The greatest gift of our emotions is the awakening they provide us. When we can stay with our emotions, even our most difficult ones, they become stepping stones to being fully alive in our humanity.
In the third and final step of renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön’s “Three Steps to Courage: Working Compassionately with Difficult Emotions,” I share with you my understanding of the teaching she provided to hundreds of students gathered earlier this year in Vermont at Pema Osel Do Ngak Choling, the East Coast study and practice center for the Mangala Shri Bhuti sangha.
In this post, we’ll look at:
Step Three: AWAKEN through being in direct experience of those emotions, which hold the wisdom of our shared humanity.
This is often taught as “letting go.” During some of the most troubling times in my life, using the idea of letting go of my emotions provided great relief.
I would imagine the feelings coming in through the front door of a house, and then breezing through the house. I would focus on opening the back door of the house and having the troubling emotions just whip themselves right out, leaving me calmly in peace.
I think Ani (Sister) Pema, as she’s known to her students, might say “Not so fast!” to that strategy.
She prefers to think of this stage not of letting go, but “letting be,” which immediately struck me as a more powerful way to approach this task.
To me, it’s not “letting go,” because by no means are we casting away our emotions. We are instead being kind to them, learning from them, turning them over in our bodies and minds in order to find the aspects of them that can inspire us to be the people we want to be. As we let our emotions be, they become our teachers, not our prison guards.
In other words, when we let them be, they let us go.
Think about it this way. What if I told you to let go of, or “get over,” all the positive emotions you feel in life? What if I tried to convince you that, to be happy, you must stop feeling love, compassion, understanding, ecstasy, and joy? I hope you’d think I was crazy! Those emotions are the good stuff—the parts of our life that we cherish the most. We feel them when we are at our best.
Pema Chödrön teaches us that the other emotions, the difficult ones, are also the good stuff when we understand them for what they are—seeds of wisdom nestled in the challenges of the human condition.
There is no more benefit from transcending our “negative” emotions than there would be from transcending our “positive” emotions. In these emotions, we find our humanity—and each other’s.
In terms of positive psychology, I would say the difference is in how we feel and cultivate the multitude of emotions we let be. While we benefit from feeling our loneliness, jealousy, anger, and other seemingly toxic emotions, we don’t necessarily benefit from cultivating those emotions or reaching deeply into them such that they crowd out the heartfelt positive emotions.
Instead, we acknowledge the difficult emotions and compassionately reflect on the circumstances and patterns that keep reintroducing these emotions into our life. In that way, we can transform those emotions into wisdom, while moving away from the storylines that keep bringing these emotions into our lives.
Ani Pema shared another way to think about this awakening to our difficult emotions.
When we try to stop feeling our emotions, it’s like we flash-freeze them. We bind them up and try to keep them from affecting the rest of our lives.
“But where will we find our water?” she asks. “Where will we find refreshment? Where we will find life itself? In the ice cube.”
When we thirst for wisdom, we don’t throw out the ice cube. We sit with it, we warm it, we melt the habitualness that hardens our perspectives and perpetuates our suffering. It may feel cold, but it is useful to stay with our “ice cube–ness” in order to understand the flow of water—our wisdom—within us.
Here’s an ice cube visualization that may help you in meditations that center around melting the ice within you.
Strong emotions can awaken the tenderness of our hearts and unite us with all others who are suffering. When we grow our feelings of love for our own unique set of emotions and “Me-ness,” we move along the path toward feeling love and compassion for others, even those we are in conflict with—toward a “We-ness.”
This also gives us access to the humanity of others. Or, as Ani Pema put it, “I use the frustration of feeling that emotion to know the experience of everyone who has felt this emotion.”
This viral video from Denmark, titled “All That We Share,” vividly and memorably makes this point. We have much more in common with others than we realize.
Keep in mind that our emotions are among the most ecstatic and significant beauties of being human. They drive our life energy, they fuel our creativity, they form our love and empathy. One can say that all the wisdom that we seek is found in our emotions. There lies our happiness.
To the degree that we can truly feel not only positive but also difficult emotions, and be patient with them, that’s the degree to which we can understand others. In this way, we stand in our own shoes and know that this is all a part of us, and we can now walk in the shoes of others who share our human condition. This gives us permission to explore our interdependence with others.
In other words, you are not isolated by your emotions. In fact, our emotions are EXACTLY what connect us to each other.