Previously we explored how we could change our emotional patterns, indirectly just by observing them and directly by purposely creating different emotional states at will. Now let’s look at the direct methods in more detail.
The main method will be familiar to anyone who knows something about psychotherapy, and really it’s closer to that than to meditation. In keeping with the psych tradition let’s suppose you have nagging emotional issues around one of your parents (though any other highly charged live person will do.) Pick either parent, the more difficult one if you’re up to it. Let’s say that your stuff comes up predictably almost every time you think of and/or have any dealings with him or her. You’d love to change how you feel and react but you don’t know how.
The main trick is to identify a place where you can most easily effect a change, try on different changes, and see what works. You will need to sit down by yourself and spend some time and effort. Depending on your personality it might be on the level of Emotion, Intellect or Body. (These divisions are convenient but arbitrary, e.g. Buddhism considers emotion a form of thought.)
1. If you’re the Emotionally dominant type you will want to examine what happens in that sphere at the deepest possible level. For example behind bitterness and resignation you will often find anger and sadness and behind those you will often find pain.
Let’s say pain is the root experience. Okay, so you’ve been hurt by a parent (or someone else), now what? What other emotional reactions could you have? You might try relief because the painful experience stopped long ago or at least it doesn’t go on 24/7. You might try sympathy because people often cause pain out of their own painful experiences. You might try gratitude because it could have been far worse. You might laugh if you see the absurdity in the situation. Try on these alternative emotions, experience them, amplify them and see how they sit with you. Next time you deal with that difficult parent, or whomever, live, try experiencing the more benign emotions instead of the usual problematic ones and see what it does for the interaction.
2. Suppose you’re the more Thinking, rational type. You will want to analyze your emotional processes in detail and see if they make any practical sense. You might ask if it’s reasonable to to stay bent out of shape for any length of time? Does it help? If not why stay in that emotional framework? Or you could follow how your thoughts and emotions lead to each other and start to identify your usual patterns.
For example say you’re having a debate and you get shouted down and have your intelligence insulted. You might feel hurt. You might think up better arguments. You might feel defensive which could become offensive. Your ego might swell. You might think “no, I’m not stooping to that level”, or “what a waste of time”. You might feel exasperated or resigned or maybe stuff it down. You might explode but then regret it later.
Ask yourself rationally, at what point in your process can you most easily change the script? It might be at an emotion: “I don’t need to feel insulted,” or a thought: ”My friend’s mind is already made up, so I don’t need to construct better arguments.” Whatever, it must be something that makes sense to you and this will require some experimentation.
3. You might be the Body oriented type in which case you’ll want to feel the emotions in your physical being and identify the possible change points at that level.
3A. For example, our breathing rates tend to increase when we get upset and we commonly hear the advice to take a dozen or so slow breaths in order to calm down. You could be more specific and locate exactly where your body is going off balance and then direct your breathing there, such as your heart, your stomach, your neck muscles, your brain, etc.
3B. You might also place your hands there and try to calm down and rebalance that way. We sometimes do this instinctively when we bring our hands to our heart, our face, our stomach, etc. in response to stress, but the intent needs to be more conscious. Specifically and in general, high stress reactions make bodies tense and call for softening, melting, unraveling, and dissolving the rigidity of the physical body. Dissolving is the quintessential practice of the old school Taoist Water tradition and should not be underestimated. Emotions live in your body and can be unraveled there. You can think of it as dismantling their residences giving them no quarter in which to live.
3C. A more advanced practice is to use your mind alone, not really your intellect, independently of breath or touch, to direct your body organs and tissues to relax and let go. However you can effect physical relaxation, what we call dissolving, it will often reverberate to your emotions and your brain making you more even keeled and clear headed.
The main exception to this rule is depression which can be seen as an immobilizing form of relaxation. Often what helps here is more vigorous physical activity. To quote James Brown, “Get up offa that thing and dance till you feel better!”
4. Finally you may wish to explore the patterns of how your Emotions, Thoughts and Body interact with each other.
Let’s say you’re watching a presentation detailing several disastrous trends that could spell an apocalyptic cataclysm in your peaceful little world. That intellectual information makes you emotionally horrified and your body goes into distress mode. The stress might be immobilizing or it might make you determined to take action, perhaps out of anger. Maybe you spend a lot of time reevaluating the facts and surmise that it’s not that dire after all, or that it’s actually worse. You watch your emotions adjust accordingly. You also note that your body adjusts, anywhere from rising up to a Herculean task to sinking into an abyss of despair & illness to finding a calm balance in the face of any eventuality.
Once again, the idea here is to identify where and how you could effect a change. Does accurate information give you hope? Does hope make your body function better? Does a healthy body clarify your mind?
In each of these exercises you only discover what works for you through a certain amount of self examination and experimentation. One insightful change is quite wonderful but taking assessments regularly is much more rewarding. And don’t think that your changes are necessarily permanent; you will want to revisit the situations on a regular basis, the same as you would with any other practice. Whatever time and effort you put into these endeavors will come back to you in manifold ways.