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

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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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