The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

How to Understand the Root of Your Emotions

by Deborah Schoeberlein David
November 2, 2015
Mon, 11/02/2015 - 13:36 -- Deborah Schoebe...

Excerpt from Living Mindfully by Deborah Schoeberlein David.


Many of us live at the mercy of our emotions. Daily life provides all sorts of opportunities for them to rise up and take over our experience. Most of us perceive our emotions as essential to our identity; we believe that somehow they make us who we are. As a result, we feel entitled to our emotions, which gives rise to thoughts or comments such as “I have a right to feel angry” or “You always ignore my emotions.”

But emotions, like feelings and thoughts, are insubstantial. They come and go. Just as I am more than my thoughts, so too am I more than my emotions and feelings. This is really good news, especially if your emotions cause you suffering and wreak some level of havoc in your life. I’m not saying that emotions are inherently bad, or that somehow we should aim to become emotionless—not at all. Instead, the idea is that life is much more comfortable and constructive when we experience emotions as emotions rather than live under their tyranny.

Understanding that emotions are simply mental events and that feelings are not facts is the intellectual foundation for bringing mindfulness to them. This application of mindfulness promotes greater balance, healthier relationships, and increasingly positive behavior. You won’t become dull or lose your unique response to life. In fact, your feelings are likely to seem more intense and your emotions more vivid, but less threatening or extreme. As this happens, you’ll become sensitive to their presence and consequently less likely to give them destructive power.

The last chapter introduced Mindful Thinking as a technique to train the mind to focus on noticing the presence of thoughts while developing awareness of the process of paying attention to those thoughts. For the purposes of that technique, the umbrella of “thinking” includes any and all mental events. However, in this chapter, you will learn about the differences between thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Practicing this chapter’s technique, Mindful Feeling, will hone your ability to recognize them for what they are and build your confidence in what they aren’t. This chapter is about learning and applying practical strategies—analytical and mindfulness-based—to increase ease and emotional balance and extend the associated benefits outward toward all areas of your life.

Psychiatrists view emotions as the outward expression (also known as affect) of psychological feelings, and they assert that feelings are triggered by thoughts. That is, thoughts give rise to feelings, which are then telegraphed to the world by emotions. Thoughts and feelings are internal and private, while emotions are publicized by expression, speech, and gesture. But the line between private and public is deceptive, and most of us suffer because we think we can obscure our inner experience from outward recognition. However, separating our thoughts and feelings from our emotions can be difficult, and life can get very messy when we don’t.

Before reading any further, search your memory and locate a recent experience during which you expressed a strong uncomfortable emotion such as anger, impatience, or jealousy. Now search for the feeling at the root of your emotion. Look even further, and identify the thought that triggered the feeling as well as the event or circumstances that gave rise to thoughts.

I’ll give an example. I recently spoke angrily to another mother at my kids’ school. I was annoyed with her because I thought she’d shown an insulting lack of communication with me regarding an activity for our kids. My expressed emotion was anger, my inner feeling was annoyance, my thought was that she was inconsiderate, and the event was that I’d spent the morning trying to get in touch with her when she’d turned off her cell phone.

As a result, I expressed my displeasure through angry words and felt even worse. She responded rudely and presumably felt equally uncomfortable and angry. Unfortunately, our kids will suffer most from this situation because we, their mothers, probably won’t arrange any play dates in the future.

Return your attention to your own memory, and run the entire sequence forward:

The event

The thought

The feeling

The emotion

Your actions or behavior

Consequences

It’s much easier to notice the steps of this progression after the fact when you’re not emotionally engaged and you have the benefit of hindsight. From this position, you might look back over the sequence and recognize how things might have developed differently. At any point between the initial event and the ultimate consequence, you could interrupt the chain or alter the outcomes.

Your frame of mind as you go through this progression, which informs your experience, is likewise under your control. Frames of mind are created by memories of past experiences and mental habits; they’re not permanent fixtures of our identity. Therefore, having a different perspective at any given point also alters the sequence and outcome.


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