What used to be a secret to happiness that was only reserved for monks and mystics is now available to all; We don’t have to be victims of our emotions and moods. Take it from me. Years ago, I appeared to be a hopeless emotional case. I was diagnosed with Bipolar (1) disorder at twenty years old. The depression and anxiety that I experienced were so severe that I could not hold a steady job. The only relief that I found was from numbing myself with alcohol, which, of course, only made things worse.
I was determined to find relief from this debilitating suffering. Although I did have my moments of utter hopelessness, I was usually determined to discover a solution. When I could drag myself out of bed, I would go to seminars, Native American Sweat Lodges, talk therapy, etc., and nothing remotely worked. In the summer of 2000, I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. You know how it is when something within you says, “That’s it!”? This was indeed one of those times when I knew that I had found something that works for me.
For those who have not read Mr. Tolle’s book, what he teaches is basically mindfulness in a simple, elegant way that I found to be relatable and enjoyable. What he calls “being in the now” in the book was taught by The Buddha 2500 years ago and perhaps before that. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention on this moment (the only moment there is). Tolle, The Buddha, and countless others have pointed out that depression, anxiety, and nearly all negative emotions are generated from ruminating over the past and future, which are only in the mind’s imagination.
When we are unaware/unmindful, emotions seem to happen to us – we often feel overly-sensitive, and even something as simple as one comment can cause us to down-spiral into rage, self-pity, or depression. When we anticipate the future or replay the past in our minds, the brain’s higher functions, like reasoning and goal setting, are shut down. This is when our “fight or flight” functioning tends to be more activated because there is no or little awareness between the stimulus (the so-called cause of emotion) and the response/reaction.
The great news is that although you may have no choice over your initial emotional response, you do choose whether you are indulging in anger, bad moods, or self-loathing. Harvard brain scientist and author Jill Bolte-Taylor coined a term to describe the natural lifespan of emotion that she calls “the 90-second rule”. When it comes to human emotions, she explains, “there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”
Let’s use a typical example of how our minds can cause suffering. If you were laid off from your job, the natural emotional response would be, “ouch, this hurts.” Whether it is a shame, anger, sadness, etc., the painful emotion’s flavor would have to do with your specific personality and the situation. The emotion would be energy that would arise in the body, exist for a short time, and dissipate. This is all that would happen in an emotionally mature, relatively conscious human.
So, what happens within us when we “choose to stay in the emotional loop”? We are allowing the initial emotion to become a mood. Let’s stay with the example above. Your boss tells you to clean out your desk and notifies you that you will be escorted to the front door because your services will no longer be needed. The way you would perpetuate the emotional pain is to add self-talk that would be something like,” This isn’t fair, it’s sew ’n sew’s fault.” or “Why does this kind of thing always happen to me?” Obviously, the self-talk would cause the emotion to exacerbate and last longer. The mood (whether it is sadness, anger, shame, etc.) will certainly cause unnecessary suffering and will likely affect your decisions and how you treat others for hours or days. In some cases, something even worse happens; if we were fired, we could make an identity for ourselves out of the emotion. Rather than simply learning from the situation or accepting it, we could see ourselves as untalented, incapable, or inferior, carrying that idea with us for years or even a lifetime.
So, the original emotion is a biological response. The other two (moods and making something that happened “true” about you) have something added to them – a story that we are telling ourselves repeatedly.
To experience a shortlived emotion that won’t cause misery, feel the emotion without adding a judgment story of why things should be different. Experience what is happening within you. This will help you to separate yourself from the pain inside of you. Whether the emotion is anger, sadness, or whatever it is, allow the feeling to be present within you without trying to change it. Stay in your body and out of your mind’s commentary about the situation as much as possible. When the mind starts to weave a story about what “should have happened,” bring attention back to the emotion. As you practice, you will notice that emotions have a lifespan, and you are the one in the driver seat.
Don’t be surprised if the emotion takes you over at first. You have most likely been in the habit of reaction your entire life. If you explode or find yourself in a dark mood that has affected others, do some “damage control” and keep practicing.
Think about the times when you lost your temper or reacted strongly to someone or something, especially the situations that you later regretted. Did you feel that you were in the driver seat? If you look at this, you will see a lack of awareness of your body and surroundings. So, don’t expect perfection. Just know that the more you practice being aware, the better you will be at your mindfulness practice over time, which means the more happiness and peace you will discover.
What I am sharing is definitely not a philosophy. It is a practical instruction that has transformed my life. I have changed from someone who could hardly find a moment of happiness to a grateful human being who can honestly say that he has found peace. If I can do it, so can you. Rather than painful emotions being a tsunami that periodically dominates your life, they will start to become only a small part of your experience. You will notice that you will be less reactive to situations over time, and the heaviness you carry around with you will start to dissipate. Your habits of causing unnecessary pain in your life will leave you because you have practiced changing the focus of your attention.
Be in the body, watch feelings, and open yourself to your surroundings. Following your breath is always helpful in grounding you. When you are upset, know that it is the body and the mind reacting initially; you are the one who has the choice of what you do with it. You may find that the tsunami waves of emotion eventually turn into subtle ripples that will become your internal guidance system.