Many of us see the unpredictable and sometimes dramatic changes in our moods as a problem. I, for one, used to get frustrated when a grumpy or lethargic feeling would overtake me at work and hamper my productivity. “Why can’t my body understand that I’m trying to work?” I’d wonder. “Can’t I wait until the evening to start getting emotional?” I would try to resist the mood I was in—for instance, if I were feeling sad, I’d try to think happy, inspiring thoughts—but this only seemed to create more discomfort.
I certainly wasn’t the only one with an attitude of resistance toward my emotions. Many of us perceive certain feelings as “negative” and unwanted, and spend much time and effort finding ways to avoid experiencing them. Maybe this involves staying constantly busy, forcing ourselves to think happy thoughts, “drowning out” our emotions with television and loud music, using drugs and alcohol, or something else. Whatever strategies we use, many of us spend most of our lives trying—without much success—to fight off “difficult” emotional experiences.
My relationship with my “painful” moods changed when I realized how much my fluctuating emotions could teach me about myself, and how much inner peace those learnings could create for me. A while back, as an experiment, I decided to spend almost all of one Sunday meditating. I started at sunrise and finished in the evening, stopping only for brief periods to drink water and stretch.
Like many people, my mood tends to vary based on the time of day. My pattern is fairly predictable—when I first wake up I feel a sense of peace and clarity; in the mid-afternoon I get into a more driven, self-critical state; by the late afternoon there is a mild to moderate sense of frustration; and by nighttime my sense of peace returns. Thus, when I spent the whole day meditating, I experienced my full emotional cycle. The difference was that I wasn’t distracting myself with all my usual activities—through all my mood changes, I just sat there and focused on my breathing.
As I meditated, I had a simple but profound realization: no matter where I was in my daily emotional cycle, I remained the same person. No matter whether I felt peaceful, excited, sad, or upset, I was still myself. My moods didn’t, and couldn’t, change who I was in my deepest essence. Feeling sad didn’t take anything away from me, nor did feeling happy add anything to me—neither emotion had any effect on me at my core.
In that moment, I also understood the reason I tended to resist so-called “negative” feelings like anger and grief. It was because I saw those emotions as somehow threatening—as if allowing myself to fully experience them could actually hurt or destroy me. But my meditation experience showed me this wasn’t true. Although I simply sat there, breathed, and allowed my usual spectrum of emotions to wash over me, I came out of the experience alive and unharmed, and exactly the same person I was when I started.
If I didn’t have anything to fear from my moods, I recognized, I didn’t need to spend so much time and effort trying to escape and suppress them. Thus, this realization had me remove much of the clutter and distraction from my life. I reduced my intake of alcohol and mild stimulants like caffeine to the point where I hardly ever use them. I once listened to loud music as I worked to drown out my “negative thinking,” but now I felt more centered and productive in silence. I sold my radio and TV, as I no longer needed them to distract me when I started feeling boredom or malaise.
I’d often read in books on psychology and spirituality that it takes more pain and effort to repress our “negative” emotions than it does to simply allow them. Now, I had firsthand evidence of this in my own life. But at a deeper level, I began to recognize that there really is no such thing as a negative emotion. We simply call feelings like anger and sadness “negative” because we’ve grown so accustomed to resisting them, and the stress we create by resisting—not the emotions themselves—has us see them as painful and difficult.
I’m not, of course, the first to take the view that no emotion is truly “negative” unless we try to fight it—health researchers have come to similar conclusions in exploring the connection between repressed emotions and physical illness. As psychologist Sandy Jost puts it in Your Body, Your Mind & Their Link To Your Health, “[t]here is no such thing as a ‘negative emotion’ when it comes to the healthy expression of the bodymind. It is the suppression, denying, pushing away, or avoidance of these emotions that causes a physical response that can lead to health problems.”
As others have recognized, a key benefit of meditation is that it gives us firsthand evidence that our thoughts and emotions can’t hurt us or make us less than what we are. When we allow our emotions to occur without resisting them, and realize we’re still whole after the experience, we come to recognize at a deep level that all the effort we put into distracting ourselves from our feelings is unnecessary. As psychologist Stephen Wolinsky says in Trances People Live: Healing Approaches In Quantum Psychology, meditation is an experience where “emotions pass through the person without the ordinary damper of judgments or labels,” and its goal is to help the meditator “lose all tendencies to become identified with the contents of the mind.”
If you’re new to experiences like the one I described, and you’re interested in deepening your understanding of your relationship to your emotions, you don’t need to spend days meditating. Instead, you can try simply keeping your attention on your breathing as you go through your daily activities. Just remain aware of the constant rise and fall of your chest as your day progresses.
Notice as you do this that, no matter what moods you get into, your breathing continues in much the same way—just as you, the being perceiving your thoughts and emotions, remain essentially the same regardless of how you’re feeling. And because you continue to be yourself, and be complete, no matter what you think or feel, there’s no need to push aside or resist any sensations that arise. You can simply let go of anything you used to do to distract yourself from how you feel. This experience will likely bring you a deep sense of wholeness and relief.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Healing, located at http://www.debramoorhead.com/blog/index.php/carnival-of-healing-137-education-at-its-best/.)