Snowflakes are billowing outside my window as I write these lines, but when it’s warm and cozy inside, we generally don’t mind the cold and harsh weather outside. It is similar with difficult emotions. When we live in a space of acceptance, connected to our heart’s warmth, the changing weather of emotion is not threatening.
As one of the main karmic forces described by the Buddha, emotions (or “mind objects”) have an enormous influence on our lives. When we are joyful, we feel strong and expansive; our life force is blooming, and this is reflected in our actions. When we are down, we find it hard to be present and active in the world; we feel small and want to withdraw. Our experience of the inner world structures our experience of the outer world. A deep understanding of our emotional life is therefore the ground for our well-being. More than that, knowing the weather of emotions helps us recognize emotions in others, which is a skill we need both for handling our relationships and for creating a safer and more supportive society.
Emotions come to each of us according to the climates and conditions of our lives, following the patterns of nature. We have no controlling influence over them but must live with those that are icy as well as those that are warm. For many of us, however, finding a flexible and balanced way to relate to changing emotions is much more demanding than adapting to the weather outside. We often struggle against unwanted, unacceptable emotions—the “wrong feeling at the wrong time,” which comes as a hint of an inner world that is unfamiliar or that we don’t want to see. In daily life, sudden storms may overwhelm us. With the blink of an eye, our emotional balance is gone. We feel sad, frustrated or furious when someone says a single bitter word to us; when a loved one criticizes us, our self-confidence is shattered and the unpleasant feeling explodes into a destructive reaction.
At a time like this, there may seem to be no inner space from which to observe the inner weather. The emotion dictates one narrow point of view, often accompanied by agitated, repetitive thoughts. Yet when we are most upset, confused, in doubt or desperate, it is just then that we need to sit down and remember our practice, to take a breath of fresh air and open, asking ourselves: What am I in conflict with? What wants to be healed?
Often, instead of allowing ourselves to experience and explore our emotions, we convince ourselves that we feel nothing. This is no solution. Suppressed or avoided emotions will only linger in the underground until they eventually ascend into consciousness in uncontrollable ways. Recently on retreat, I talked to a young man who said he hardly knew his feelings. Mostly he felt “numb” and “indifferent.” So I asked him: “How does your body communicate indifference? Can you stay with those signals?” The simple act of asking himself such questions and considering his indifference led him to experience a flood of images from his childhood. He saw himself as a ten-year-old boy swearing never again to show tears in front of his father. As he witnessed his young self, he noticed how his body reflected the struggle between wanting to let go and fighting against feeling weak: his clenched fist, his dry throat, and his burning chest.
During the meditation periods that followed, he stayed open to the rapidly changing sensations in his body and the inner dialogues of his mind. No longer indifferent, he became quite interested in his present experience, until panic set in. “I hate to be so powerless,” he moaned. But then he noticed that feeling powerless is different than being powerless, that his emotional reality could be differentiated from his actual life situation. He was simply a strong, vigorous young man flooded with feelings of panic and helplessness. So what? He burst into laughter, happy to let go of always feeling indifferent and rather full of amazement about the dramatic changes in his experience of his emotions. It seemed obvious to this young man that the repression of unpleasant sensations reduces the ability to feel. We cannot cut off feeling only the difficult half of our emotions. Such avoidance always affects the whole system. If we refuse to experience our anger or numbness, our ability to love is minimized.
Continuous mindfulness of feelings is a basic teaching found in the Buddha’s “Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness” (Satipatthana Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya, number 10). This practice is one of cultivating an awareness of pleasant and unpleasant feelings in body and mind, and of noticing one’s emotional reactions to the original sense impressions. Faced with a difficult feeling, some of us may become overwhelmed and choose to run away, or we may force ourselves unskillfully into a confrontation. With mindfulness practice, however, our first task is simply to stay put. We train ourselves to rest in the eye of the storm instead of running away from it or striking out. We note the sensations in the body, the coloring in the mind, the pleasant or unpleasant experiences blowing through us. We are taught to name them, to become friendly with what we would rather not feel.
It takes a good amount of patience to stay grounded in one’s center when fear and excitement arise. For the untrained mind, identification with what is felt seems natural. We say, “I am afraid, I am happy, I am sad,” as if an emotion is who we are. When we undergo a primary life tragedy, such as the death of a child or the loss of a partner, family member or job, we can be swept away by an emotional storm. Yet when we manage to stay calm within the whirlwind, we can notice its center and limitations. We can perceive an “e-motion” as “a motion” inside. When we begin to pay attention, we may be surprised to find that the experience of deep inner turmoil is often the starting point for a spiritual quest. Not knowing exactly how to deal with the intensity of emotions opens our eyes to new paths of understanding. Desperation can be the beginning of a healing process. When we sit down with the willingness to listen, meditation offers a way to investigate and untangle the knots inside.
We also discover that individual feelings shift from moment to moment, and that we need to stay open for unexpected changes in the weather. A knot in the stomach is not always a sign for swallowed anger; it can communicate different messages each time we listen. The more precisely we note the bodily sensations that come with emotions, the more clearly we see their vibrant and amorphous characteristics. When we contact these fleeting sensations in our bodies, impermanence (anicca) becomes palpable, and we can remember that our emotions are constantly changing.
Rumi says, “Every emotion has a source and a key that opens it.” I understand the sensations in the body as doors to the inner world and mindfulness as the key to open them. Freedom is grounded in the ability to choose our own authentic response to the varieties of sensations we meet. We can experience difficult emotions without hiding under the covers or cursing the weather. With spiritual maturity, our ability increases to create larger containers for more intense feelings and to stay relaxed in spite of them. The willingness to take a brand-new interest in each emotion and in the language of the body, the commitment to accept our emotions with love and to let go of ideas of good and bad—these are the best foundation for a harmonious emotional life.
It is still ice-cold outside, but the sun is reflected a billion times by glittering snow on the trees and rooftops and ground.