Wandering Upon the Affective Terrain: Understanding Emotions as Information

Pema Chodron’s What to Do When the Going Gets Rough has had a great deal of influence in my daily life. It appears to me that in meeting the difficulties of life we are faced with several levels of experience. In order to process this stuff we harvest from our waking lives, we need more than just the mind, and Chodron has given me novel tools to do just this.

I’m fascinated by the way Bhuddist thought aligns with my chosen philosophy of life and spirit, but the most intriguing aspect for me is the praxis of Bhuddism. While much spiritual information can seem unmoored from and hovering over the material life, Bhuddism has a wealth of accumulated practices, strategies, techniques, and attitudes that seem to be able to ground the subtle and intangible in the daily go-round. Chodron’s article was the first that really woke me up to how much help there is available when we seem to be floating in mid-air.

The great lesson I feel I’m now learning is that of appreciating emotion. I’ve often approached it in the past in much the same way an objectivist might: that our emotions are reflections of the quality of our thinking. According to this attitude, a difficult emotion is a sign of some problem to be addressed, and the purpose of addressing it is to attain forward progress by overcoming or purging it. It is no exaggeration to describe my former regard for emotions as one regards noise in the signal.

It was Steven Tyman’s A Fool’s Phenomenology: Archetypes of Spiritual Evolution that really opened my eyes to another possibility. Tyman is quite emphatic about the vital nature of the emotions, not as obstacles to be overcome or distortions to be vacated but as sources of information that can communicate what we cannot rationally or intellectually apprehend. In fact, emotions are not even something we properly generate; instead they blow in of their own seeming accord, and we are utterly subject to them. To respect emotions, I suppose, is to grant them their own space in life.

Two alternatives to acceptance occur to me: either (1) repressing this energy by ignoring it, locking it down and using discipline and control to keep it at arms length, or (2) expressing it in a kneejerk, reactive manner that so often seems to leave us worse off but at least lets the energy flow onward. Both paths, turning emotion further inward and turning it further outward, seem to have as their end a desire for finality and resolution, to dislocate the emotion. The urgency of emotion compels us to react in one of these two extreme manners, neither healthy.

Chodron’s article calls these two approaches out for their common end: the desire for bringing the pain, the tension, the edginess to a close. But this reflects a conceit that we can resolve emotions. While attempting to do so is a great teacher, one eventually must face the truth: these emotions cannot simply be disposed at our convenience. They will have their say.

Now, one can ignore any source of information, be it an announcement from outside, a flare of pain in our bodies, a letter we receive, etc. What we gain by avoiding the emotional information is the chance to avoid the edginess, tension, and lack of solid footing that attend emotions. What we obviously lose is what the emotion would teach us about ourselves, but we also forgo the ability to act upon a third option: that of simply allowing the emotion to abide, and learning how to allow that to occur without the need for extreme measures.

Chodron tenderly points out that it is precisely this extended discomfort that teaches. When we learn to sit with our feelings, not by imprisoning or evicting them but simply by accepting all of their nastiness and spikyness and sinking-ness, we find that it is here that true spiritual growth comes into play. For perhaps it is that emotions come at us from nowhere precisely because we have vast resources that waking consciousness cannot always seat. We find, in other words, that we cannot think these problems; we must rely upon other resources that are no less us, no less helpful. Repression and reflexive expression does not “resolve” anything; it just delays the pain as well as the learning the pain delivers. Genuine growth is never convenient.

And then there is the point about recognizing others’ emotional reactions and seeing a mirror for the lessons we’re grappling with.

Recognize that, just like us, millions are burning with the fire of aggression. We can sit with the intensity of the anger and let its energy humble us and make us more compassionate.

