Thinking About Feeling – Dealing with Negative Emotions

Our lives are plagued with emotions.

Our positive emotions, such as joy, hope, love, kindness and so on, provide a platform for a meaningful and fulfilling existence.

But they are countered and often outweighed by our negative emotions – fear, hate, anxiety, anger and so on – which contrive to submerge us in misery and despair.

In Western society, beginning with the Greeks, emotions have been frowned upon because they seemed to counter reason. We have championed those people as sages who were able to slough off their emotional responses and allow reason to prevail.

But this is to give too much power to reason. An intellect that is not mediated by emotion can be just as dangerous as an overly emotional person whose emotions deprive them of a proper reasoning function.

As usual, the influence of Darwin has changed our perspective on the debate that pits emotion against reason. The emergence of emotions in animals is an adaptive strategy that confers evolutionary benefits. Negative emotions, which now mostly interfere with our sense of well-being, have undoubtedly helped our survival as hunter/gatherers.

Fear and anger helped us repel predators and competitors. Remember also that in prehistoric times our lifespans were woefully short. Any response that prolonged a life by a year or two had a substantial effect on the reproductive capability of the beneficiary. Consequently a genetic propensity for such emotionally charged responses is enhanced. The flight or fight response is a typical example. This is a useful short term response caused by a surge of adrenalin, but we know long term exposure to adrenalin can bring serious health side effects which are detrimental to us in the longer term.

Positive emotions, on the other hand, were no doubt useful for tribal cohesion. (I have elaborated on this in previous essays, including my most recent, The Decline of the Tribe and the Rise of Depression.)

Thoughts and emotions play a major part of all our lives. They, however, are rendered dangerous by the fact that we identify too closely with them.

It is worth revisiting the Witness Exercise that I have shared in previous blogs with you. (This particular version is provided by writer on Transpersonal Psychology, Ken Wilber, in his book No Boundaries).

I have a body, but I am not my body. I can see and feel my body, and what can be seen and felt is not the true Seer. My body may be tired or excited, sick or healthy, heavy or light, but that has nothing to do with my inward I. I have a body, but I am not my body.

I have desires, but I am not my desires. I can know my desires and what can be known is not the true Knower. Desires come and go, floating through my awareness, but they do not affect my inward I. I have desires but I am not desires.

I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. I can feel and sense my emotions, and what can be felt and sensed is not the true Feeler. Emotions pass through me, , but they do not affect my inward I. I have emotions but I am not emotions.

I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I can know and intuit my thoughts, and what can be known is not the true Knower. Thoughts come to me and thoughts leave me, but they do not affect my inward I. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.

Application of this exercise leads us to understand that the “essential I” is the transpersonal Witness. The Witness is that faculty we possess to observe the theatre of mind.

When something happens to us, whether a minor occurrence, say the receipt of a trivial slight, or something major, say a physical threat to our wellbeing, both thoughts and emotions automatically arise. Now because our brain has to interpret the occurrence before it generates thoughts about the occurrence, our emotions, emanating from older brain pathways, arise sooner in our sphere of consciousness than our thoughts.

Unfortunately many of us automatically associate ourselves with the emotion arising from the occurrence, and more than likely we will provide an emotional response. In the two examples above the emotion will likely be anger, and we will take on that anger and act it out, often to our detriment and to the detriment of those around us. This happens so quickly that we believe this is an inevitable response, that we had no choice in the matter. If you were the initiator of the occurrence then we might say, “You made me angry!” as if there was no alternative. This is the mindless response.

But we are not our emotions – we are what is observing our emotions! (In a short essay, I won’t have the opportunity to argue comprehensively, but I will state without further elaboration that it is the ego that misleads us into identifying with our emotions and our thoughts.)

Most of us go through our lives never understanding that our free will is extremely limited and the only sovereignty that counts comes from the Witness. It is paramount for our psychological wellbeing that we should promote its role. How can we do this? It is essentially by raising our awareness of the nature of the theatre of mind, promoting what Buddhists call mindfulness.

In meditation practice we learn how to observe what comes into awareness and not identify with it. We can say to ourselves, “Oh, here comes another thought/emotion. Let me examine it.” We know such thoughts and emotions come and go. We can choose not to identify with them. In this way we retain our own sovereignty and are not overwhelmed by these pervasive despots.

(In this regard the old homily that when something arouses our emotions we should “count to ten” before responding is merely another way to allow reason to catch up to the emotive response, and hence has some validity.)

I will narrow down our focus now. Our visceral response to emotions is a more dominant problem for most of us than our response to thoughts. So I will concentrate now more on our response to emotions.

[Mind you, I am not suggesting that our thoughts are not important. Many lives are made unbearable and less fruitful because people have bad thoughts, which however irrational they can be, cannot be supplanted from their minds. This is a very debilitating problem but not as common as being unthinkably dominated by unhelpful emotions.]

Now I am not suggesting that you need to be a Buddhist monk to be able to conquer the dominance of emotions. I am suggesting that improving your awareness, and disidentifying from emotions enables you to respond mindfully rather than mindlessly.

Increasing mindfulness creates a useful gap between the apprehension of an emotion and our response to it. It is another manifestation of what Buddhists call detachment.

Alexandre Jollien is a philosopher and writer who spent 17 years in a home for the physically disabled. He relates a story that is a marvellous metaphor for the way that meditation enables us to cultivate detachment.

In the meditation hall on a very stormy day, I felt that calm was still there in the basic ground of my being. Outside, lightning and thunder were raging and great sheets of water were pouring down. Suddenly I became aware that I was listening to the rain in a dry place. I truly perceived that nothing, absolutely nothing, can damage our minds. Since then when anger of fear reappear, I keep that memory with me, the taste of that experience. I can listen to the rain from a dry place, let fears and bad moods quietly pass.

In my career as an executive coach, anger management was a frequent issue I had to contend with. Many successful senior executives have an issue with anger. Often, in fact, their unconscious, manipulative use of anger drives short term results.  (You might remember my previous discussions on “get-my-way” behaviours. See also Narciso and Burkett’s little book Declare Yourself). Typically such people are not only unaware of their exploitative use of the emotion, but they are also often unaware of its unfortunate impacts on others. Using meditation practices to increase awareness has helped many of these executives to be able to observe the onset of anger and choose to act differently, and it also helps them have greater empathy for the unfortunate victims of their anger.

It is, however, important to recognise that just mitigating the influence of our negative emotions is not enough to bring us contentment. As well as neutralising our negative emotions we need to promote our positive emotions. (I won’t elaborate on this now, but in my blog archives there are several essays on Happiness which outline various helpful strategies in this regard.)

Let me now summarise the main points in this essay.

When we come to understand who we really are, we perceive that the “essential I” (as Wilber terms it) is the Witness. We are not our thoughts and emotions but what is observing such thoughts and emotions.

Thoughts and feelings impinge on our theatre of mind but they come and go and those who have nurtured their mindfulness are well-equipped to not fall into the trap of identifying with them.

In fact the cultivation of mindfulness enhances our sovereignty, maximising our ability to deal with the world on our own terms.

Neither thoughts nor emotions are to be feared. When we are properly aware both can be usefully integrated into a meaningful life.