Disentangle emotions

Lately, I stressed the importance of developing the capacity to be aware of unpleasant states in body, heart and mind.

The question that should arise naturally is: how?

For most of us it will be a challenge to explore these states, as the intensity with which fear, anger, anxiety or restlessness can arise, might feel overwhelming from time to time.

Reflecting on these states I found it interesting that in the historical early Buddhist texts no equivalent for what we would call „emotion“ can be found. Why would the Buddha, who was so accurate in the description of human experience, not use such a concept?

What we find in the texts instead (for example in the famous instructions on breath meditation, Anapanasati-Sutta MN 118, or in MN 44 on self-identification) are units of human experience that accumulated together will form what comes close to the Western understanding of the term „emotion“:

  • bodily sensations (kaya-sankhara): includes all kinds of somatic experiences. From the feeling of heat in the solar plexus region, when we are in rage, to the tension in the skull when the mind is spinning with doubt and worry.
  • verbal activity / thought energy (vaci-sankhara): includes the language component, spoken as well as unspoken. It ranges from the labeling of objects in the inner and outer experience up to the inner dialog in endless rounds of worries, justifications and stories we tell ourselves. Each emotion has its own pattern of thoughts that regularly occur with it. „I am like this“, „He/She is like that“, „This is …“ – descriptions and explanations which accompany the process and might differ in accuracy and helpfulness.
  • mental activity / emotive energy (citta-sankhara): the Pali word citta encompasses the state of our heart as well as the intellectual element. The usual translation „mind“ therefore has to be handled with care. Here citta refers to energy in heart and mind that will tinge and influence our perception of the inner and outer world. The mind can be bright or dull, the heart wide open or contracted. All this will have an impact on how we perceive ourselves and others.

How is this of interest for our practice? How can this helpful when dealing with a strong emotion?
What makes an emotion overwhelming is its intensity – the bodily sensations together with the thought patterns and the influence of the heart-mind on our perceptions might be just too much to cope with. Therefore I find it helpful to go with the teachings and break the experience down into smaller, manageable units.
It will be easier to deal with anger, when I give attention only to the sensations of energy in the stomach region, the tension in the muscles, the hardness in the face. Leaving thoughts and the way of perception out of the picture until the energy calms down and clarity returns.

At another time I might make myself familiar with the thought patterns that arise with a certain emotion. Suddenly I might recognize that the mind tells itself the same story over and over again, when caught in doubt or worry. The „I can’t…“ or „It might be dangerous to…“ will loose its grip when I see it occurring for the n-th time in different settings and occasions.

Finally, I can explore the shifts in how I perceive myself and the world. How much of what I experience depends on the state the heart and mind are in? When I am in love, everybody seems acceptable, I am open to new connections, not a trace of threat in the air. On the next day I might feel dull and not in connection with anyone or anything outside. Can I actually trace back the way I connect with experience to the state of mind and heart, instead of calming it to be „reality“? Can I recognize how often my way of perception changes over the day, even within a single hour?

Breaking down emotions makes them workable and a rich source for insight. It also protects oneself and others from impulsive and unhelpful decisions. Again practice is key, but the benefits will be immense – over time we will become able to respond with care and curiosity, instead of reacting out of aversion.

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