by Monica A. Ross, LPC
Express emotion rather than store it—another component of being resilient. I attended a retreat this past weekend at Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield, New Hampshire. This was part of the fellowship award that I received through the Hemera Foundation. More on Hemera here.
The retreat was entitled “The Wakeful Body” led by Willa B. Miller, PhD and Janine Grillo-Marra. Dr. Miller is the Founder and Spiritual Director of Wonderwell Mountain Refuge. Janine Grillo-Marra is a physical therapist, Reiki Practitioner, and yoga and dance teacher. I’d like to incorporate some of the learnings that I walked away from at the retreat with the topic of this post on emotion.
From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, we have an energy body from which emotions flow. That energy has something to do with all of the circuitry of our nervous system and interoceptive processes. I remember first coming across the term “interoceptive” when studying some of Dan Siegel’s works.
Our bodies also contain space. This would seem to be in contradiction with the physical aspects of the body, but not so when you think that 99.9% of us at the atomic level consists of empty space. As one article in Symmetry puts it “If the nucleus were the size of a peanut, the atom would be about the size of a baseball stadium. If we lost all the dead space inside our atoms, we would each be able to fit into a particle of dust, and the entire human species would fit into the volume of a sugar cube.”
So, we have this physical body grounded on earth through which flows energy and emotion and the sensory part of ourselves, all of which is floating in a kind of spaciousness and open awareness in the sky body. And all of these work together in an integrated and inseparable way.
Staying in relationship with all four layers of the body (physical, energy, sky, and integrated) with an eye towards integration is what is meant by mindfulness, groundedness, and presence. But back to the topic of emotions and resilience. Sometimes we try to push negative emotions away because they are unpleasant.
A person can even come to the point of feeling guilty for feeling angry or sad or jealous or upset about something. There is an article not too long ago that I posted about this in my facebook feed. Here is a link to that article again.
From that article “[t]hose who accept all their emotions without judgment tend to be less likely to ruminate on negativity, less likely to try to suppress mental experiences (which can backfire by amplifying these experiences), and less likely to experience negative ‘meta-emotional reactions,’ like feeling upset about feeling upset.”
As the article notes, there was a study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology conducted at The University of Toronto with 1,000 study subjects. The research supports this idea that those who accept their feelings, even the negative ones, fair better psychologically.
They found that well-being was less about leading a non stressful life and more about accepting life’s difficulties with non judgement. Bottom line is that emotions are short-lived. They are temporary, transitory. When they arise, even the negative ones, honor them and then let them pass.
Because they inevitably will.
Life isn’t about parenting our emotions and gaining dominion over them or about letting them gain dominion over us for that matter, but more about meeting our emotions at the same level side by side as peers, even as friends, as Lama Miller pointed out.
There is a free app called Insight Timer found here. On it there is a meditation called “Beautiful Feelings” that incorporates the concept of befriending our emotions. Look for it under “Beautiful Feelings” by Willa Blythe Miller.
Just as feelings come and go, so do our thoughts, the activities in which we engage, the people in our lives. There is no need to grasp or cling to these things because the comings and goings are part of life and being human. When the Buddha spoke of suffering and it’s relationship to attachment he was speaking of the “clinging to” and “grasping” and not attachment itself.
The Buddha did not mean in promoting selflessness to abandon all sense of self, but to see the self for what it is—a construct—as Lama Willa also pointed out.
We have this concept of peace or joy that is tied to something—tied perhaps to that object to which we attempt to cling selfishly. But it’s okay to let go because our love can shift from referential to dispositional. Our emotion of contentment need not be tied to something, in other words.
We can approach everything with love and contentment. Reaching enlightenment in life then becomes about accessing this peace within ourselves despite the chaos. It isn’t a separate place to go to. We carry peace with us.
The negative emotions that we sometimes experience arguably flow from the disappointment of expectations going unmet. Sometimes we experience the feeling of our emotions being tied to some sort of condition in life. But if we lean away from that onto this concept of referential joy then it’s easier to let those negative feelings pass through us.
We can experience negative emotions, befriend them even, but not get stuck in them. Expectation is fear of what will happen if we don’t get what we want, but when we are wrapped up in this type of fear we actually miss out on the richness of what we have—another key point from the retreat.
Feelings deserve our validation and respect—our acknowledgement. Because feelings going unchecked or suppressed can lead to later blow outs. But again, feelings have a transitory nature. They tell us something about our thinking and perception as from a CBT perspective it’s the thoughts that lead to our feelings, both of which give us material to work with and through.
The Tibetan Buddhists have a name for what they call “great bliss”—Mahasukha. Mahasukha is finding joy despite or even while feeling confused, hurt, fearful. Bindu is a drop of bliss, subtle bliss. So it’s about finding that subtle joy in simple things within this greater bliss as we go about our daily lives.
Being alone is not something to fear which contributes to clinging, instead our time alone can be thought of as our refuge and strength. We have everything that we need in this life to move through this life in an interdependent way, which assumes some level of independence or aloneness first.
In Mahayana Buddhism there are two truths or realities—relative and ultimate. On the relative side of things we can be affected, or traumatized but our deeper true or ultimate self is unaffected. It isn’t worsened it isn’t improved, it just is in it’s “is-ness;” it is pure.
There is another Sanskrit word that captures this idea—vajra. The symbol for vajra is both a thunderbolt and a diamond—a thunderbolt representing strength and a diamond representing indestructibility. The reality is that we have both in life—both relative and ultimate reality.
We have that part of life that is material and full of strife at times and conditional and we have that part of life that is innocent, vast, open, and accepting. To rely only on relative truth without acknowledging the vastness of life is to deny the possibility for change, spaciousness, openness, and acceptance. And to overemphasize the ultimate is to deny that there is suffering and that life is full of—well, just stuff, both pleasant and unpleasant that lends to the human experience.
It’s not that one is false and one is true. It’s not that ultimate reality is more pure. There is not the one that leads to enlightenment. The two are not separate. They co-exist. They form a union. The metaphor again I find in the body with the physical and emotional body representing relative truth and the sky body representing openness and acceptance.
Mindfulness or groundedness becomes about developing the basic awareness that we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves in addition to telling stories to each other. This fits well into narrative therapy techniques.
Instead of investing in those stories, which are a mixture in part of misinterpretations and falsehoods, it’s best to develop a certain amount of distance from both our thoughts and emotions and to development a stance of non judgement about both.
In this retreat Lama Willa used the metaphor of the ocean. Sometimes our reactivity and automatic intrusive thoughts are like all the waves on top of the ocean in their turbulence, but underneath lies a greater depth and stillness. That stillness is presence.
Presence is the feeling of doing an activity that you become completely absorbed in. When this happens, time falls away. When you think of the spaciousness of the sky it’s much like the depth of the ocean. Both are vast, open, free and unaffected by things. They’re both non affected by and non afflicting.
It is possible to tap into that stillness and presence and from it achieve the validation and acknowledgement of our emotions which leads to resilience.