When we try to avoid an emotional reaction we are likely to exacerbate the problem because we are not dealing directly with it.
A good analogy for facing one’s emotions is turning into a slide after losing control of a vehicle, rather than attempting to resist it by turning away. Attempting to turn away, of course, only makes matters worse. For example, a person might have a disagreement with a friend and then decide to avoid the topic in a later interaction to reduce the risk of repeating the emotional arousal that was previously labeled as “negative,” which is the most likely reason for wanting to avoid it in the future. However, in so doing we run the risk of further disagreements with the friend because of a lack of understanding.
Turn Into the Emotion to Let It Go
Using avoidance as a coping mechanism in this way could also be likened to slowing down when entering a sharp turn as opposed to accelerating. When the vehicle speeds up it actually lowers its center of gravity giving it better traction and maneuverability. Similarly, when we look at the emotional charge without reacting to it we become more grounded and gain access to better maneuverability in the face of emotionally challenging situations. This is why it can be very helpful to turn into the emotion rather than away from it. It allows us to process the feelings and let them go.
For me, a common yet powerful example of what happens when we suppress rather than feel and release emotions occurred a few years ago. Interestingly, the event took place on the same day that I hosted a meditation retreat in which I mediated for five hours in one day. I bring this up merely to add context to the story I am about to share so that the depth of the meaning behind it can be understood. That morning I woke up very present and ready to enjoy the affair with no thought (or at least very little) about missing out on more pressing opportunities, such as working on the thesis (I was in grad school at the time), or finishing the clean up from a recent tree removal in the yard.
As people started arriving there was still very little thought. A fleeting thought, such as the desire to get started, would cross the mind and quickly disperse as I redirected attention the now. We began meditating at around 10 am and continued until 3:30 pm, with a couple short breaks in between. When it was done I was amazed I had just meditated for over five hours!
During the meditation there were many background noises from people getting up and getting snacks in the kitchen, to snoring by those who had fallen asleep. Although I was accustomed to meditating alone, these noises had very little effect on the internal condition I was experiencing and even provided additional practice in staying present. A few thoughts arose about whether this was really a good idea, given that it cost me money to meditate at home! However, there was no feeling associated with the thoughts and I just observed them rise and fall like watching waves approach the shoreline before returning to the ocean. I felt very accepting of the thoughts when present which seems to be why they failed to elicit any emotional response.
We All Have Different Experiences
However, a friend who was attending had a much different experience. She shared with me how she became very frustrated with all the noise and remained in that state for several hours. Still, this too was good practice, as she remained aware of her internal state and was able to discuss it from the place of an observer later. In this way, she could step outside the victim role and into the role of the witness of her own life experience.
When it was time to finish up we spent a little time talking about our experience. I found myself not wanting to talk much. I didn’t mind listening to others, yet I had no desire to share. However, there were no feelings one way or the other. In other words, I really wasn’t in a state of wanting (as in wanting not to share) or desiring (as in desiring not to share), rather, I felt I was in a state of total equanimity with no wants or desires. Little did I know this was all about to change.
As soon as the last person left I began cleaning up. I spent a little time cleaning the house before deciding to work in the yard and make a trip to the local home and garden shop to drop off some tree clippings and pick up a load of sand and crushed asphalt to shore up the foundation for a pool I was installing. I remained quite present throughout the entire time.
By the time I finished emptying the back of the truck and placing piles near the area that required reinforcement, it was already 7 pm. I decided that was enough work for the day and that it was time to relax, so I got myself a snack and settled in to watch a movie I had started the night before about the life of the XIV Dalai Lama. Although I enjoyed the movie I found myself feeling a little strange.
Coping with Emotions from Unforeseen Events
It was now 9 pm and although it was still light out I contemplated going to bed as I was feeling very tired from the day. That is when the scope of the evening took a drastic turn. My daughter called me and asked me about going to the Harry Potter movie on the following night. This is something we had talked about a long time ago but we had both forgotten it was coming up so soon.
I felt in an agitated state but I attempted to listen as my daughter discussed all the possibilities. After getting off the phone to allow her to get on-line and order the movie tickets I decided to go for a walk in hopes of relieving some of the tension I was experiencing. However, before I got off the property she called me back full of apologies and said the movie was that night!
That proclamation created more disturbing emotions within and I told her I didn’t feel very good just then and wanted to go on a walk. However, there was really no decision to be made. I just needed to come to accept the situation as it was because it was a once in a lifetime event (it was the mid-night showing of the final Harry Potter movie), and my daughter had her heart set on being there. So, I decided to wake myself up by drinking some coffee and make her dream come true, so to speak.
