Could the feeling of anxiety be trying to tell you to act, move, or do something necessary for your being (like self-soothe, seek safety, or reach out for comfort)?
Could the feeling of depression be telling you that something integral to your life is being missed, and by turning inward you might identify what the message is? (Depression could signal that connection is missing, or that feelings have been stuffed/numbed/ignored for too long)
Could your anger be telling you to state clear and firm boundaries to protect something sacred and important to you? Or that your boundaries were once crossed and the anger is ready to be felt and released?
As Diane Fosha, developer of AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy), writes in the forward to It’s Not Always Depression by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, “Emotion and bodily sensations often reveal us to ourselves. They contain biological wisdom and communicate what’s important to us and to those around us”. Often we miss the wisdom that the body is trying to communicate because we have learned to turn away from certain emotions that were not welcomed in our family of origin, culture, or society. In some families, anger is an emotion that is unwelcome and, in other families, individuals who are sad are shunned and ignored until they are “back to normal” and smiling. Having a full range of emotions and learning how to express them in a healthy and full way would be such a gift for all of us!
What would it be like if, instead of turning away from or pushing down emotion, we took a breath, turned inward toward whatever was present… be it anger, sadness, joy, or fear?
What would be the outcome, you ask? Why would you want to turn toward the emotion, won’t it make it bigger and more upsetting?...
The answer, surprisingly, is no. It won’t necessarily increase your anger to rage and physical action. It won’t turn on the flood of tears that will last a lifetime. You will have to try it for yourself to really know the truth… you may be pleasantly surprised. You may shed a tear, or two, or feel your stomach clench in anger for some time, or feel the fluttery, vibrating quality in your chest grow and move through your body… and then… it will change, all on its own… and you may feel relief, or at least not overrun by thoughts of the emotion or thoughts of how you don’t want the emotion. This happens because you allowed it to be acknowledged, felt, and released! However, it most likely won’t happen if you turned toward the emotion with the intention of making it go away.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes about turning “garbage into flowers” in his book You Are Here. The emotions that we see as garbage often are anger, depression/sadness, despair—we categorize these as difficult, unhelpful, or unpleasant emotions. As we look deeply into the nature of each and every emotion we realize that they are all organic in nature and able to be transformed with compassion, tenderness, and curiosity.
We all experience a variety of emotions, and there are some that we prefer to experience, like joy and happiness, and some that we would rather not experience, like sadness and anger. However, all emotions are equally valuable and are part of the body’s way of relating to our life. It is our reaction to the emotion that can become the problem. Emotions, in essence, are pure energy, some call them “e-motion, energy in motion”. As we mindfully turn toward the emotion, we can increase our ability to observe the emotion nonjudgmentally and loosen the resistance or attachment to the emotion and, in doing this, we allow the emotion to live for a time in our body, show us what our present experience is, and to flow out once we have loosened up our resistance or attachment, and have heeded the message: cry if you are sad, pound your fist and yell if you are angry, shake it out if irritated, and lessen attachment to the future if you are anxious. Other messages for emotions could be: cuddle up with a loved one if sad and needing comfort, state a limit to a co-worker if feeling your boundary was crossed, or breathe and ground through your 5 senses if feeling anxious/jittery/nervous. By turning toward your emotions you will find out what your brilliant messages are, as they are individual to each person and each situation.
How do we turn toward our emotion? Take anger for example.
Step 1 is to notice its presence… you may notice your stomach clench, energy arises and muscles tighten, and thoughts become pointed and LOUD! So, as you notice what happens in your body and mind with anger, that is the first step.
Step 2 you resist the urge to turn away from the anger, to change to another, more pleasant thought, and instead you stay with the feeling, sensation, and thoughts, without doing anything with them. Simply (or not so simply), staying curious and open.
Step 3 as you stay with the anger you may notice that, all on its own, other things start to happen- you may have a memory of a time you were angry or hurt, you may notice that the anger changes to another feeling (sadness, grief, fear). You may also notice that your body wants to move… follow that movement- shake your hands, shake your legs, make a sound, or wiggle your body. Of course, if the thought/urge is to move the anger toward another person or object, just notice that urge without following it.
Another method to work with emotions is: Touch and Go
Thoughts are not the problem, our attachment to them is the problem. Thoughts are to the mind as seeing is to the eye. For the touch and go technique, when a thought appears, touch it gently and then let it go. The “touching” is an experience of whatever arises in is pureness without the overlay of thought and analysis. It is a brief, but a true touch, meaning that when something arises we acknowledge and allow the sensation or thought. The instruction is not to push it away or hang on to and examine it, simply touch it by noting it as “thought” or “thinking” and then let it go.
This is the same for feelings that arise. Touch the feeling with awareness, then let the feeling dissolve and go. With the “letting go” there is no action required. Rather, it is allowing the feeling or thought to arise and dissolve as it does when we do not cling on to it in anyway.
Touch and go seems to be an easy technique; however, it is easy to bypass the touch or the go part by either pushing what arises away (emphasizing the “go”) or by attaching onto the experience (emphasizing the “touch”) by adding more thought or analysis to the experience. Also, touch and go can be used in daily life. For instance, in conversation we can take in what the other person says without analysis or interpretation, simply listening and being with the other person.
It takes time, some courage, and a lot of willingness to try something different… but it pays off to begin to work with your emotions.
Much love and appreciation,