Last revised on April 27, 2021
We all get emotional one time or another. As children we threw tantrums, then the better lot of us learned to maintain our composure during times of crisis. For the rest, a closer look into the nature of emotions might help us to develop tactful ways of dealing with them.
You are not your emotions
Controlling your emotions becomes a moot endeavor once you realize that emotions aren’t yours to begin with. For most of you, this will come out as news. But it’s true. You do not own your emotions!
Most would admit that English is a rough language. One of the caveats of its lexicon is that it encourages the notion that somehow you transform when possessed by an emotion. You become angry, sad, annoyed, depressed, happy, ecstatic, so on and so forth. Sounds familiar?
In other languages, Hindi for example, the idea of an emotional experience is totally impersonal. When people in India experience anger, they say, “anger came to me,” or “sadness happened to me”. The way to pacify an angry adult would be, “Come on now, spit that anger out! Don’t roll in it, it’s not good for your health.” Or, “Don’t eat anger, eat roti!”
Indians understand that emotions are something external to the person experiencing them although they seem to arise from within. They recognize that an emotional experience does not metamorphosize one into that emotion. They don’t identify with their emotions.
True nature of emotions
So what are these emotions? You can view emotions as remnants of past experiences that didn’t have a closure. Most of the time though emotions are regurgitation of unconscious memories jumbled together by raw patterns of beliefs, attitudes, and habits. Studies have found that over 90% of our thoughts are unconscious. While we regurgitate this mishmash of memories, we remain unaware of their presence.
Ignorantly, we reject these background emotions with fervent and our automatic reactions lay the backdrop of our psychological milieu shaping our temperament and influencing our decisions. Physiologically, they contribute to our sympathetic activity elevating our stress levels. Psychologically, that can influence our behavior.
It’s common to experience behavioral inclinations like feeling edgy because of an argument at work or being extra smiley towards everyone because you just learned that you got a new job. In the first instance, you’re still fighting the unpleasant altercation with the colleague and in the latter your interactions are supported by an already established feeling of upliftment.
Most of this background noise results in unconscious processing that continually influences our physiology and psychology. That’s what causes the mental stress and hurts our psychological and physical health especially when it remains unchecked chronically.
The undercurrent of emotions
It’s not something we consciously realize but we always have an undercurrent of emotions running through our skin, so to speak. While our conscious mind occupies with worldly affairs, this constant undercurrent of emotional data affects us in the background influencing our mental state and ability to make decisions.
You can easily test this fact scientifically by connecting a heart-rate variability monitor to your body and see how your heart-rate changes with various thoughts and feelings you may experience at any given moment. The variability is less when you are calm and more when you’re not.
How mindfulness meditation helps
You can also experience this with mindfulness meditation. Sit down in a comfortable position keeping your posture upright so your breathing is smooth and unkinked. Focus on your breathing observing the flow of in-breath and out-breath as the air comes in and goes out. Stay with this awareness for a few minutes and, chances are you’ll become focused enough to notice sensations in the body that weren’t obvious before.
As you continue practicing mindfulness meditation in a proper way regularly, you’ll be able to make very subtle observations. It will become clearer that not only your breath but also the bodily sensations seem to vary with your emotional experiences. In time, you’ll notice that even outside of the meditation practice, you start observing your breath and sensations especially during an emotional episode.
The key is in having an awareness of the undercurrent of subtle sensations, understanding their fluid nature and their relationship with emotions caused by raw patterns of memories, beliefs, attitudes, and habits. Eventually, with practice, you’ll not only be able to tune into your breath and sensations spontaneously during an emotional upheaval but also be able to stay with them until the emotion dampens, losing its grip on you.
An ancient Chinese proverb says, “When you know the name of a dragon it can’t hurt you.” Learning to view an emotion for what it is without identifying with it then becomes the first step towards dealing with it. The next step is to observe the breath or bodily sensations that accompany an emotional experience. No, you don’t have to be reminded to do that; just practice mindfulness meditation regularly and you’ll develop the ability to do so instinctively, when needed.
By learning to have a handle on one’s emotional experiences, one can gain control over their stress response modulating the sympathetic nervous system. That would not only improve an individual’s physical health but also enhance emotional immunity and spiritual growth. And since societies are formed by groups of individuals, one can see positive ramifications of nipping emotional upheavals in the bud in building a resilient society.