For the next hour, as we prepared for our journey, I felt at peace. In fact, I felt fortunate for having the opportunity to share such a special father-daughter moment such as this. However, that feeling changed when we arrived at the theater and found parking to be difficult to say the least. After spending about 20 minutes driving around trying to find a spot, success finally came, and along with it, a relief from the growing agitation. I was quite surprised to observe myself become so agitated by such a small, insignificant event, especially given that I had meditated for five hours earlier in the day. I chalked it up to being overly tired and we entered the theater.
The movie was very enjoyable and I was present throughout. A few times I became a little concerned about the behavior of a couple sitting in front of us, as they were loud and obnoxious at times. However, the movie adventure turned out to be very enjoyable and I was glad to have had the opportunity to share it with my daughter. The drive home, however, was a different story.
The moment I got in the truck and began the journey home the agitated state returned. I took a wrong turn and the agitation grew. The next thing I knew I was stuck in road construction at 3:15 am in an unfamiliar part of town. It was all I could do to refrain from going on a verbal tirade in response to the current circumstances. I found myself suppressing the emotion. After all, I did have my 13 year-old daughter in the vehicle and I did not want her to witness that! However, I am quite certain that she felt the frustrations I was experiencing.
After spending 15-20 minutes finding the way to the freeway I was finally able to ask for and receive good directions. Again, as soon as success was found the agitated feeling subsided and I was once again in a state of peace. Although I was very agitated during the two episodes described above, I only lashed out verbally at the predicament for a few very brief moments. Each time I remembered my daughter was with me so I intentionally repressed the feelings. Little did I know that this stored energy would surface the next day.
Residual Effects of Suppressing Emotions
I only slept four hours that night, as it was 4 am by the time I got to bed. The next day I had to drive back to the city to go to a meeting. As I was driving, a motorcycle approached from behind. I, along with four or five other cars, was traveling in the fast lane passing a few cars along the way. The person on the motorcycle whipped through traffic passing me on the right, honking his horn, and gesturing for me to move over. Immediately, I exploded, raising both hands in the air hoping he would see me in his rearview mirror. I simultaneously called him a derogatory name and debated catching up to confront him over the incident. Fortunately, however, I noticed the reaction in me, realized I was completely over-reacting and that I did not want to be in that state. Therefore, I became very still. I even chuckled a little at the ego in me.
After sharing the escapade with a friend, she suggested the reaction to the guy on the motorcycle might have been a residual effect from the experience the night before. Of course! Why hadn’t that thought occurred to me? It appears that in suppressing the emotion the night before, supposedly in an attempt to “protect” my daughter, I stored up energy that needed only the right circumstances to reach fruition and burst forth. Apparently, the driving actions of the motorcycle rider met those requirements.
Danger of Concealment
To me, this is a good example of the psychological danger of using concealment as a means of coping with stress. It may provide temporary relief, as I don’t compound the difficulties by lashing out at others during the ordeal (in this case my daughter). However, that relief could be very short lived if I lash out at someone else a short while later over a completely unrelated incident. In fact, reacting later in this way might be all the more damaging as the anger has been displaced and the recipient is sure to feel like a victim of circumstance, which indeed he would be!
It seems the moral of the story is mostly about prevention. For example, being well rested typically helps to coordinate bodily processes and balance the flow of energy from within. Similarly, the same can be said with regards to proper nutrition and getting exercise. However, another lesson is to be learned from this experience. There will be times when our resources are low since we don’t always control the timing of events, such as the mid-night showing of a premier movie. It is during these times we need special vigilance when it comes to aspects of stress management we do have control over, such as diet and exercise.
There are likely to be experiences in which we are caught off guard and we will want to be prepared to handle such events. For example, we can choose to eat right and exercise regularly so that our body is functioning as efficiently as possible when a challenging event presents itself.
In the story I have described above, the aspect that seemed to really jump out at me was that of non-acceptance. I so desperately wanted circumstances to be different than they were and that desire created a powerful energy within. I wanted the movie to be on a different night. I wanted there to be parking available as soon as I got there. I wanted to get on the freeway and get home as soon as possible.
The simple formula for what I am describing here is this: reality + non-acceptance = suffering. The movie was on that night. There was no parking spot to be found upon arriving. And there was road construction in the neighborhood I was navigating at 3:15 in the morning. All of those events happened and could not be changed in that moment. The only thing that could be changed was the internal reaction to them.
The question now becomes, how do we reach a level of acceptance of all that is? Moreover, in the moment of a highly agitated state, how do we reach a place of acceptance and move away from the desire to change what already is? It is impossible to change what is. The desire to do so creates tension in the body. This tension leads to psychological suffering. Therefore, the theory goes, just accept it. But that is easier said than done. And in the moment of a charged state it can seem impossible. It seems that we must be present at all times to avoid all psychological suffering. Presumably, to do so is considered enlightenment. In the remainder of this book, I hope to give you a glimpse into the possibility of ending psychological suffering for once and for all.