Freud once theorised that we are driven by the pleasure-pain principle. That is, most of our pursuits instinctually revolve around pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. But while avoiding negative events and people might be smart in the external world, this instinct works against us in our inner life. We cannot run away from our pain and unresolved emotions, for they are a part of us.
What do we do when we are upset? We blur it out with the noise from the television; drown it with alcohol; obscure it with smoke. This tendency is so strong that even after years of emotional work many still fall into it. But this never works, not in the long run. Emotions are there, simply to be felt.
And in doing so, they let go of us.
A popular analogy is a rubber gardening hose. In a proper hose, the water flows right through it, always fresh, never leaving a mark. Even if the water is dirty, all we have to do is to keep it flowing and it will pass. But what happens if we try to block it off? We tie it up into knots, we step on it. And it works for a little while. But over time, the pressure builds. The rest of the hose begins to leak and crack, and soon the entire hose ruptures.
It is the same with our emotions – we can’t block them off. Just feel them completely; welcome them, without acting on them. Slowly, we begin to free ourselves from our own prison, and let the pain go.
The Reason for This Post
In this post, I present this basic practice, with just enough theory and nothing else. Old readers will realise it is a summary of the old emotional mastery series. They are right, for this is part of the restructuring of the blog.
Allow me to explain. In personal growth, there are two areas we can work on – cognitions (thoughts and beliefs) and emotions. Each person will naturally prefer working with one of these, and over the years I have found core practices for each. These have become the basic tools of the blog, and most of the other posts are “booster” techniques, using the basics in different ways to overcome an inner block. The problem is: I described each practice – core or booster – as I discovered them, which meant they were scattered all over the place, in the wrong order, and in very long series. So, to make things easier, I’m putting each practice in its own post and labelling them as such.
So, let’s try this practice now. Think of something or someone that makes you afraid, sad, or angry. For practice, pick a topic with less emotional charge.
Step One – Awareness
The first step is to realise that we are not our emotions. We are not sad; there is sadness inside us. We are not angry; there is anger inside us. If we are identified with our emotions, we can’t do anything about it. I am a human being – I can’t change that.
But when we realise it is just a feeling, and it is not us, we remove our investment, and we can take steps to heal it. We can behave in appropriate ways, instead of being controlled by it. Take anger, for example. Every time I acted out my anger – by screaming and shouting – I wrongly thought I was the anger, and did what it told me to do.
Step Two – Relax into the Raw Emotion
Scan for sensations in your body. Ask yourself – where is it located? What does it feel like? For most people, the feelings are strongest in the face, neck, and chest. My fear feels like nausea, a coldness and clamminess in my skin. Sadness feels like a ‘softness’ in my face. Anger brings up heat and a ‘stiffness’.
Gently put your attention on it, and then just begin to relax into it. Breathe slowly and deliberately. Just like with physical pain, our body often reacts by stiffening up in an effort to block these sensations off. Keep reminding yourself to relax your muscles and just feel the emotions, allowing them to wash through. Thich Nhat Hanh puts it beautifully when he tells us to smile at the energy internally – Hello – and let it pass through. The more we resist the pain, the longer it takes.
Step Three – Bypassing the Mind
Try not to go into the mind, your thoughts, or your story about your feelings. They feed the pain, like throwing wood into a fire. If we indulge in them, we might be doing the opposite of healing the pain – we might in fact be wallowing in it. When your stories or thoughts arise, let them pass without focusing on them, and gently bring your attention back to the raw sensation.
This is a very natural tendency – in fact we have been doing it for most of our lives – so don’t hate yourself for it. Even now, I still tend to get caught up in my story. How dare she do that to me? How dare he say that? Sometimes I would relive the memory aimlessly, or drift off into revenge fantasies. How can this be healing? It just made matters worse.
Most importantly, believing our mind can lead to hurtful behaviour. Sometimes our bodies want to behave in certain ways – crying, or curling up in a ball. That’s fine. But often our stories will tell us to seek revenge, to hurt ourselves or other people. Please don’t – remember that safety and respect for all, including yourself, is important. Gently bring your attention back to the raw emotion.
Closing Thoughts On Allowing
These three ingredients are vital. Without them, nothing changes. I have a friend who struggled with depression for years. One day, her therapist told her she had to allow herself to grieve. She thought to herself – What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?