If nothing else, Chodron convinced me our helplessness in the face of emotion is a reason to be more patient not just with ourselves but with others. None of us come out of the “fire of aggression” unsinged; allowing others to work through emotion at their level provides us valuable experience and feedback, since it’s hard to see somebody emote without emoting along with them to some degree. Indeed, I think emotion has often confounded me precisely because of its contagious nature. But we’re not “catching” something from another really; all that’s happening is that we’re being reminded of our own feelings and unresolved issues. If one is apt to ignore them within, then the reflection from without is most assuredly a disturbing report.

So what we’re really playing with here is the directionality of our attention, moving it away from escape from emotion and towards diving head-first into emotion. Others’ unhinged emotions would not bother us if we were ourselves balanced. But when we lie to ourselves about our affective health, it can be absolutely flooring when we discover how easily our buttons are pushed. This is not a failing, though; it is once again merely information that we can use to understand ourselves better. In that way, we receive a true gift from others “freaking out”, reminding us how compassion, understanding, and patience are genuine silver bullets (if slow moving projectiles) in these situations.

This was a big wake-up call for yours truly, even as I acknowledge many probably find this insight abjectly trivial. So often I have approached emotion in the human condition as some mistake to be corrected. That emotion could simply constitute a way of wrestling with realities, in the same way I wrestle with ideas in the mind, floored me. Additionally, Chodron described that indeterminate, uncomfortable feeling so well that it was easy to recognize and make the connection in my own life.

Right at the point when we are about to blow our top or withdraw into oblivion, we can remember this: we are warriors-in-training being taught how to sit with edginess and discomfort. We are being challenged to remain and to relax where we are.

This advice finally strikes me as very similar to the balancing exercises discussed in the Law of One material, where instead of trying to overcome feelings we actually sit with them, mentally intensify them to the extreme, and then intensify the opposite emotion to to the extreme:

To begin to master the concept of mental discipline it is necessary to examine the self. The polarity of your dimension must be internalized. Where you find patience within your mind you must consciously find the corresponding impatience and vice versa. Each thought that a being has, has in its turn an antithesis. The disciplines of the mind involve, first of all, identifying both those things of which you approve and those things of which you disapprove within yourself, and then balancing each and every positive and negative charge with its equal. The mind contains all things. Therefore, you must discover this completeness within yourself.

The goal is to have a balance of emotion in our lives, to appreciate all 360 degrees of emotion, both the pleasant and unpleasant ones. This is in no way, shape, or form an absence of, or escape from, emotion. To understand the full spectrum of affect is to familiarize oneself with the potentials out there which will meet us as we serve others more and more purely and thoroughly. As the aforementioned material states elsewhere, it’s really about self-acceptance. If we know ourselves–not as we’d wish ourselves to be, but as we truly are, warts and all–we have no buttons to push, or as Chodron describes it, “we don’t set up the target for the arrow.”

For instance, I have real issues with feeling bossed around and controlled. The other day I encountered this feeling and, instead of responding to the proximate cause, I just allowed myself to feel that way as much as I could. I tried really hard to make sure I wasn’t pushing the feeling down, but instead letting the horrible feeling fester. I focused and tried to intensify the feeling, really being with it. What I found is that this gave me an incredible sense of agency and empowerment! I realized that lashing out in the past never made me feel powerful, it usually only served to communicate how controlled and unhappy I felt, and poorly at that. Conversely, feeling the emotion deeply made me realize all the possible choices available to me, which made me realize how many opportunities I have ignored in the past, so bent was I on ending the pain. Enduring the pain, honoring it, bringing my attention to bear on it–it’s amazing how much simple presence introduces you to a different side of yourself.

It is a really weird sensation, I must say, to feel a negative emotion and to let it simply occur to oneself, not trying to avoid it in some way or dislodge it through lashing out at phenomenal reality. I continue practicing this discipline poorly. But just knowing that there is a mode in which undesired emotions can benefit me, one in which I can be accepting towards myself for being exactly the kind of self I have often disparaged… well, that insight might be more valuable than anything else I’ve recounted on this blog.

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