You are not your emotions
We usually identify with our emotions, and think of our emotions as being us. We say, "I'm angry", or "I'm sad", as if our anger or sadness are us, as if our emotions become who we are.
You can't do much about your emotions if your emotions are who you are.
Emotions are what you feel, not who you are
When you shift your thinking in this way, emotions become something you feel, instead of something you are. Emotions are something you experience in your body.
You're the sky, emotions are clouds
If you think of yourself as the sky, emotions are like clouds. Some are beautiful, some are dark and stormy. Emotions, like clouds, come and go.
Don't avoid or suppress emotions
Being able to "let go" of emotions is different from suppressing, avoiding, or ignoring them. Emotions carry valuable information. It is important to be aware of them and analyze them. If you try to avoid or suppress emotions, you may be denying or repressing true feelings.
Grasping and Aversion
- Grasping is when the mind desperately holds onto something and refuses to let it go.
- Aversion is when the mind desperately keeps something away, and refuses to let it come.
Grasping and aversion are opposites, and account for a lot of the suffering we experience.
Experience pain without suffering
Grasping and aversion are separate from sensation and perception. It is possible to experience pain without suffering.
For example, after sitting for a long time, you may feel pain in your back (sensation). Right after that, you may feel aversion - "I don't like this pain, I want it to go away". Aversion amplifies the pain and causes unnecessary suffering in your mind.
If your mind recognizes this, and becomes able to let go of aversion, you can experience much less suffering.
Experience pleasure without clinging
The biggest problem with pleasure is that all pleasurable experiences eventually come to an end. Pleasure itself doesn't cause any problems. Clinging onto pleasure and desperately hoping that pleasure does not go away causes suffering.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a great way of putting it:
Wilting flowers do not cause suffering; it is the unrealistic desire that flowers not wilt that causes suffering.
If you recognize this and become able to let go of grasping and clinging, you can fully enjoy flowers even though they will eventually wilt.
By letting go of grasping and clinging, you can enjoy life more fully.
Dealing with Emotional Triggers
Sometimes little things cause a large emotional response in us. The first step in learning to deal with these triggers is to be able to identify when you have been triggered. Some indications may include:
- Body - shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat, sick to stomach
- Emotions - "flight or fight response", feeling like a deer in headlights, or having an emotional outburst
- Thoughts - feeling like a victim, thoughts of blame and judgement, difficulty paying attention
Triggers often have long histories behind them, and when we are triggered it is because something was brought back from the past. Triggers are also often connected to perceived inadequacies about ourselves that are a source of pain to us.
Try this when you feel triggered
- Stop - It is a very powerful and important skill to be able to stop when you feel emotionally triggered. It makes all the other steps possible.
- Breathe - similar with meditation, focus the mind on the breath. Taking conscious breaths calms the body and mind.
- Notice - bring attention to your body and the experience of emotion. What does it feel like in the body? Where is it? Do you feel tense, or hot? Try to experience emotional difficulty, instead of identifying with emotion and allowing it to sweep you away.
- Reflect - where is this emotion coming from? Is there history behind it? Is there a self-perceived inadequacy involved? Don't judge it as right or wrong. If the emotion is involved with another person, put yourself in their shoes. Everyone wants to be happy, and people usually act in the way they feel will make them the happiest.
- Respond - think of ways you might respond to the situation that would have a positive outcome.
Note - this is paraphrased / summary of chapters 4 & 5 of "Search Inside Yourself - The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace)", by Chade-Meng Tan.
I tried to distill the key points from several chapters into a short post. If you would like to learn more about mindfulness, dealing with thoughts & emotions, and happiness - I highly recommend you check out the book!
Here's a related video from the author, Chade-Meng Tan: