Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of October 6, 2014

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Transcending Our Reactive Emotions

(Transcendence: Part 3)

Emotions are the spice of life, enlivening the experiences that are alive for us. In the moments of absence of a heartfelt approach to living, we are not fully alive. Emotions motivate us to do much of what we do. They also inform us, offering guidance in situations too complex or too quick for our thoughts. In short, emotions are essential for a well-lived life. But just as food is essential and wonderful, yet can negatively impact us when we allow our appetites to overcome our better judgment, so emotions can also negatively impact us.

It is not just an absence of emotion that impoverishes experience, but also, and more importantly, certain types of emotion, namely reactive emotions that overshadow and dominate experience. Something happens and our emotions react, say with anger, or fear, or greed. We all know this sort of thing and know it to be perfectly normal and appropriate. Our problem occurs when that sudden emotion does more than just inform us about a situation or prepare us for action. The problem begins when the emotion continues to dominate our experience beyond its useful life, distorting our view of ourselves and the world.

Our thoughts join in and we nurture the anger, justifying it, criticizing or even cursing the person who caused it, railing against a world that is like this. In the case of fear, our thoughts join in and we become suspicious and paranoid, fastidious or timid. With greed, our thoughts join and perseverate about the object of our desire; we obsess about our lack of what we want and how we can get it. In these moments where our reactive emotions infect our thoughts, the quality and rationality of our thinking suffers. From the standpoint of our inner work also, these emotional storms are damaging. They burn up inordinate amounts of our inner energies and they narrow and cloud our perceptions, draining our presence.

So how can we transcend these unhealthy emotions? If we notice them in their earliest stages, we may be able to just say no, to just see the emotion and let it go, to just see our thoughts starting to pile on and let that stream of thought go. But once the storm gathers strength, the direct approach to the emotion or the thoughts becomes less possible, less effective. So what then?

Notice first that our emotions and our thoughts collude to create the problem, each feeding off the other. But we have not addressed our body and its potential role. Our body is not just a bystander in these emotional storms. Our breathing may change, our facial expression and posture express the emotion, and muscle tensions pop up. And because our body is more amenable to course correction mid-stream, this connection between body and emotion can serve as a point of leverage in abating the storm. To use that leverage we need to be in contact with a part of ourselves that is willing to let the emotion go. If we want to nurture it, to justify it, to be in it, then nothing good will happen until the storm passes and we awaken used and abused by it. But if we can find the willingness in ourselves, find that something that wants presence and peace, then we can turn to two related methods: relaxing our body and sensing it.

By relaxing our body, we change one part of the emotional pattern and that can change the course of the emotion. We relax our face. We relax our shoulders, our chest, our abdomen. We relax our whole body. Then we start sensing our body, being aware of the visceral experience of having a body and building up the sensitive energy in our body. Doing all this takes attention. In particular, it takes our attention away from the reacting emotion, its causes and ramifications. By removing some or all of our attention from the emotion that has taken us over, we weaken it. By coming into body presence, we raise our state, perhaps enough to not be lost in that particular emotion.

What then? What if we can let go and calm the storm? Do we then live with a void in our heart? Hardly. For example, equanimity is an emotion, a higher emotion. It is not dry and not indifferent. It is an alert and accepting mode of heart. It exudes peace. It is the open space of heart that allows the creative, the new to enter, that allows the old to be seen anew. Equanimity is a conscious emotion.

Other higher emotions also await us: joy, love, compassion, faith, and awe. All these come to us if we make room for them. As long as the reactive emotions occupy our heart, the higher emotions cannot enter.

For this week, please work to transcend your reactive emotions and open yourself more to the higher emotions.


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