It seems that the quickest way to feeling crappy about yourself when you’re striving to be better is when you lose it and have an emotional reaction. Outbursts are not pretty, and they can be embarrassing, or even damaging to relationships with loved ones. Yet for many of us, they happen again and again, an out-of-control pattern that seems impossible to rein in. Such episodes feel jarring, even dissonant, with the calm, collected, serene person you know yourself to be when you’re meditating.
This can also happen with a trigger event, such as news of a layoff that prompts instant panic around money when you’d been feeling comfortable, or the threat of a breakup when you had not realized that your relationship was at risk. Whenever the “I” is challenged and the status quo is being upset, emotions will run rampant.
How can you avoid feeling like a spiritual failure when you’re constantly swept away by your emotions?
One important teaching to remember is that we’re living in Maya. It’s the land of duality. Regardless of whether you intellectually understand that Maya is an illusion or not real, it’s very very difficult to remember this in a moment when the ego feels attacked or is scared. We have built-in patterns and programs that are prompted to run at even the slightest trigger. Until we unravel these patterns through intense inner work, they can control us and carry us away. Sometimes we can catch them before they create damage, but at other times, especially if we’re tired or hungry or otherwise stressed out, we may become victim to our own set of patterns that wreak havoc before the energy that is released from them peters out and we’re left picking up the pieces of damage that we ourselves have created.
Here’s an important tip:
When you find yourself running an endless loop of worry or fear, such as the panic that comes when you’re worried about money, or thinking about whether your partner is going to leave you or not: Recognize that these are just thoughts.
The emotions you’re feeling in your body — the tightness in the chest, the clench of the stomach — these are manifestations of thoughts only. Because you are fixated on the fears that you imagine of what is going to happen to you in the future, then the body responds with its fight-or-flight mechanism, and you get hormones coursing through you and the physical sensations that they generate.
Then, you place yourself in opposition to that, because you have labeled these reactions as unpleasant.
If you stop and settle, and allow the physical and emotional sensations to just be there, without resisting them, then what do you find?
Oftentimes, the emotions feel painful because we have labeled them as “bad.” If you let them simply arise in you, and observe them, and actually experience them, you may discover that they’re not actually all that awful. They’re just emotions.
By labeling them as unpleasant, they BECOME unpleasant in the mind.
This is the first step to understanding how you control your experience. You may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can most certainly determine how you respond to that.
In order to not let your emotions take you for a ride, it’s critical that you not set yourself apart from the emotion. The tug-of-war that comes about when we fight the reactions that occur within the body to the thoughts we are thinking is what causes a great deal of the suffering in our lives.
Sit with the emotions that arise. Let them be there. Observe, identify what they are, literally label them. Trace them to the physical sensations you’re experiencing. “I’m feeling tightness in my chest. My breathing is shallow.” Take an intentionally deep breath and let it calm you, then do it again. Label the new sensations that arise, or identify what’s still there. Find what’s beneath the emotions, through an alert state of passive observation.
The life circumstance that’s occurring to you is not necessarily going to change or be moderated as a result of these practices, but guaranteed, you’ll be better equipped to deal with them.
Over time, you may start to experience a gap between the initial trigger event, and when the emotional and physical response starts to hit you. You’ll have a moment of clarity or a respite before the self-induced attack starts in. You may even be able to step aside from the onslaught, in that slight buffer moment before it crescendos. This takes time, and commitment to understanding the nature of such reactions. These always occur first in the mind, by thinking a thought that’s untrue. Unpacking that is an intense and often initially painful practice of self-inquiry, but those who embark on such journeys and who persevere through the challenges are always left lighter.
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