NOTICE YOUR LACK OF CONTROL : Emotions & Attachment
The things you feel inside are undeniably there, arising and falling away without your will. The last time you broke a mug, at what point did you choose to feel frustration? Did you thumb through an emotional catalog to select an appropriate mental state in that moment, or did frustration blast into your perception like a gust of wind?
We’re typically unable to pick the emotion we feel in any given moment, but understanding what emotions are (natural and inevitable fluctuations of our mental state based on circumstance and biology), can allow us to watch them come and go without being unwillingly overtaken by them.
Emotions are instinctual. Feelings of Anger, frustration, joy, and sadness arise within us without our conscious thought being involved. Instead of creating them, we notice them (and often become overtaken by them). Emotions are traits of evolution. There’s a reason that eating and sex are two of the most desirable and pleasurable things a human can feel, they benefited the survival and procreation of our species.
Feel jealousy because your partner talked to someone in a completely normal way?
That’s an evolutionary instinct. For a long stretch of human history, that jealousy was beneficial to the procreation of our species. Jealousy causes us to act in a way that, in the past, would have solidified our relationship to our potential mate. It would either cause us to insult/injure the subject of our jealousy (making them a less viable mating candidate in our partners eyes), or to punish or control our potential mate (with a raised voice, or more) so they “learn to stay with us.”
When we find ourselves acting out when emotions like jealousy arise, we’re being controlled by our evolutionary instincts even though they no longer benefit us. While some of these traits keep us alive, and some have become completely neutral, others immediately steer us down paths that are wildly destructive to our happiness.
“I SHOULDN’T BE FEELING THIS”
When we feel carried away by a particularly sour mindset, it’s because we’ve latched onto whatever negative emotional cloud drifted into the open sky of our minds. When our favorite mug hits the ground, it shatters us into anger. We find ourselves carried away by the emotion that arose without even having recognized the fact that it was arising in the first place. It snatches us up, and drags us with it. As we’re pulled along in it’s bitter clutch, our minds tends to instinctively replay the situation that caused the anger to appear.
We remind ourselves that we deserve to feel this,
and even find a twisted notion of pleasure in this validation.
I believe this comforting enjoyment we feel when we mentally justify our anger is born from the fact that the emotion of anger is stigmatized. As children, when it overtakes us, we’re punished. In our adult interactions, our own anger tends to summon the anger of our interlocutors until, in some sort of metaphorical proxy war, our angers decimate the landscape of our interaction to rubble.
It’s rarely explained to us that anger is a natural thing to feel.
In fact it’s perfectly okay to feel it.
Whatever collective authority raised us failed to explain the difference between noticing an emotion, and being overtaken by it. The difference between noticing the sensation of anger whispering inside you, and letting that anger scream its way into your interactions. They never told us that we only get to choose how we react to our emotions, and not which ones appear in the first place. This lack of awareness about the inevitability of negative emotions, has led humanity to find itself stuck in a sort of anger justification loop. The bad trip of day to day life.
This stigma that surrounds “negative” emotions like anger, jealousy, grief, and others has caused us to feel shame when they arise.
“I shouldn’t be feeling this!”
“I thought I was stronger than this.”
“Why am I such an angry person?”
Our mental replaying of the events leading to the “negative” emotion is a defense mechanism against this shame. To counter thoughts of “I shouldn’t be feeling this” and the ego-insulting sensation of shame that comes with it, we remind ourselves that we DESERVE to feel angry. We justify that feeling by mentally convincing ourselves that we were wronged in some way. “That asshole shouldn’t have cut me off, how dangerous! Of course I should be upset, he nearly killed me!”
Convincing ourselves that we’re justified in feeling anger helps us feel less shame because it makes us believe that, given our current circumstance, we SHOULD be angry. The truth is that we should be using a similar mechanism that has a healthier result. We should be thinking that, in our current circumstance, we didn’t even have a choice. Given your circumstance (including the “asshole” cutting you off, how much you slept last night, your current hormone levels, etc), anger was bound to arise. In this way, it isn’t about what you deserve to feel, it’s about what you couldn’t help but feel.
