Overwhelming emotions

Experiences we have and thoughts that we think can trigger strong emotions in our minds and bodies. Some of these feelings can be overwhelming. Paradoxically, these sensations can make it extremely difficult to notice the overwhelm, instead causing us to react in increasingly unskillful ways. In this week’s Sangha, Payton explored the challenging practice of becoming aware of strong emotions and techniques we can use to relate to them skillfully.

We listened to excerpts from a talk by Guy Armstrong entitled Working with Difficult Emotions (2008-11-09 at IMS) which you can listen to here:

Some notes Payton had from the talk include:

Watch children deal with their emotions. They’re not scared of them. They don’t hold back, and the emotions don’t get stuck. (If trauma doesn’t exist.) This teaches us that we don’t have to get rid of these unwholesome emotions. We just need to be aware that they arise, have their time of expression, and then pass away. They only remain if we resist them or think about them. They can be extremely compelling, but usually what’s compelling about them is the storyline that sustains them, not the emotion itself.

This is the third foundation of mindfulness: Citta discussed in the Satipatthana Sutta. It has to do with the state of mind we are experiencing. Sometimes this state of mind is strongly obvious, but many times it can be strongly coloring our other experiences (body sensations, thoughts, perceptions) but in such a subtle way that we are not even aware of it. Therefore, becoming aware of a coloring emotion, our current Citta, is the first step toward working skillfully with it. Naming it can be extremely helpful, but we don’t even have to have an accurate name for it; even just knowing “there’s something coloring my experience now” can be enough.

Two things need to happen: first there needs to be an attitude shift toward acceptance of the emotional state; second we need to bring greater understanding to these states. We need to see and fully understand how they arise, are sustained, then pass away. When we learn the steps of this ride, it loses its mystery and power.

There are three areas we can examine: how it feels in the body, the mind (notably Vedana and Citta), and the thoughts. Body will always have contraction around a strong emotion. Mind will always have a mental coloring or flavor. These two things seem the same (eg: coffee with milk) but they are separate. The third thing is thoughts: all afflictive emotions are sustained by thinking. Storylines are sustaining the emotion.

There are four primary emotions: Sadness, Desire, Anger, and Fear. Possibly also self-judgement. All these are tied to time that’s in the past and future.

Andrea also brought up the modern psychology concept of the Wheel of Emotions (a much more detailed map than the four listed in the talk), which you can read about here: