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Hooked On A Feeling

November 27, 2012

As humans, the ability to control our impulses – or urges – helps distinguish us from other species and marks our psychological maturity. — Daniel Ploskin, MD, What Are Impulse Control Disorders?

I’m about to lose control, and I think I like it. – The Pointer Sisters, I’m So Excited

In our last post, we discussed kleshas — powerful emotions that drive us toward impulsive action.  A powerful klesha is like a friend who comes over the night before final exams and says, “You really need to relax.  Let’s go out drinking!” Your friend might be pointing out something valid – you might really need to relax.  But the strategy for coping with the situation that your friend is recommending – going out drinking –will only leave you hurting and hung-over during the exam, just when you need your mind to be at its sharpest.

The first step for working with kleshas is to exercise some damage control. We need to learn to welcome the friend, assess the information that they’re bringing us, and refrain from going along with their ill-considered invitation.  We can do that by practicing the following steps:

  1. Notice that a klesha has come to visit. (“I’m feeling very lonely.”)
  2. Notice the invitation that the klesha is extending. (“Eating a whole bag of Doritos would make me feel better.”)
  3. Refrain from accepting the invitation if you can.  If you’ve already accepted the invitation, at least slow down your momentum. (“Oh look, my hand is in a bag of chips right now, and I’m stuffing them in my mouth. Maybe I could just pause for breath.”)
  4. Open your awareness to other possibilities. (“Carrot sticks?”)

But even though we might choose to decline our friend’s unhelpful invitation, we might still want to keep our friendship. We can learn to decline the invitation in a kind way, and eventually we can develop our friendship to the point where our friend knows how to help us. We can learn to work the same way with our emotions: we can learn to develop a more helpful, friendly relationship with them.

If we really want to develop a friendly relationship with our emotions, we have to get to know them.  We can do this in meditation.  Here’s a meditation instruction for that: Use emotion as your object of meditation.  Notice whatever emotion arises. Allow yourself to experience the emotion without trying to change it. How does this emotion feel in your body? How does it feel in your mind?  You may feel as if you’re not experiencing any emotion at all.  In that case, notice the basic impulse of your feeling toward whatever object is in your attention.  Do you want to draw the object closer to you or push it away?  The impulse to draw an object nearer has some of the flavor of desire, and the impulse to push an object away has some of the flavor of aversion.  Do you want to change the object, or do you want the object to stay as it is?  The impulse to change the object has some of the flavor of aggression, and the impulse to preserve the object as it currently is has some of the flavor of attachment.

Many of us do not notice our emotions until they reach a certain level of intensity. This is dangerous, because our emotions are bringing us information about our unconscious response to our current situation.  The longer we leave our responses unconscious, the stronger is our attraction to our habitual responses.  The earlier we can catch our emotions the easier it is to work with them.

Here’s what the great sage, Oprah Winfrey, has to say:

“Your life is always speaking to you. First in whispers…. It’s subtle, those whispers. And if you don’t pay attention to the whispers, it gets louder and louder. It’s like getting thumped upside the head, like my grand­mother used to do…. You don’t pay attention to that, it’s like getting a brick upside your head. You don’t pay attention to that, the whole brick wall falls down…Whispers are always messages, and if you don’t hear the message, the message turns into a problem. And if you don’t handle the problem, the problem turns into a crisis. And if you don’t handle the crisis, disaster. Your life is speaking to you. What is it saying?” — Oprah Winfrey,  May 25, 2011

Learn to hear your emotions when they’re still whispering.

down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, loving the spin I’m in   — Robbie Williams, That Old Black Magic

A good sailor will notice the early signs of a storm and take measures to prepare the ship for the big winds to come.  But thrill-seeking wind-surfers may seek out gale winds and big waves. Many of us are emotional thrill-seekers. The energy associated with kleshas add a powerful kick to our experience. This energy can make us feel very alive. We might enjoy the heightened experience that klesha brings to us. We may provoke this emotional kick through the use of pornography, violent sports, music, movies, and other entertainment. (There is a book about college sports the title of which very nicely sums up the way in which we pursue our kleshas in order to enjoy their kick: To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever )

If we continually pump up an emotion, we can become dependent or addicted to it. Some psychologists claim that we are all emotional addicts. In order to work with an addiction, you must understand the nature of that addiction.  So what’s your favorite klesha? When it’s Unhappy Hour at the Samsara Bar and Grill and the bartender asks you to name your poison, which do you choose? Do you crave the energy of anger? The sweetness of self-pity? The electricity of lust? Do you like yours straight up, with a twist, or do you take a cocktail? (“I’ll have the anger and lust with a dash of self-loathing, please.”) You can notice this both in meditation and in everyday life.

In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. ― Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”  — Edgar Allen Poe, The Tell-tale Heart.

 There are emotions that we actively provoke, and there are emotions that we try to repress. Notice which emotions you don’t want to feel. When this emotion comes to visit do you refuse to answer the door?  Have you tried to kill that “friend” and bury his body under the floorboards? If you do, you may find yourself haunted by the emotion.
If we are truly to make friends with our emotions, we must allow all of our emotions the freedom to arrive and depart in their own time. In order to grant our emotions this freedom, we need to recognize when we’re trying to draw an emotion to us, when we’re clinging to an emotion, and when we’re trying to push an emotion away from us.Here’s an instruction: As above, use emotions as your object of meditation. When you recognize an emotion, see if you can discern your relationship to that emotion.  Are you pumping it up or damping it down?  Can you just let the emotion run its course?

You might notice that there are kleshas that you would happily rid yourself of and others that you cling to.  For instance, perhaps you don’t want to be overcome by hatred, but wouldn’t mind being overcome by desire. Letting go of the kleshas that you enjoy may seem like consenting to a passionless, dull life. But that need not be the case: when you let go of an emotion, that doesn’t mean that it will never show up again. If a situation is emotionally resonant, emotions will arise over and over like waves breaking on the shore. You can enjoy the wave and the gap and the next wave.

One last analogy: learning to be open to emotions is like having an open house – all sorts of visitors may come by.  We can learn to welcome all of our visitors.  We can learn to listen to the ones who talk very quietly as well as the ones who shout. We can learn to allow our visitors to come and go in their own time – neither hustling out the door the ones we dislike, nor clinging to the ones we cherish. When we practice in this way, we open ourselves to our entire emotional spectrum and cultivate an emotional life that’s less monochromatic and more varied and vivid.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Aron Sage permalink
    November 28, 2012 8:13 am

    Can you have two emotions exist simultaneously in your mind?

    • December 3, 2012 10:57 pm

      This is really a great, interesting question. There are a couple of ways I can think of to approach it. The first would be to investigate whether your mind has parts. If so, each of those parts might be holding a separate emotion. Another way to approach the question would be to investigate the nature of emotions. Can there be emotional complexes that consist of more than one emotion at a time. It can certainly feel that way.

      My current take is that I may perceive emotions analogously to how I perceive music. Even though there can only be one “sound” presented to my ear at a time, I can nonetheless distinguish individual instruments within that sound. Just so, it seems that I might have one cumulative emotional state, but I might be able to perceive that it consists of, say dwindling anger plus rising sadness.

    • Alan Taylor permalink
      January 17, 2013 6:27 pm

      totally, you can definitely have more than one emotion at once. as a matter of fact, i feel like i only ever experience more than one emotion at once, and any attempt to describe how i’m feeling is a simplification of this composite emotional state. i’m never bored without a tinge of anger. i’m never happy without the shadow of sadness. i think research backs this up.

  2. Shoshana permalink
    December 3, 2012 7:48 pm

    I like the open house analogy. Very helpful image.

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