Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

–"The Guest House," Rumi

How to Meet a Strong Emotion


The prob­lem with strong emo­tions is that we over-iden­ti­fy with them. It’s not that I feel sad. I am sad. It’s not that I feel envi­ous, or mad or guilty. Rather, all too eas­i­ly I become these emo­tions and act them out. Lat­er, I may say: “I was­n’t myself” (but, of course, I was.)

If only we could put a small space between feel­ing and being, a way to step back for the slight­est moment instead of jump­ing ahead, so that there’s room to con­sid­er how best to meet the Bud­dha before us.

To meet an emo­tion means to engage but with­out engulf­ment, to not become the emo­tion but also not to sup­press it. 

I know this can be dif­fi­cult. Grief will erupt, shame over­whelms, an angry thought can tear through the mind until the fan­ta­sy of revenge even­tu­al­ly burns itself out. I’ve been there!

The Need for a Practice

Rumi’s poem, “The Guest House,” cit­ed in the epi­graph, says we ought to wel­come every emo­tion in turn, even the dark­er feel­ings which may unex­pect­ed­ly clear “you out/for some new delight.”

This is a beau­ti­ful thought, fram­ing how to meet a strong feel­ing through a shift of con­text. Oth­ers have built on this fram­ing in metaphor­ic and ther­a­peu­tic ways, such as imag­in­ing the feel­ing to be anoth­er per­son with whom it’s pos­si­ble have a dialogue.

Whether or not you buy the metaphor, I believe meet­ing a strong emo­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly one that seems to show up habit­u­al­ly, requires a prac­tice. By a prac­tice, I mean a cho­sen men­tal strat­e­gy, approach, or method to inter­rupt a feel­ing’s poten­tial takeover of iden­ti­ty. A prac­tice is a per­son­al­ized way to pre­vent the emo­tion­al high-jack­ing of one’s mind and spirit. 

In a prac­tice, it is pos­si­ble to observe your­self feel­ing strong­ly and that process of obser­va­tion in and of itself becomes a mod­u­la­tion. Instead of drink­ing from a fire hose, you are see­ing which fire hose it is, exact­ly, and drink in only so much “water” as you need, rather than the hose being in charge of how much you get. A com­mon sense prac­tice when a per­son feels envy, for exam­ple, is to con­scious­ly attend to their own sense of per­son­al con­tri­bu­tion, their own tal­ents and accom­plish­ments, and where next to take them. See­ing the envy as a call to renew one’s own cre­ative path and oppor­tu­ni­ties enables a per­son to come back to earth, to stay more ground­ed. From that van­tage point a per­son can then ask, with­out being awash in green paint, what real­ly is this envy all about? “What does it tell me about me and what I need now?”

Not Sup­pres­sion

This isn’t the same as sim­ply con­trol­ling an emo­tion, because often and espe­cial­ly if the emo­tion is strong, “con­trol­ling” does­n’t work espe­cial­ly well. The emo­tion leaks into the envi­ron­ment any­way. The very attempt to hide it alters a per­son­’s behav­ior which then, in turn, has a good chance of being mis­in­ter­pret­ed by others. 

A col­league comes to me, for instance, and asks, “Did I do some­thing to upset John — he’s bare­ly speak­ing to me!” What’s true is that John isn’t upset with my col­league at all; he’s upset with his work part­ner, Jane, who just got pro­mot­ed. Jane feels the sup­pressed, leaked (but uniden­ti­fied) emo­tion from John, too — he’s reserved and unsmil­ing. His speech is clipped. “Are you okay?” she asks. “I’m good,” he says flat­ly and turns away quick­ly with a fun­ny look in his eyes. He’s try­ing to con­trol his emo­tions rather than meet­ing them, all the while send­ing weird, not so covert sig­nals that he needs to be res­cued. In this leaky state, he demon­strates that he does­n’t yet know how to meet or express what he’s feel­ing to Jane — and this is espe­cial­ly so when she she tries to share more of her hap­pi­ness with him about her pro­mo­tion while naive­ly assum­ing he’ll be hap­py about it, too!

The Mes­sage is the Thing

To meet an emo­tion is first to acknowl­edge it and then to feel it enough to get the mes­sage it car­ries. The feel­ing car­ries the mes­sage but it isn’t the mes­sage, and we won’t get the mes­sage with­out feel­ing at least some of the emo­tion. The mes­sage, of course, is very like­ly to be a form of emerg­ing self-knowledge. 

We might even say that every strong feel­ing poten­tial­ly car­ries a mes­sage that relates to who we are. Per­haps if I’m John my envy tells me I have doubts about my belong­ing or my val­ue — and I ought to take a look at that. Maybe my sad­ness at los­ing Jane as a work part­ner reminds me of string of loss­es or a trau­ma that orig­i­nat­ed long ago and that I haven’t ful­ly worked through. My job is under­stand­ing that mes­sage and using it as a cat­a­lyst to deep­er learn­ing about who I am. It’s this inner work that tells me what my own prac­tices need to be. That’s how you find them.

In this way, each feel­ing can be a resource and a trea­sure, though a “trea­sure” can also be painful at times. Sure­ly, the road to self-knowl­edge is not with­out a lit­tle suf­fer­ing. And that feel­ing of pain, that too deserves a prac­tice. We may well learn to care for our­selves dif­fer­ent­ly, maybe with more patience or care, breath­ing a lit­tle ten­der­ness or even a sense of redemp­tion into our­selves. Viewed this way, through the lens of meet­ing emo­tions and devel­op­ing our prac­tices, we come clos­er to being able to tol­er­ate feel­ings we may have had trou­ble with and have tried to avoid, and also to tol­er­ate the rich process of inner learn­ing we might have been con­di­tioned to resist. 

And that is the real goal, isn’t it? To not avoid what we are feel­ing, but to feel exact­ly what we are feel­ing and to learn from it, dis­cov­er­ing pre­cise­ly what we need to know about our­selves on the way to a greater lib­er­a­tion. There’s noth­ing new in this for­mu­la. It’s as old as the snowy moun­tains and as new as a blos­som­ing nar­cis­sus on your table.


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