As the person who is experiencing an emotion first hand, they can be incredibly convincing and moving. We all have emotions, but what are they really, and how can they be used in service to us?
First, consider the three parts of the brain:
Reptilian Brain – The most primal part of the brain. Sends basic instinctive responses to the body for action (fight, flight, or freeze)
Lymbic System: This includes the Amigdala (an older part of the brain that involves instinctive emotional reactions) and the Hypocampus.
An example of this is how different people will have different responses to the same event.
When reacting emotionally to a situation often it is not the situation itself to which we are responding. The event is acting as a trigger, bringing up emotions we have experienced in the past. – “The Other Kind of Smart”
Neocortex – A newer development in the mammal brain that (more slowly) rationalizes situations and messages from the rest of the brain before responding with a logical plan of action. It has little to do with emotions.
The neocortex is what makes humans as evolved and intelligent as we are (though we still have a ways to go!). However the neocortex comes into effect only after we have already had an emotion arise.
There was an emotional brain long before there was a rational one. – Daniel Goleman
The opportunity is in developing our awareness in the moment to moment. If we can equanimously perceive our feelings as they arise, we can use our feelings, rather than being caught off guard by them and letting our feelings use us.
Once you’re familiar with each signal and its messages, your emotions become not your enemy but your ally. – Anthony Robins in “Awakenings the Giant Within”
POTENTIAL Benefits of Emotions:
From “Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion”
- Sense of self
- Decision making
- Communication of intent/ feelings
- Aid memory
- Barometer for needs/goals unmet (motivation)
- Personal development & evolution
- Quality of life (assessment of)
The above are benefits to be had when emotions are paid attention to, and not taken for granted or dismissed.
The next question to ask then is, when we are trying to notice our emotions, what is it that we are looking for? Essentially, what is an emotion?
In the foundations of mindfulness, the body and physical sensation is the first aspect of being that a person should practice awareness in. Physical manifestations are the root of the next three foundations of mindfulness: feelings, states of mind, and objects of mind (thoughts). Even repressed thoughts and emotions that we don’t acknowledge on a thinking-level, are still experienced by the body:
Each of us has been known to block out or repress unpleasant feelings, typically those associated with painful or horrific experiences. But the body ultimately recognizes all feelings. – “Spirituality and Anatomy of Emotion”
In fact, there are many processes happening on a bodily level that we are not always conscious of, but none the less make up what we experience as emotions:
You may not be fully aware of your feelings. They may be perceptions that our body recognizes but your brain – at least on the conscious level – does not. […] The best examples of this are heart beat, blood circulation, and breathing […] The same is true for numerous other bodily processes that typically operate below the threshold of our conscious awareness. – “Spirituality and Anatomy of Emotion”
Physical feelings are not seen as grand as a clever poem or evolutionary idea, however “Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion” reminds us that invention and creative endeavors came out of feeling.
The process of invention is always emotional and sensual and the resulting ideas are translated into words or numbers only in order to communicate with other people. […] Ideas emerge in the form of feelings, emotions, movements, images, and patterns. When we truly understand something, not only can we describe or explain it in words, numbers, or art forms, but we can sense and feel it too. – Robert Root-Bernstein
You can see that when the origin of emotions is neglected, what we are really neglecting is the origin for human intelligence, and the opportunity of understanding ourselves and each other as humans.
Doug and Catherine Sensei, in a course they taught on emotional intelligence, recommended meditation for “unravelling the tangle” between the logical brain and the emotional one.
We want both brains, the heart “mind” and the wisdom “mind”. Separately, the brains lead to an unbalanced person, either a person who identifies too much with how they feel, or too much with what they think. But, a mastery of both they lead to total liberation.
Namgyal Rinpoche said that it is not good enough to feel good, but we need to know why we are feeling good. He also said:
It is not necessary to have spiritual highs in order to awaken, sometimes these too can be a hindrance. Jhanas lead to what is called a ceto-vimutti, a liberation of the heart or being aspect. But you must also gain panna-vimutti, the liberation of wisdom.
The ultimate wisdom, the ultimate deliverance of our neocortex, is “the knowing of the operation of the dharmas”. Humans, ever so clever, can manifest whatever they imagine. But what is worth imagining, and what is worth manifesting? The Buddha said, the noble truths are worth it.
The next time you have a strong emotion, feel it as it arises. What do you notice?