But that was different. She was thoroughly miserable, yes. But she had been fighting it the whole time. She was trying to push the pain away. She investigated and relived and examined the story endlessly. Allowing herself to grieve, however, involved letting herself feel it, knowing that it isn’t her, knowing that it will soon pass.
Letting Go and Releasing
In this next section, I introduce a variation which builds upon the concepts above. Many Buddhist teachings talk of letting go of, or releasing, your emotions. I prefer this method as I find it faster than allowing, although others say allowing works better for them, and it all ultimately becomes the same thing.
There is an entire system, the Sedona Method, which revolves around releasing. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so I will summarise their descriptions and releasing questions as an introduction. These are available for free on their website, so hopefully I am not infringing copyright. Normally I would direct someone to their introduction page, but they are always moving their pages around, leading to dead links. Full credit goes to the Method for what follows.
Firstly, pick up a small object, like a pen, and grip it as tightly as you can. It starts to hurt after a while, doesn’t it? How do we let go of it? We simply relax the muscles in our hand, and as we do so, the pen falls out of our grip by itself. We don’t have to do anything, we just have to relax and let go. It is the same with our painful emotions.
The Releasing Questions
In the Method, there are some releasing questions used to teach this process. After a bit of practice, we can simply let go by ourselves, but they are a fantastic learning tool.
Simply ask yourself – Could I let this feeling go? And try to answer it without thinking. Yes or no, it doesn’t matter – just go with your first reaction. The question functions as an invitation, so very often, even with a no, the releasing still happens.
Next, ask yourself – Would I? This is a deeper invitation. Sometimes we think we can’t let go, and yet we want to – we know how much it hurts. This question taps into this willingness, which can overcome any resistance.
If the answer is still no, or you are finding it difficult, ask yourself Would I rather have this feeling, or would I rather be free?
The last question is – When? This is a further invitation to release, right now. If you have a broken arm, are you going to wait until next week to visit the hospital?
Next, simply repeat the four questions until you feel it is gone, or if you are ready to take a break.
Deepening Your Practice
Many readers have asked what they should do if they are feeling numb, blank, or empty about an issue that they know is not healed yet. For me, a ‘blankness’ was my defence mechanism, something I used to cover up something I would rather not feel. For others, they are just so cut off from their feelings that it takes a while to get in touch with them again. The good news – this blankness can be released or allowed, just like the more recognisable feelings. Removing this top layer will often allow access to the deeper feelings.
Secondly, one might wonder why there seems to be an unending amount of emotions about a seemingly minor topic. They might think the technique is not working, or their problems are actually getting worse. Most of the time, this reflects a deeper issue that is being healed. For instance, there was a man in my business life who cheated me and abused me verbally. It hurt me for a very long time, which made no sense as many people had done worse and I had only been angry for a day or two. On closer examination, he had triggered many other unhealed wounds, some of which stemmed from childhood.
Lastly, please use your common sense here. In the depths of my depression, facing my sorrows made me feel nauseous, and I often broke down into tears even when I wasn’t meditating. It is extremely rare, but possible that others might get stronger physical symptoms. Always stop if you experience anything physical that you feel you can’t handle. Don’t let this scare you off, it is very rare and only if you have an unusual amount of pain, but always better to put in, just like those “slippery when wet” signs after someone’s mopped the floor.
The Proper Series
As mentioned, this post is based on the old emotional mastery series. There are a lot of analogies, stories, and other ideas discussed in the original articles. They also cover some major sticking points – such as denial and repression – so if this form of work is of interest to you, I recommend you read them too. From the feedback I received, these are important in helping many readers push through difficult moments or gain a fuller understanding of the concepts. You can find a list of the articles in the series here: Emotional Mastery.
And these are the two basic techniques for emotional work. They are found in many systems, from schools of modern psychotherapy to ancient spiritual traditions, so you don’t have to take on any belief systems to do them. Don’t give up if you find yourself not doing too well at first. Many of us have denied our feelings for far too long, a habit that has been ingrained in us since childhood. We simply don’t know how to feel anymore.
But that’s okay. It’s all part of the learning process. Just like learning to ride a bicycle, we make mistakes and we don’t do too well the first time. Don’t beat yourself up; just keep practicing. Soon we will find this to be a natural way of being in the world.