Working with Difficult Emotions (Part I)

Almost everyone has struggled with difficult emotions. It can be very challenging when we feel overwhelmed by feelings that we cannot control. At times like this mindfulness practice may seem like a pipe-dream!

In order to work with difficult emotions mindfully we need to discover what it is that makes these emotions difficult. Let’s take a look at what makes difficult emotions difficult.

Most emotions are quite natural and are not inherently difficult. Just observe very young children–they have no trouble at all with their emotions. They simply feel them and express them quite naturally.

The difficulty lies in our resistance to certain emotions. This resistance may sometimes come from other people but as adults the only thing that matters is the resistance that comes from within our own self.

What causes this resistance? I have identified three causes (which are not mutually exclusive). First, some emotions are inherently unpleasant. For example, fear, anger, guilt, jealousy and grief are all accompanied by painful sensations in the body. But painful sensations are not inherently bad, nor are they unbearable. What makes them seem unbearable is the belief that “It shouldn’t be this way!” We often see pain itself as something that’s wrong or bad; we see it as “the enemy,” and as such, we then seek to destroy it.

It’s not wrong to alleviate pain, if it’s possible. But all too often our attempts to eradicate our pain simply suppresses, deflects or displaces it such that it returns again—and often with greater intensity.

What happens if we discover that we cannot escape our pain? We can choose the route of cynicism or depression, or we can realize that pain (as well as pleasure) is an inevitable part of being human. This realization may not diminish our pain but it will most certainly diminish our suffering.

Another reason that we may resist some emotions is that emotions are not rational—they don’t follow the logic of the thinking mind. We may believe that emotions must have some external cause or that emotions need to be justified or explained. We may tell ourselves that we shouldn’t feel a certain way because we see no reason for it, then we squelch our feelings and push them underground.

Emotions do not need to be justified. Like the weather, they are the result of causes and conditions. Generally speaking, emotions do not need to be acted out, nor do we need a story to justify them. They simply need to be experienced.

The Zen master’s son died and the master was weeping profusely. His students approached him with many questions about his tears.

“Roshi, did you not teach us that all life is impermanent? Did you not teach us that death is inevitable for everyone?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Then why are you crying?”
“I am crying because I am sad.”

Perhaps the primary reason that we resist emotions is because of our conditioning. We may have been taught by family, peers and culture that certain emotions are not okay. This “teaching” comes primarily through the role modeling of parents and authority figures. It also comes from the messages we received whenever we expressed certain emotions. “Big boys don’t cry.” “Nice girls don’t get angry.” We developed patterns of resisting our emotions and eventually we didn’t even realize that we were doing it.

These suppressed emotions are often acted out unconsciously or they are stored in the body and can manifest as a variety of physical ailments. Emotions need to be recognized and experienced in a way that is not harmful to our self or others. Mindfulness of emotions is an important part of most any spiritual practice. In our next blog we will explore some specific ways we can work with difficult emotions.