The root of feeling is very much biological, very much physiological, and at least initially, unconscious. – “Spirituality and the Anatomy of Emotion”
Note the difference between your immediate reaction and afterwards, when you’ve stood back to look at the situation/ emotion.
Label for yourself: What was the Amygdala in the situation, the Hippocampus, and the Neocortex?
Imagine two ten year old children who are best friends. One child drops a piece of gum on the floor, and their friend picks it up and eats it. For the next hour the child who dropped the gum hates their best friend, and keeps accusing them of stealing from them. This is a true story.
Get angry at the right person for the right reason and to the right degree. This means waiting to respond until your neocortex is in control again.
When you sense that tensions are high and that you are not able to speak rationally, practice asking for some time before continuing the conversation, out of compassion for yourself and the other people involved.
Once you are more calm, you can have a measured response but still be in touch with the more primal parts of the brain. But now you are choosing your response with the neocortex.
Being in touch with the primal parts of our brain is important for compassion, teaches meditation teachers Doug and Cata Sensei. You can’t be compassionate if only the “nice guy” (neocortex) is working, we need the “bad guy” part (reptilian and limbic brain) for the emotional ability to empathize.
Measuring your reactions can also mean that once you have seen an emotion has lived it’s necessary lifespan, to let it go. We don’t want to indulge emotions. Don’t spend too much time keeping an emotion alive that way, especially once a situation has been resolved.
One emotional intelligence skill is being able to identify/ label what you’re feeling: often the most subtle feelings we don’t have a name for. The more we can name it the more we can bring it to consciousness, and recognize patterns.
Here are the family of emotions: anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust, saddness/shame
Can you pick up some of these in day to day basis over the week?
Our feelings do not lie. As humans we have an unlimited capacity to delude ourselves. Our minds, however, are unable to override our feelings. Our feelings always give us away and point to the inconsistencies in our life. – The Other Kind of Smart
An alternative to the Practice 3 is to simply label the feelings that arise as “pleasant” or “unpleasant”, which is what is recommended in the Foundations of Mindfulness. Avoid saying “good” or “bad”, “Positive” or “negative” as this implies final judgement and what we want to develop is equanimity for our feelings.
An “Arhot” is the name for a person who has reached full enlightenment. An enlightened being is someone who can “ride the dragon” of feelings with total surrender.
In emotional-intelligence terms, where in your life are you prey to your mood? Do you have the ability to regulate your mood to do what needs to be done?
Are there any instances when you have “not been in the mood” for something important like being there for someone in hard times, getting household chores done, cooking a healthy meal, getting exercise in, etc?
The next time that a strong emotion arises, practice carrying on with your life as productively as usual, but this time watch the emotion at the same time, and practice being with it acceptingly.
We tend to come up with proof to validate our emotions (emotions which are often child-like). We personalize our emotions as “my feelings” and can ignore whatever good argument goes against how we feel.
What we need to do is identify the pattern from the past that is repeating itself: when “A” happens, I go to “B”. Doug and Catherine Sensei teach that we can transcend areas where we’re stuck if we can recognize the pattern.
Meanwhile, Doug and Catherine Sensei speak on emotional intelligence:
It’s not having emotions that makes you intelligent – but understanding how they are shaped – when you were before 2 years old – and those patterns.
“The Other Kind of Smart” suggests that when a strong emotion arises, to see if you can identify the “original source from the past” or the first time this emotion was triggered (this would be your Hypocampus at play).
Doug and Catherine Sensei teach that to be emotionally self-supporting, you are utilizing your neocortex (rational brain) to sooth your amigdala (emotional brain). Negative emotions are the emotions of a toddler. Your neocortex can see the two-year-old temper tantrum coming, like a mother with her child. Let yourself feel the emotions, but do not indulge them (like a good empathetic mother would).
Do you have tools to help you sooth your heart when necessary, without being dependent on another person, or turning to something that only serves to numb the emotion?
Some good mood lifters are crying and exercise. These are great mood lifters because they also are not suppressing any emotions, but letting them flow.
“The Other Kind of Smart” recommends having a good memory or positive thought in your pocket to help interrupt a negative state.
And Doug and Catherine Sensei also teach that just by acknowledging a difficult feeling you gain distance from it. When you can’t see something, like a monster in the dark, it has much more power over you.