.” At other times my fears were dismissed. “Don’t be silly,” was a phrase that came up a lot in my upbringing. I’m sure this or some variation on it was pretty much the norm for mid-twentieth century. But it leaves us as adults with a habit of suppressing these ‘unacceptable’ emotions. So how does that fit with the weather analogy, where all kinds of emotions simply pass through our experience? Well, it’s as if we’ve been corralling thunderbolts and locking them up in an airtight vacuum packed dungeon somewhere inside ourselves.

I remember when I first started meditating I had some fear that what I would find in this process of self-discovery would be that my true self, my true nature, would be hideous and unacceptable. There was this sense of bottled up toxicity that I was terrified of unlocking. Now I can recognize that I was not completely wrong, that there was indeed a bottled up toxicity within me, but it wasn’t my ‘true nature’ but simply the imprisoned storms of many years of habituated emotional suppression.

This process of pushing down or suppressing seems to successfully contain the emotion. It can no longer just pass through, but is locked up and it’s sitting in a cell deep in the dungeon of our subconscious, plotting revenge, digging tunnels and rattling the bars from time to time to remind us it is still there. We are all emotional jailers to some degree, and it’s not a role we really relish. Even if we get into the whole jangling keys, gun toting, star on our chest swagger of it, in truth there are so many other things we’d rather be doing than minding the jail that contains our suppressed emotions. And the perception of ourselves as toxic at the core, when we believe those suppressed emotions to be our true selves, is a great cause of suffering that affects us and those around us day in and day out.

When it comes to jailing emotions, anger is the easiest target to round up and toss in the clinker because it makes such a ruckus. We know if we don’t lock it up it will smash everything in its path. So anger is easy to spot and uncomfortable to be around — not an emotion we want to find in our personal experience. It doesn’t suit our sense of who we are, this anger, and its existence can make us angrier, so that we find we are the kind of jailer that roughs up the inmate on the way to tossing it in its cell. We are embarrassed by this anger, so we keep jailing it up every time we come across it and hope that nobody notices.

In our weather analogy anger is not the town trouble-maker but a thunder storm passing through. We would never think of locking up a thunderstorm. We know how to behave responsibly around it. What’s the difference between a real thunderstorm and anger? We think anger is a reflection on us, so we compound its intensity by fueling it with other emotions like shame. When we react to anger with fear of exposure and try to suppress it, we are compressing the anger into something densely toxic that begins to poison our life and the lives around us.

Suppression of emotion is a dangerous, even deadly game. It plays havoc on all aspects of our lives, including our physical health. These suppressed emotions feed on challenging situations, difficult personalities, scary events and high pressure deadlines, so that we may find ourselves addicted to disaster in our lives. We can get hooked on horrendous news, terrifying movies and drama in our own lives to feed those suppressed emotions.

Conversely we might feel unable to deal with any exposure to news, violence in movies or drama in our lives, feeling sapped by them, and afraid of their power to harm us. We see ourselves as weak and vulnerable, prone to illness.

The Buddha taught his followers to incline the mind toward what is wholesome, because that supports our ability to walk the Eightfold Path that frees us from suffering. But he was not suggesting that we are somehow so weak and vulnerable that we can’t face any difficulty that comes along. We are to be present and notice its qualities and our reactions to it all with an open spaciousness of compassionate mind. Our fear of what is unwholesome throws us in its path, for unwholesomeness feeds on fear.

Addiction to or aversion of anything are really two sides of the same coin. Both provide valuable clues to our relationship with the emotional weather that has been passing through our lives. If we learned to suppress emotion as children, then we may feel we are betraying our parents or family by going down in the dungeon and unlocking the cells. But if our parents taught us how to suppress, it’s only because they didn’t know any better. They did the best they could with what they had available. They taught what they knew to be true from their perception of themselves and the world around them. As unskillful as it may have been, they did what they felt would best protect us in the world. And for their intention we can be grateful. But we don’t honor them by staying true to the false beliefs they thought at the time to be true.

