Like an old man watching children at play, we need to see through our own seriousness. No matter how seriously the children go about their games, the old man is amused. We can watch our thoughts and emotions in the same way. Without taking them so seriously, we can see them as children at play and give them lots of space. –Dzigar Kongtrul Ronpoche
Human beings experience so-called “basic” emotions as a response to a situation that occurs. These emotions are anger, fear, surprise, disgust, joy and sadness. Anger gets us ready to fight against an enemy. Similarly, fear fuels us for fight or flight, in order to deal with danger. Surprise is another emotion that primes our bodies for flight, in case of danger. Disgust makes us want to get away fast from something that is not good for us, or might make us sick. Sadness signals a change of direction in our lives. Joy, on the other hand, is a state that motivates us to continue what we’re doing.
Not all emotions are simple responses to stimuli, however. There are also what you might call “cognitive” emotions that are the results of judgments in the mind. Higher emotions include pride, guilt, embarrassment and shame. These emotions are the result of our self-consciousness (ability to separate ourselves from our surroundings or from other people) and our ability to empathize with others. These emotions come out after some reflection on a particular situation; they are not triggered automatically.
Emotions are signals. They don’t last very long, like “moods,” which may last for hours, days or weeks. When we express our emotions with facial expressions and body language, they serve as social signals. If we pay attention to them, decode their messages, and act on the information, all is well, It’s when we hold on to our emotions that we get into trouble. Another situation that gets us into trouble is when we have an emotional response from a past-life trigger, especially when it is an inappropriate response in this lifetime.
Those of us who are interested in spiritual growth have heard over and over that we should learn to detach from our emotions. What does this mean? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean to remain in denial about them. We do need to acknowledge our emotions so that we can deal with them. But the point of detachment is to learn not to act on our emotions unless the physical situation is such that we are facing imminent death. Otherwise, our anger, fear, disgust, and so forth doesn’t have to be acted on right away. We can step back a moment (or even longer, if possible) and deliberately choose a reasonable and appropriate response to the situation. If we responded inappropriately in the past (or in a past lifetime), we can choose a different response this time.
Emotions can generally be felt as changes in the body. If we train ourselves to notice these changes, we can more readily interpret how we are feeling. Once we realize we have been given a signal, we can start to process it. We don’t always have the luxury of time, but this processing can be done fairly quickly, if necessary. It involves asking ourselves some questions: What’s the situation? What is changing? What has just been introduced into my life? Is this situation dangerous? If so, why? Has this situation come up before in my current life or in a past life? If so, what happened? Did the situation bring danger into my life? Did I lose someone? Was I hurt? Did I die from this situation in the past life? What do I need to do now to accommodate the change in my situation?
These days, much of our fear has got to do with other things besides big, hairy monsters that are hiding behind the bushes, looking for their next meal. Instead, our fear has to do with the higher emotions of pride, guilt, embarrassment and shame. We might be cut down in size in front of others. We might lose power and prestige. We might have to start feeling humble because we did something wrong. But… no! Instead, we get mad, dammit! We’re going to fight! This is not going to happen to us! (See the connection between fear and the so-called “higher” emotions?)
Next time someone cuts you off in traffic or breezes past you in line, think about your anger and acknowledge it, but don’t act on it. Just start processing: Why am I angry? What happened? What am I afraid of? Have I really lost anything because of this incident? Is my body injured? Have I lost any money? Has anything else been taken away from me except my pride?
Then think about dealing with the situation. Do you absolutely have to register your anger with the other person? Chances are, you may not be able to. The unthinking motorist has probably got far ahead, and there’s not much you can do without endangering yourself or others.
Is it that important to yell at the person who has budged ahead in line? How much more time will you have to wait? Probably only a minute or two, tops. Can you do that? Sure, you can.
Do you really have to retaliate for someone taking your clothes out of the dryer at the laundromat and wadding them up in a heap so they could use the dryer right away? Well, sure, you could, but what kind of person does that make you? Are you willing to allow others to bring your vibrations down to their level? Just fold your clothes and go home, and remind yourself to pay closer attention to the dryer next time. Sure, your clothes may be wrinkled, but there are ways to get the wrinkles out.
The more often and the more quickly you can detach from your emotions, the more chance you have to choose an acceptable response to the situation. 🙂