Expressing Emotion

Q: "You advise that breathing out deeply will cause your heart to be moved more deeply. But then you say to let it be moved but don't express it. What happens for me is I start with an emotion, say sadness or fear. If I will go into it and allow myself to know it fully (I cry, usually), it always begins to transform, and if I follow it all the way through, I usually end up feeling great peace, joy or love. Is that what you mean?"

A: Yes; there are two principles at work here. One is that we can feel something deeply, but still choose how to express our emotion so that our expression has the effect on others that we desire. When you are sharing your emotion by talking with a friend, your expression has an effect on them. Being self-revealing and vulnerable could bring you closer, but if you criticize or blame your friend for your feelings, you'll create more distance instead. If your friend is sympathetic, they might take on your feeling as their own. Indeed, you may want that to happen as a proof of their sympathy.

Behavioral expressions of your emotions have to be even more carefully considered than verbal expressions, until you're confident that the deep, impersonal emotions of the heart flow through you. Then act without hesitation, monitoring your effect on others, but allowing yourself to respond without mental reasoning. The objective observer is not our goal. Our goal is to be the heart itself.

When we feel afraid, we sometimes express it in a way that pushes others away, verifying our fear. When we are hurt, we sometimes try to hurt others, to share the painful feeling in the hope that it will be dissipated and also attract sympathy. When we are angry, we often express our anger in a way that is destructive instead of steering the energy into a constructive result. These are examples of expressing our emotions in ways that do not even yield what is good for ourselves, let alone what is helpful to others. Usually, we express our emotions in these counter-productive ways because we are afraid of our emotions.

The mystic does not allow the excuse, "I felt like it," to justify a word or action that hurts another. We have the ability to choose how to express our emotions. It's like sailing: you harness the wind energy of your emotion to take you in the direction you intend. Even if the wind is blowing North, you can sail Southeast.

The other principle is that ANY expression vents some of the energy of the emotion. On the other hand, there is a lot of energy in an emotion, and sharing what you're feeling is the only way to create closeness with another. So you can choose to share the energy of your emotion with certain people who are important to you in your life, even though every expression is a bit of a loss.

Writing about what you feel also helps you be aware of what you feel, and clarify it. At the same time, it weakens the feeling itself. But that's preferred if you aren't sure what you're feeling.

For non-meditators, expressing their emotion is the only way to bring it into awareness so it can be understood. Meditators have another way as well: we have learned that emotions are divine, in their source, and nothing to fear. We can go TOWARD the emotion until it becomes brilliantly clear exactly what the emotion is.

Our deeply personal feelings are so incredibly valuable that we should preserve them, using their energy to find the universal emotion of the universe behind them. Whatever we feel is an instance of the universal emotion which appears within us as our own. By appropriating the universal emotion to ourselves, we drastically limit it. When we see that it is the universal emotion emerging within us, we can follow the emotion of our personal heart into the whole, One Heart.

When you find deep, intense emotions, try to make the emotion more intense. To do that, you have to go right into it, and at that time you can't be concerned with expressing it. Expressing it, consciously, in the way you choose, can come later. At the moment the emotion is found in your heart, your only thought is to go into it, to follow it, to allow it to wash over you. You give your heart to it. Instead, most people turn away from the first little hint of emotion and express it as it was discovered. But it isn't mature yet. It leads to a deeper emotion that is very beautiful. So why express our little disappointment, when we could follow that to the sorrow of separation and express something so universal that every heart would weep and be benefited by that re-connection.

All your emotions are ingredients in your healing, provided you keep them inside. If you were to express rage and fear, for example, you would vent their energy, which is needed to warm and melt your heart. It's an alchemical process of transformation: the crucible needs to be heated so its contents melt and run together into a pool, a pool of pure emotion. The heart heals its own wounds. That is, the energy that the heart produces when it's given attention and breath is sufficient to power the process that opens and integrates the heart.

It's true, as you say, that the sadness or fear or whatever emotion you start with transforms in the light of attention and becomes more universal. Also, the capacity we have for emotion increases as the emotion beomes more impersonal. While our personal emotions may overwhelm us, so that we can't imagine making the emotion even more intense, what happens as we go into the feeling is that it gets "broader" as well as "deeper", and then we have the capacity of the whole heart to experience it with.

Note the use of three words, for separate but integrated concepts: emotion, feeling and sensation. As I use these words, "emotion" is what the heart experiences, "feeling" is the mind's experience of emotion, and "sensation" is the body's experience of emotion.


By Puran Bair, author of "Living from the Heart" (Random House, 1998)
1999 by The Institute for Applied Meditation, Inc.
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