Archive for June, 2011

Turning towards

A few months ago I was listening to a talk where the speaker said that all emotions last no longer than 90 seconds. Period. Fact. Now, people can feel the impact of an emotion for longer than 90 seconds (sometimes minutes, hours, days, even years) for two primary reasons: 1) because people allow the mind to keep re-visiting the catalyst that initiated the emotion in the first place, or 2) because people never allow the emotion to actually move through the body and reach resolution. The first scenario is like a person picking at a scab: just as the wound finally starts to heal, and healthy skin starts to grow, the person rips away what was working, and re-exposes the original wound all over again. Do this enough times, and yes, eventually the wound will probably heal, but it will take a long time, be more painful than is necessary, and may even end in a nasty scar. The second scenario is like immediately covering a wound under heavy gauze; yes, the area will be protected from additional assaults, but the skin will also get smothered, and without allowing some fresh air onto the surface, infection is likely to take hold. Here again, healing can’t occur. A somewhere-in-between (middle-way) approach is needed: the wound has to be exposed to air, but also has to be left alone long enough to actually heal. To complete the analogy: an emotion has to be experienced and fully felt, but then it has to be let go and left alone so that it can fully resolve. Missing either half of the process renders the whole thing non-functional – and so a person ends up 1) in a perpetual state of feeling upset/unhappy/irritated/depressed/worried/anxious/pick-your-emotional-nemesis, or 2) repressing (stuffing, smashing) everything that comes and living life feeling hollow/empty/disconnected/disassociated/void. Emotions have to be seen and acknowledged,then be allowed to move, express, and emote – and then they need to be let go of, released.

This morning I had a series of occurrences of not getting what I wanted. Each instance was really minor (and, quite honestly, incredibly petty) – but they were all driving me absolutely crazy. Literally. I was in my car, driving on the freeway, fully aware that I was pissed off, and fully aware of why I was pissed off, and fully aware that I really didn’t want to be pissed off – but completely unable to get rid of the pissed off. And then the talk I heard a few months ago popped into my mind. And I realized two things: 1) I hadn’t really FULLY felt the emotions that were generated during each of the various instances that had occurred over the course of the morning, and 2) that my mind kept bouncing from one instance, to the next, to the next – and with each bounce, I would feel (literally feel in my chest and my head and stomach) an annoying flare-up of emotions.

Now, here’s an interesting/crappy/annoying/puzzling part: With each emotional flare-up, I actually wasn’t fully feeling the emotions from the instance; I was getting a small taste of the emotions, but before each one could hit me full-force I squashed it back down. I didn’t allow any of them to fully emote – and so each one went just below the surface, holding its’ breath for as long as it could; but when each emotion ran out of air, it came up again – and was allowed to stay around just long enough to gulp in more air before I pushed it back down again. And my body and mind was engaged in this up/down, emerge/submerge, conscious/unconscious struggle with my emotions – and all sides were losing. And I was going crazy in the process.

And I got to see all of this: I had a moment of awareness, of insight, of vipassana. In that moment, I was no longer a helpless pawn in some game I didn’t even know was being played; in that moment, I was given power by being given a choice: I could either continue to engage in the cycle of repress/ignore then feel/hurt, or I could actually stop the cycle by allowing the emotions to surface fully, give them the attention they needed, and then give them the space to let them leave. I had a choice now: but which option was I going to choose?

In order to be able to choose the latter option, I first had to know why I kept on choosing the former. Why wouldn’t I let myself feel the emotions that were generated from my annoying morning? It couldn’t be that I didn’t want to feel pain, could it? Because this back-and-forth, tug of war process was much more painful… After some investigation, I was kind of surprised to learn that I wasn’t allowing myself to feel the emotions because I was afraid. Of what, I’m still not entirely certain; but I do know I was surprised when, underneath it all, what was stopping me was a sense of apprehension, of fear.

Well, screw that! I don’t like being ruled by fear; and I don’t like thinking of myself as a fearful person. Indeed, when I am aware that I’m feeling fear in a situation, I try and push through it, to show myself that I can do it! So now that I was aware that fear was a big driver behind this whole don’t-feel-the-emotion thing, I decided to take a deep breath, open the floodgate, and let whatever was there come on out and hit me.

And it did – but it actually wasn’t too bad. In my car, moving at a speed of 65 mph, all of the windows rolled down all the way and the sun beating on my face, I inhaled really deeply, then used the full exhale to let out a loud grunting/sighing noise. Then I did it again. Then I said aloud everything I was feeling (both physically and mentally) in that moment. {And I was kind of surprised by what I said!} And after no more than 20 seconds of talking, there were no more words to say – the feeling was gone. Done. Processed. Emoted. And I was left with a sense of genuine calm.

And my mind actually looked around the now-clear space in my head where (just seconds before) the anxious/irritated/annoyed feelings had lived – and it could find nothing. (And I have to admit, I was rather amused to see my mind grasping for something it was also so desperate to be free of just seconds before…) I continued driving down the freeway, but now feeling surprised, a little stunned, and amazed. It worked. It really worked!

For literally two hours this morning I had been a slave to irritation, annoyance, and anxiety; but after just 20 seconds of deeply honest attention aimed at my reality, I was free. Completely liberated from obsession. It was incredible. I have never experienced anything like that before – I guess maybe because I had never tried anything like that before? But wow; the experience was powerful, and incredibly effective – and I continue to be a bit stunned by it. Like I almost can’t believe it.

So I’m writing this down, with the hopes that I will remember this experience for a while; and when I forget, to have my own words be able to remind me. I was completely free once. And it was amazing, and beautiful.


P.S. If you want to listen to the talk I referenced at the beginning of this post, go to the Audio Dharma website, and download the talk titled “Exploring Emotions”, published on 2010-10-27.  It’s 11:58 minutes long, and Gil talks about the “90-second rule” for emotions around minute 4:30.


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