When we finally go down into the dungeon, we find that the emotions we have needed to muster in order to keep the old ones jailed are more dangerous than the prisoner-emotions themselves. When we are able to look at them with an open spacious mind we can see that the prisoners are in fact weak and helpless. How can this be? Because when we are willing to look and be present with them, we have stopped fueling them with our fear. We have stopped empowering them. We see them clearly and recognize, as the Buddha recognized when repeatedly confronted by Mara the tempter as he sat under the Bodhi tree with the intention to awaken, that they are illusions created by the interaction of our fears, our aversions and our overwhelming desires, with the emotional weather that is part of the experience of being human.

Meditation provides us with a sense of dispassionate self-acceptance that makes it safe to visit the dungeon of our suppressed emotions. If we don’t feel it is safe, we can seek the help of a therapist to walk beside us as descend into the dungeon.

Why is it so important to visit these emotional prisoners? Doing so liberates not just them but us. As long as we are suppressing emotion, we are constricted in a way that inhibits our ability to love ourselves and others, to find a way to be joyful and useful, and to be healthy.

We hear about how meditation benefits physical health, and we can easily demonstrate the direct connection between the mind and the rest of the body by doing this simple experiment: Close your eyes and bring to mind something that upsets you, some person, situation, event, deadline, etc. that irks you, gets your goat, angers you, or scares you. Then when that thought is fixed in the mind, notice where in they body you have contracted. Check out the brow, the jaw, the temples, the neck, the shoulders, the chest, the hands, and the gut. Notice it, then let the thought go, and relax, release and shake out any accumulated tension.

If you noticed tension in any area of the body, then the mind-body connection is made perfectly clear. Here we were, perfectly comfortable, and then an emotionally charged thought is brought up, and our body contracts in some habituated way. If anyone ever doubts the truth of the mind-body connection, that’s the simplest way to demonstrate it.

If you didn’t notice it, try it some time when you are upset about something and really pay attention to sensations in the body.

Dr. John Sarno, orthopedic surgeon and author of a number of books about the mind-body connection, is an excellent resource to check out if you have any physical ailments, especially chronic ones or ones that the doctor can’t explain. Reading one of his books has made a great difference in the lives of many, including my own, I’m happy to say.

Just seeing the mind-body connection for ourselves and understanding some of how it works can free us of pain, whether we are meditators or not. But a Vipassana meditator trained to be present and compassionate with the arising and falling away of phenomena, including emotion and physical sensation, is more readily noticing what’s going on in both the body and the mind.

But being a meditator doesn’t make us clairvoyant. Like anyone else we can be blind to what’s right in front of us if some aspect of ourselves feels too threatened by it. As meditators when we do discover it, we have the training to deal with it in a way that is effective. Facing what scares us most is an important part of meditation practice.
Instead of feeling failure at such a discovery about ourselves and acquiescing to the urge to push our discovery down into a deeper dungeon, we are more likely to feel like investigators having found an important clue. We approach the discovery with curiosity and maybe even excitement. Aha! We feel we are at the beginning of a rich journey.

So this is the process, this making space and then noticing. If it feels self-indulgent, then it is probably a clue to habituated suppression. We discount and discard feelings that make us uncomfortable. We tell ourselves we’re being silly, that we should bucker up, grin and bear it, have a stiff upper lip, etc. But this is just our discomfort talking, our fear of what we’ll find if we visit the dungeon. But when we use our keys – our meditative tools of self-discovery – to liberate those suppressed emotions, we find we have liberated ourselves from suffering.

I ended this week’s class by reading an article I wrote many years ago, titled Emotions as Honored Guests. It was published in The Emotional Intelligence Newsletter, and I still on occasion get requests for its excerption or reproduction, so it clearly resonates with people. It is always available on openembracemeditations.com along with other downloads of useful information about meditation. Some of you may recognize similarities in concept between this piece and a poem by Rumi. I wrote it before I ever read Rumi so I was surprised, delighted and a little unsettled by discovering his poem. The coincidence shows that while each of us may draw our understanding from different wells, the wells tap into a deep river of universal wisdom. Our goal in meditation-based self-discovery is to keep dipping in the well.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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