The only choice you have is whether or not
you latch onto the feeling that’s presented to you.
The truth is that the original defense mechanism isn’t only inaccurate, but it’s detrimental. Instead of accepting the sensation of anger and deciding how to respond to it, it leaves us shamefully ruminating on the reasons we deserve to feel it. We replay the situation, justify the anger, and then act on it, convinced that we deserve to. This is what it means to latch on to an emotion. Detaching from it means to understand that it’s nothing more than a feeling that’s unwillingly arising in the open sky of your mind, and then deciding whether or not you let it carry you away. “Oh, frustration is arising again, let’s just let it go.”
The inevitability of emotions alone should dull the splinter of stigma that causes us shame. Do you feel shame when the moon rises? When the flower blooms?
FOCUS ON THE SKY, NOT THE BALLOON
Imagine a new way of interacting with your emotions in which, instead of being overtaken and blinded by them, you notice and calmly react to their arising. Replacing an angry mindset with a calm mindset about anger.
I’ve spent a large portion of my life being wildly aware of my emotions, but still being controlled by them. When I felt jealousy in my earlier relationships (this was one of the emotions I struggled with the most), I’d be equally met with an outward, seemingly unstoppable display of it, and an inward thought of “Damn, this is completely ruling me.” I used to view this combination as a failure, but I now know that the first step towards acting more peacefully while noticing “negative” emotions arise, is being able to notice them in the first place. I’ve found that there are typically three stones we spend some portion of our life standing on as we move towards a more peaceful relationship with our emotions.
1. The emotions that arise within you completely dominate your actions without your awareness of it.
2. You begin to notice how and when emotions arise within you, but you still can’t seem to free yourself from their demands.
3. You, being fully aware of the inevitability of negative emotional states, fell less attached to them when the arise. This allows you to react to them with in a way that doesn’t rob you or those around you the peace that was present before they arose.
You’re either run by your emotions without being aware of it, run by them while being aware of it, or you’re able to notice your emotions arising without being overtaken by them.
My relationship with Katch (my lovely partner) tends to act as a field test for different ways of interacting with the world. The mere fact that we live in a van together and spend almost all of our time within winking distance of each other seems to turn the ground of our interactions into a study of what does and doesn’t create peace in a relationship. As we both move forward on this weird treadmill of existence, we find ourselves learning about what it means to be human, the transience of our emotional states, and how to use these new insights to communicate in a healthier way.
Katch and I often find ourselves saying things like this to each other:
“Hey, I’m feeling frustration, but I’m good!”
This is essentially a statement of:
“A negative emotion is arising within my mind based on these current circumstances and I want to let you know that it’s there, but I’m not latching onto it. Just trying to let it pass, and to be happy while it does.”
This type of interaction with our emotions, can lead to a healthier interaction with ourselves and those around us.
Saying something like, “I’m feeling frustration, but I’m good!” helps me individually by loosening the grip that the emotion has on me, and helps my relationship with Katch by being honest about what I’m feeling without acting out. Aside from freeing Katch from the spears of my emotions, sharing what’s happening in my head also frees her from worrying about my emotional state. If I seem down but address it like this, Katch will now know why, and that I still have a positive mindset as that particular emotion passes through. If you’ve ever sat with a partner who’s caught up in a negative emotion, you may understand how relieving it would be to know that they’re not suffering through it.
When you see a balloon of anger float into the open sky of your mind, focus on the sky instead of tying yourself to the balloon.
EDUCATION & MEDITATION
Understanding the inevitability of our ever-changing emotional landscape is a deceptively involved task, and I’d almost consider myself inconsiderate to leave you without any tangible steps forward. Two things that have genuinely helped me understand and grasp concept of emotional inevitability (and the ability to free yourself from their often destructive clutches) are education and meditation.
