Working with emotional energy can be a real challenge, both in meditation and in daily life. We often suppress difficult emotions. In this post, I talk about facing emotion with the heart of a warrior.
When we regularly sit and quiet our mind, the arising of emotion is inevitable. Stilling the mind creates internal space, and sometimes what arises in that space are emotions that need to be integrated. Unintegrated emotion – emotional content that has been repressed or ignored – can be quite problematic, even leading to conditions like chronic pain, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Tension Myositis Syndrome.
So a large part of the contemplative journey is learning face our emotions, especially in the context of meditation or silent prayer. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala, likens it to sitting with the heart of a warrior.
Integrating Emotional Energy
A while back, my partner was listening to some recorded talks by Pema Chodron. I happened to hear a short piece from one of those talks. In it, Pema talks about facing emotion like waves in an ocean, an analogy she originally heard from Trungpa Rinpoche. I thought about this a lot. Here’s my somewhat elaborated interpretation of what I believe she is saying.
Imagine you’re standing in the ocean about six feet from the edge of the shore. The day is hazy and the seas are rough. Suddenly, a giant wave knocks you backwards. The undertow is so powerful it pulls you under. For a while, you flounder in the ocean depths, not knowing whether you’ll live or die.
This is what emotion is like to the untrained mind. It pulls us under to the point that we have no real control over what is happening. Only by the fortune of time do we find our way out.
Now imagine that you’re standing in the ocean about six feet from the edge of the shore and a giant wave knocks you backwards, but this time you remember how powerful the undertow is. It may still pull you under for a moment, but you manage to escape it’s pull and get back on your feet. There’s sand in your eyes and mouth, so you stumble around and spit for a minute, but you’re okay.
This is what emotion is like when we’ve had some experience looking at it with eyes wide open. We know how insidious its pull can be. We watch the way we ruminate. We know we’ve been sucked in. Yet we also know we can break the spell. It may take time, but we do manage to find our way back.
Now imagine you’re standing in the ocean about six feet from the edge of the shore and a giant wave knocks you backward, but you get right back on your feet. There’s a little sand in your eyes, but the wave didn’t pull you under.
This is what emotion is like when we calmly face it with the heart of a warrior. It’s entirely possible another wave will come and another and another, each one knocking us down completely, but we don’t stay down long and we don’t get pulled under either.
Now imagine you’re standing in the ocean about six feet from the edge of the shore and a giant wave appears and you turn around and ride it all the way to back to shore. You jump to your feet, give a little shout, and run right back out to ride the next wave.
This is what emotion is like when we begin to appreciate its energy. We understand that emotion has intelligence. It’s trying to tell us something. If we open our hearts and ride its energy, we might learn something important about ourselves.
Finally, imagine you’re standing in the ocean about six feet from the edge of the shore and all you see are gentle waves tickling your belly.
This is what emotion is like when we’ve done the work of integration. Now our emotions are a total gift. Even the difficult ones bring our awakened heart straight to the surface. The energy we once feared has become the stuff of life, a source of endless joy. The emotion has been fully integrated.
Over time, riding our emotional waves does seem to get easier. This is not to say for certain that our subconscious mind is finished with us. It may have more difficult material to throw our way. The vicissitudes of life may still knock us off our feet. Yet, having gone through the process a number of times, we have the knowledge and internal resources to stand back up and smile. We have learned to hold our emotions with the heart of a warrior.