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AWAKEN: Don’t Let It Go, Let It Be—The Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

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.

TRANSFORM: Mind-Blowing Meditations That Help Us Be With Difficult Emotions

What emotions are most difficult for you? According to Pema Chödrön, it is in those emotions that we find the seeds of wisdom we most need in our lives.

Earlier this year, I attended a retreat with her entitled “Three Steps to Courage: Working Compassionately with Difficult Emotions.” I’m taking a few posts to explain what I learned in hopes that you can apply some of these lessons in your life and with your positive psychology clients.

In this post, we’ll look at

Step Two: TRANSFORM the emotions without judging them.

What do we do as we sit with the difficult emotions? The work is to recognize their inherent wisdom and explore their contours.

For example, consider the emotions that surround spending time by yourself.

Do you experience that as loneliness or as aloneness? Loneliness brings up feelings of sadness, maybe regret, isolation. Whereas aloneness can be a valuable, peaceful state, giving you the space to be yourself while still feeling connected to life and the living. The difference between the two might merely be the storyline that you’ve bought into about spending time alone—and whether you dive into that storyline or refrain from reacting to it.

When we refrain, we hit the pause button, interrupting the storylines that urge us to escape from the difficult emotion. In step two, we move on to transforming—kind of like hitting the slow-mo button. We connect with the emotion and examine it with tenderness.

Feel it. Accept it. This frees us from reactivity and makes our emotions more accessible to us. We’re not going to dwell inside the depth of the feeling, but we do need to acknowledge it to relieve our fear of it.

Going back to our example, when feelings of loneliness arise, we first catch the “hook” of the emotion by acknowledging the feeling. Then we interrupt the storyline of that emotion and refrain from acting to escape from—or go too deeply into—that emotion.

Instead, we stay with the emotion and increase the spaciousness around it, so we come to a cooler, more detached acceptance of it—rather than picking a fight with it. We safely acknowledge feeling lonely, then wrap that feeling in a blanket made of other aspects of our life where we feel connected, even when alone.

It can be frustrating to have difficult emotions come up time and time again, derailing us from more pleasant thoughts or activities. Yet that time spent simply being with the difficult feelings is necessary in order to gain access to the wisdom of that emotion.

Here are three ways to start extracting that wisdom in ways that blow away our preconceived notions of how we identify with our emotions.

1. Shift a nebulous feeling to a more physical, tangible, sensory one.

This can be done with a little game that Pema described, which could be called “Qualities.” Take the feeling and start to describe it using questions like:

If this feeling were a color, what color would it be?

If this feeling were a temperature, what temperature would it be?

If this feeling were music, what kind of music would it be?

Continue with other qualities, like sound, touch, a piece of art, a genre of movie, a pair of shoes, a famous person, food, etc. Don’t worry about being so precise about the description—just name what comes to mind when you start to hold it in these ways.

2. Shrink the difficult emotion by seeing it as something tiny that’s being consumed by an ever-expanding perspective.

This way, you’re not fighting to eliminate the emotion—you’re just understanding it as a small piece of a larger sense of your self and your place in the world. You can think of that difficult emotion as

A tiny drop of water being consumed by the oceans of the world

A single bead of sand losing itself in the beaches and deserts of our planet, among all the planets

A tiny speck of light disappearing among the stars of the galaxy, among all galaxies.

In this way, you blow away the notion that this emotion defines your identity—it is merely one of emotions you can safely experience in a rich and diverse life.

This is now my favorite meditation when difficult emotions arise. For me, it’s helpful to visualize how miniscule that emotion is within me, much like this video simulates the mind-blowing scale of our physical world and our place within it.

3. Work with the emotion through a guided Tonglen meditation—the lovingkindness meditations for which Pema Chödrön is well known.

Through these meditations, we expand our perspectives from ourselves to all beings, and with this expansion, we wish for happiness and love to come not only to us, but also to all.

Here’s a short excerpt from one of her guided Tonglen meditations.

Trying to repress a “bad” feeling doesn’t work, because that feeling gets so much attention that it ends up governing the rest of our emotions. It’s like trying to keep the emotion in a cage, where it rattles around and reminds us of its desire to break free and threaten us. Every day, we have to vigilantly check it to make sure the lock is in place and the cage is secure.

That emotion, as harmful as it may be to us, has a place in our lives—but it’s not healthy to have it stalking our minds day and night. It’s more useful to let that emotion roam wild on a wide and expansive terrain, where it can live on its own but not threaten and constantly bother us where we live.

When it is set free, there’s no need to kill that emotion or flee from it, for it is no longer an imminent threat to us. It’s a small animal roaming far and wide across the entire continent.

Next week, in my final post about the retreat, I’ll share with you my understanding of how refraining and reframing culminates in unlocking the wisdom of our emotions. That’s Step Three: AWAKEN through being in direct experience of those emotions, which hold the wisdom of our shared humanity.

Calling Up Our Fears — and Dialing Them Down

Last night, I was on the phone talking to potential voters.  My final call of the night happened to be to an 83-year old woman named Ann, who was gripped with fear and outrage at the prospect of immigrants marching toward our nation’s border. Listening to her rant, I felt it all: sick to my stomach that this would drive her vote this November, anger at the media and government for manipulating her vulnerability, compassion for an elderly woman in a panic.   So we each went to bed in fear.  Ann, with those TV images blinking in her mind, and me, in fear of her fear and what that means for the election and decisions facing our nation.

How can we go this way? What can we do with the difficult emotions that controversies like these bring into our lives? What are these fears doing to us as we lie awake at night, or immobilized in the morning?

Then I remembered what a nun taught me. Three Steps to Courage

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Our fears can teach us something important–if we have the courage to be with them.

Not just any nun, but Pema Chödrön, the meditation teacher and best-selling author of books like The Places That Scare You and When Things Fall Apart.    I spent some time with her at a retreat earlier this year, and she very methodically and gracefully taught us her secret of moving forward in demanding times and through personal adversity.   Her advice, “Three Steps to Courage:  Working Compassionately with Difficult Emotions” will be helpful for all of us, no matter what we are going through that is challenging us.

My understanding of her teachings are being published in a series of posts on my blog at Wholebeing Institute, a leader in the field of positive psychology education and outreach.

The first of these posts is up now and can be found at Three Steps to Courage.