Ice is frozen water, or water in a solid state. To melt the ice, we need the right conditions; i.e. warmer temperatures. Like ice, our emotions too have that changeable quality and can be either fluid or fixed. They too, need warmer conditions to soften or melt.
Notice how quickly infants move from despair to delight to contentment. We all have that same capacity to be fluid with our emotions. An adult with an open personality can show, even over a short period of time, a vast number of different facial expressions. Why then have most of us become so limited and constricted in our emotional range?
Very few of us have been trained in the language of emotions. Instead, we fluctuate within two extremes. We either repress, pushing our emotions inward, or become completely consumed by them. Few of us know how to travel the middle path.
Feeling the heat of anger or the heart pounding of fear and anxiety, are not sensations we enjoy. If it were only the physical, it would be uncomfortable enough, but we really go over the edge when we add the story line. Our stories are rarely positive, and are more likely fueled with negative messages, which allows the physical to morph into full-fledged emotions.
If we didn’t add the story our sensations would shift and change; much like the movement of weather. We’d feel a flutter of anticipation, or the heat of embarrassment as a passing physical sensation. We would be able to name the feeling without being overcome by it.
But it gets tricky is when there is a constancy of a strong emotion along with an intense accompanying story. That’s when our emotions begin to shape us, literally! We may become known as a sad person with a deeply furrowed brow and collapsed chest, the angry one with a tight mouth and a clenched jaw, or the jittery one who is often anxious. The repetitive story line along with the accompanying sensations become frozen and remain trapped in reactive and defensive patterns, thus creating a groove in our body/mind.
I am currently working with a long-term pattern of anxiety. It is not all consuming, but it does have a familiar “hold” over me. Lately, when I feel anxious, I’ve begun to track certain sensations; rapid heart rate, neck pain or jitteriness. As I notice them, I’ve also become super aware of my internal dialogue, which is typically aggressive and harsh. If I keep repeating my same story about how I could have been more prepared or berate myself for dominating a particular conversation, I can expect the same reciprocal loop; my story fosters the sensations and the sensations perpetuate my story. But what I find exciting, is that I have the power to change this pattern.
I heard that the great Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught his students a concept he called “touch and go.” By “touch” he meant becoming aware of your thoughts but then to letting them go. The Buddhist perspective encourages meditators to view their thoughts and emotions like clouds across a wide- open sky. The clouds move across the sky, much like the thoughts and feelings that move through our mind. The neuroscientist Jill Bolton tells us in her book “My Stroke of Insight” that if we don’t hold onto our emotions by perseverating on our story, emotions will last a total of about 90 seconds!
With practice our emotions can transmute or transform providing a richness and dimensionality to our lives. Our anger can help us to set clear boundaries or push us into action. Our sadness can allow us to open our heart to others. Our fear may give us courage. When we don’t hold on, our emotions will be channeled into self-knowledge and social knowledge, improving both our relationships and the quality of our lives.
Here’s a practice that has been supporting me to move through challenging emotions:
- “Touch” emotions by becoming aware of the physical sensations in the body. Allow yourself to name, notice and really feel the sensations. Direct a quality of warmth and kindness to yourself.
- Notice the story line but don’t get caught up with it.
- Let go of story but stay with the physical sensations. Hang in there even with the discomfort.
- Feel the movement and notice the shift.
When we befriend ourselves, particularly with a gentleness and warmth, experience our emotions without suppression or avoidance, we can melt frozen emotions and live with a vitality that is our absolute birthright. Gradually, we and others will notice the thaw. This is the middle way.