Sometimes I fall into the trap of acting as if an emotion is real, when it’s really just pointing to what is real to an aspect of myself, to a part of me.
Let me give a classic example.
I’m driving to work, chastising myself for waiting until the last minute to leave. I’m late because I didn’t get to bed on time. And then I didn’t get out of bed on time, nor did I sleep well. There’s a long line of cars waiting to merge into one lane. I’m barely going to make it on time, if at all. Suddenly, someone races up and cuts in front of me at the last second, almost causing an accident. A fire leaps within me – the familiar flame of anger, if not rage.
Now, let’s pause.
The anger is real. In the sense that the emotion exists, this can’t be disputed. I feel anger, therefore it is. No further discovery or discussion is necessary in this matter. But now I have a choice, and it’s not as simple as whether I am going to lay on my horn or not.
The choice is this: am I going to use emotion as a door to introspection, or am I going to act as if the emotion is solid?
What do I mean when I say the emotion is “solid?” I could have said, “justified.” If an emotion is justified or as I said, solid, it would mean there are no other components to its creation. None, at all. The only salient point would be that a man cut me off, hence my anger is justified. It’s solid.
But it’s generally not that simple because our emotions come for a variety of reasons. Beside that, we have emotion. We aren’t actually the emotion.
If I think, “I am my emotions,” I am not much further along than a 3-year old who thinks, “I am my toys.” Did you know that that’s how a toddler thinks? They equate that blanket or toy with themselves. You take that toy, or deny that blanket (or throw it in the washing machine), and they throw a tantrum. This is not only because they want it, it’s because qt their level of perception, they are it. You might as well be removing an arm. Later in life, hopefully soon, they come to realize that the Self is one thing, and the blanket is another. And that, while having a familiar object is helpful to sleep, it’s not required.
With this realization, it becomes less traumatic when the blanket or toy is unavailable. But for now, that level of introspection is not available to them.
Similarly, our emotions are not ourselves. As I hinted at above, “I have emotions” is a true statement because it implies that “I” and “emotions” are separate. One is experienced by the other. The “one” in that statement is the Self – which happens to be the same self that observes the breath, and watches thoughts or emotions rise and fall during meditation. This “I” is the Observer, a deeper “self” than the autopilot that drives the car… or that gets angry the second that someone inconveniences us. This
Self is not so easily rattled. This Self is one of wisdom. It sees things on a deeper level, like a parent washing a child’s blanket understands that this will cause some discomfort for the child, but also that it is necessary to wash the item.
The parent can do it dispassionately because she doesn’t self-identify with the suffering of the child. She has more information and can act from a place of wisdom.
Here’s the point: if I believe that my emotions are solid all the time - in other words, if I identify myself with them - of course I’m going to feel justified laying on my horn. But if I’m a mindful human, I know that emotions are tricky. I know that, no matter the story that the emotion is telling, there are extenuating circumstances worthy of exploration.
So, let’s break it down some more.
Going back to our traffic example, my choice is not whether or not I should lay on my horn any more than it’s the child’s choice whether or not to pitch a fit when his bunny is taken away. The choice is not action, it’s perception; it’s about what level of consciousness am I going to identify with. Am I going to identify with my anger alone, or am I going to use the emotion as a doorway to introspection? If I’m going to allow the statement, “I am angry” to be the solid truth, then I am going to lay on my horn.
Instead, if I’m going to allow it to be a doorway, here’s the process.
“Wow… I feel anger. What’s that about? That guy just cut in front of me. Is that all there is to the emotion? No, there’s more. I fear being late. I value my performance at work, and “good employee” is an ego I’m using to create value for myself, which results in greater security and ease in this world, which is enjoyable. This event seems to be a threat, however minor, to being perceived that way by my boss. I furthermore understand that I am tired, and that when I am tired, I’m more emotional. I’m also frustrated that I watched TV last night later than I was going to. And that I ate buttered popcorn until I fell asleep (I didn’t mention that part).”
At this point, space is not only made for higher-level reasoning, but for virtues like compassion and empathy. Check this out:
“This is about more than that guy cutting in front of me. It’s about a lot of other things, too. His actions may even be driven by an actual emergency, or by fear on his part – just as arising anger was fear-based for me. Even if they’re not, even if they’re just purely rude, I know that my emotions are not solid. They’re based on my own fears and physiological health, too. Therefore, laying on the horn and harboring feelings of anger toward this driver would be an over-reaction in this situation.”
I know that on some level this kind of processing of a simple emotion sounds absurd. But I also know that it’s not only possible, but mandatory if we are to evolve as a species. If this kind of processing is possible and desirable, how is it attainable?
One word: mindfulness. Another word: meditation. Ok, two words.
It’s ironic, but only if I’m mindful will I be able to create the space to act in a heart-felt way. Otherwise, I’m driven by my mind alone (insane AF), and the heart is left out of it. This would be tragic because the heart is the seat of the soul, the bringer of the gifts, the bestower of the virtues. The heart is where the Higher Self resides; the one that can actually handle the task of building and maintaining a better, peaceful, and sustainable world.
And meditation - lowly, boring old meditation - is how we practice it. It’s how we learn to create space between desire and action, between stimulus and response, so virtue can be inserted.
In my book, “Sand: A Conversation About the Enormity of Life,” (on Amazon) I describe a little girl named Maya who was taught by her father the value of meditation. Watching her grow, the two main characters, “The Being” and “The Wanderer,” discuss the “time control” qualities of a mindful person. The Being shows The Wanderer that there’s a space between stimulus and response to which only a mindful person has access. It’s as if one with this skill can control time.
More importantly, those with this skill have a better sense of what is real, and that it’s not only their emotions. They can act from a place of deeper reality than mere limbic emotion. They create space to act with virtue, as well. They accept that emotions are indicators, mere doorways into perception of the vast, complex realities that make up a human life.
If we were more mindful, we would be able to better recognize the nature of our anger. Knowing this, we could take more ownership of the condition of our world, while releasing shame around it. We could actively align our actions with what we want. For instance, we could address a lack of discipline (late bedtimes and bad food on a “school night”), or a baseless fear around work. Most importantly, we could create space for wiser interactions with each other, and the world.
May we begin to use emotions as the doorways to wisdom that they are. May our meditation be consistent, spilling out into our lifetimes, creating space between stimulus and response. May we identify more with the Stillness within more than we do with the emotions we feel. We are a mountain lake, not a community swimming pool.
We have the capacity to be governed by our wise parental selves, rather than the reactionary children within.
And it’s time to wash the blanket.