Our emotions are elusive, shape-shifting inner beasts, but despite the challenge of pinning any of them down in precise terms—what is anger, really?—we don’t doubt they’re part of our makeup. We don’t think of an emotionless human being as a good thing.
Yet there is little evidence that emotions were treated with respect throughout much of history. Words that point to emotions in ancient languages are tinged with notions of irrationality or possession by spirits. In the West especially, it seems, emotions were considered irrational. Fortunately, artists came along with an interest in the actual psychological makeup of individuals—the full catastrophe, as it were. During the Renaissance, there was a concerted effort to represent affetti (movements of the soul) in the faces and gestures of the people depicted in works of art. The artists, most prominently Leonardo da Vinci, wanted to portray how people were actually feeling.
Whereas these artists were exploring rich movements of the mind and heart from the outside in, mindfulness meditation gives us the opportunity to explore from the inside out. In basic mindfulness practice, we’re instructed to simply notice our thoughts and come back to the anchor of our attention (most often the breath). As we become more accustomed to noticing and coming back, we become familiar with the quality and texture of our thoughts. Before we’ve decided a thought is bad or good or otherwise, we have a split second to just see it for what it is, as if we were in a creative writing class focusing simply on what we see, not what we think or feel or about it.
When we do that, we definitely notice that some thoughts contain emotional content, and that these emotional “thoughts” arrive as an experience in our body, not just our brain. If you’re angry, you may clench your teeth. If you’re indifferent, your whole body may shrug. If elated, you may shriek. And so on and so on.
This wondrous array of responses is part of what’s beautiful about being human. The longstanding diminishment of emotions as anti-rational has cramped our style.
This wondrous array of responses is part of what’s beautiful about being human. The longstanding diminishment of emotions as anti-rational has cramped our style. It’s such a shame when we judge emotions as wrong or bad. We’re told that being angry is always a bad thing, that we must calm down and stop being so emotional.
This approach often creates a push-pull with these powerful forces of the soul: We suppress emotions until we can’t take it anymore, then we indulge in them. We keep a lid on our anger till we explode. We pretend we’re absorbed by something that leaves us cold, only to grumble and dissemble in private. Or perhaps we deny our passion, and suffer in silent self-pity or clumsily and fearfully convert our love into possessiveness in an effort to maintain control.
Emotions can and do get out of control and, in fact, take charge, and make no mistake about it, when they are out of control they can do tremendous damage! In situations where real harm can result, emotions are not to be treated lightly. In the end, though, it’s much easier for emotions to control us if we fear them, if we feel something is horribly wrong with having them, and if we believe that reason must always prevail and executive function must take control.
Mindfulness practice, thankfully, gives us a chance to live the whole experience of an emotion—its flavor, its texture, how it lives in our body. And after we have done so over and over again, like a well-practiced fiddle player we can learn to play, not struggle, with emotions. Our strings are tuned, and we play them with precision and abandon.
Will mistakes be made?
Can we learn from an emotion gone wild, clean up the mess and the damage, and move on?
Emotions are a renewable resource. They’re beasts to ride on and revel in, not to lock up because they can become unruly at times.