Katch and I often talk about the difference between understanding something conceptually, and fully grasping the same idea. Sure, we all understand that everyone we love will die, but do we grasp it? I’d argue that most of us don’t because we’d likely lead completely different lives if we did.
To understand something conceptually is to have knowledge in your head that you can call back to when you need to. Grasping something is not needing to call back to that knowledge, because the truth of the concept is woven within you. It’s the difference between memorizing the multiplication table, and knowing how to multiply. Reading books about the mind, emotions, evolution and philosophy have helped me understand the complicated workings behind our emotional states while meditation has helped me experience them directly, allowing me to find peace in their transience.
Education has helped me understand, meditation has helped me grasp.
Below are a few of the books that have lent me some insight into my mind, along with a couple of meditation apps for anyone hoping to dive into exploring their own.
WAKING UP – Sam Harris (Neuroscientist and Philosopher)
Tackling the largely untethered-to-reality idea of spirituality, from a scientific standpoint.
INCOGNITO – David Eagleman (Neuroscientist)
My subconscious mind led me to buy this book, read it (most of it), and share about it here. This book helped me understand that.
WHY BUDDHISM IS TRUE – Robert Wright (Psychology Professor at Penn, etc.)
An admittedly off putting title to anyone who doesn’t believe in Buddhism’s more metaphysical claims about Karma, Reincarnation, etc., but the title isn’t referring to those beliefs (in fact, that’s largely addressed). Instead, the title refers to it’s more philosophical and practical applications that can lead to a life of equanimity.
THE MORAL ANIMAL – Robert Wright (Psychology Professor at Penn, etc.)
I haven’t read this one yet (currently in the middle of the book above) but this is next on my list as I’m really enjoying Robert’s writing. A book about the science of evolutionary psychology.
TAO TE CHING – Lao Tzu (Ancient Chinese Philosopher)
Unrelated to the content of this article, but something I wanted to include anyways. A philosophical text written in the 4th century BC that’s as littered with insight into the human condition, as my copy’s pages are littered with my notes.
In a previous article (You Are What You Are & You Feel What You Feel), I talked about how stigma’s can cloud our perception of things. Meditation is a perfect example of a simple concept that’s become laced with complicating stigma over the years. Regardless of what you’ve been conditioned to believe about meditation (it’s for hippies, it’s evil, it’s stupid, it’s a fad, it’s confusing, etc.), let’s look at what it actually is. Meditation is the simple practice of sitting down for about 10 minutes a day, with the intention of developing a calmer mind. While there’s obviously a bit more to it, you can rest assured that you don’t need to adopt any particular belief system, you don’t need to become a monk, and you don’t need to join a cult to do it.
A great app for those who have no familiarity with meditation, philosophy, emotional awareness, etc. The app includes a slew of guided meditations, lessons, animations, and support. If you’re looking for something a bit more basic, and easy to dive into, this might be it.
This meditation app is a bit more dense in its subject matter, but I find its depth to be crucial to my understanding of the mind. If you’re a bit more familiar with concepts of the self, free will, and other more philosophically challenging concepts, you may find yourself at home here. This app includes guided meditations and lessons that will help your practice.
I genuinely hope that realizing that your emotions are largely outside of your control lessens your shame and embarrassment about them. They arise in every human who has walked the planet, and nobody decides which one arises when. Our only choice (unless we’re speaking strictly deterministically, which maybe I’ll write about another time), is how we react to them when they do arise. The first step is noticing that they’re arising without your will, and the second is to untie yourself from them as they float through the open sky of your mind.
LET THEM COME, LET THEM PASS.
ENJOY YOURSELF WHILE THEY DO.
Thanks for reading!
I’m not a professional. I’ve never formally studied psychology, or whatever else might lend me any sort of credibility here. I just enjoy reading about, writing about, and meditating on the human experience and the things that unify us. Mainly, our seemingly universal goal of finding some sort of enjoyment in life.