One of the best places to see how we're handling our emotions -- or how they're handling us -- is in our most intimate relationships. That's where our heart is and where the emotional stakes are highest. The relationship could be with your spouse or romantic partner, your child or parent, your sibling or friend -- it doesn't matter. If you care about that person, your heart is there.
What is an emotion, anyway? What is it we're trying to handle? We assume we know. You're hit with a surge of energy, and you may feel, "Wow, I'm really mad." Your teenage son has wrecked the car (but he's not hurt), or your best friend has stolen your boyfriend, or a parent who has made your life miserable suddenly dies. But before you've decided what this strong emotion is about, for a fraction of a second, everything stops. You're on high alert. Your heart beats faster, you're wide awake and aware, but you're not thinking. It's like the moment before a dam bursts. Then the energy rushes out, along with an outpouring of thoughts. You may call what you're feeling "anger" (because you have to call it something). But in your heart, you know you're also feeling many other things too: sadness, relief, fear, resentment, jealousy and so on. So there's a rich pool of feelings, and then we put the label on top of it.
Once emotion bursts out and overflows, all bets are off. We get caught in its momentum and abandon all reason. We may often say or do things we'll regret, so we end up fearful of our emotions. If we feel anger rising up toward our partner, for example, we might panic and try to shut it down or get rid of it. In that case, we might turn the anger in on ourselves or let it loose on an innocent target -- a co-worker, a child, or the family pet. Or we might be successful in keeping our angry mind quiet for a few weeks, then blow up one day for no apparent reason. When it's over we're exhausted, but not necessarily any clearer about what happened or why. Because there's no real resolution, the seeds are planted for a repeat performance.
On the other hand, we might really enjoy this energy. It can be exciting to give in to our impulses and let our inhibitions run wild. We have a brief feeling of freedom and being in control. We're taking action and expressing ourselves! We may get lucky, win the argument and get the girl, so to speak, or we may be very unlucky and cause a catastrophic accident.
Either way, when we try to gain control of ourselves by battling with our emotions, they can take us on a nice rollercoaster ride. Our rollercoaster will take us up quite high where the view is very beautiful -- then when we suddenly fall downward we start screaming. But the ride's not over. It turns us upside down and rolls us around before going up high again. The bad thing about this is that our emotional states last a lot longer than an actual rollercoaster ride, which takes only a few minutes. You scream and then it's over. But when we get trapped again and again by our compulsive and neurotic emotional patterns, we just keep on screaming.
Riding with Courage
If we're a little more skillful at working with our emotions, we might catch our anger, jealousy, or whatever, before we react to it. We can simply take a look at it. Instead of stopping it or indulging it, we can explore it a little, give ourselves a minute to feel its texture and just observe it. In those moments, we can also contemplate our usual reactions and their results. Then we're prepared to look ourselves in the eye and say, "I'm going to use this powerful emotional energy to do something positive. Instead of the usual helplessness I feel when I'm upset, I'm going to use all of this emotional strength to confront my fears." When you take that moment to look at your emotions mindfully, you can actually interrupt their momentum. You slow down the rollercoaster and begin to discover ways to work with the energy. It takes time to feel like we're steering instead of being taken for a ride, but gradually we can begin to trust ourselves and our emotions. We don't fear our emotional highs and lows anymore, because we no longer feel we're at their mercy.
It's possible to look at an emotion freshly, without any prejudgment. If we become aware of an emotion, we usually label it right away as "anger" or "jealousy," or whatever we think it is. But if we gain the ability to just explore it for a moment before reacting, we could discover that this same "emotional mind" -- the one that drives us up high, down low, and turns our stomach in knots -- is also a source of our creativity, courage, and compassion. If we make friends with it, it can help us take a step in a relationship that we've been unable to take. We may find the confidence to enter a deeper level of intimacy and trust: "I'm going to be honest with myself and my partner, which is what's been missing in my relationship." In that case, our anger helps us to see more clearly and overcome our anxieties, instead of making them worse.
Our emotions can help wake us up or they can push us over the edge into a state of sheer confusion. We might arrive at a life-changing insight or end up destroying the insights we have. Whether we feel victimized or empowered by our emotions depends on how we work with them from day to day. Although we usually think of emotions as disturbed states of mind, in themselves, emotions aren't positive or negative. They're simply the powerful, creative energy of the mind that is always present in some form. Even our most neurotic emotions can inspire music and art of great beauty and profound meaning. When we can connect with that creative source, we have the potential to go beyond the impulsive energy of our ordinary emotions to experience a new level of openness and peace. There's a sense of clarity and joy, which we can then very naturally begin to share with others.