Food for Thought: Embracing the Emotions

"Emotional integrity is about letting a feeling be itself, from beginning to end."—Christine Caldwell

We enter now into an exploration of what Daniel Goleman calls “the last great uncharted territory of the mind”—our own emotions. Rather surprisingly, given how fundamental they are to our lives, there is no scientific consensus on what emotions actually are. Do they result from thoughts, or are they the cause of them? Are they symptoms of disturbance? Neurobiological twinges? Biochemical secretions of the brain? Mainstream science offers little beyond its attempts to chemically manipulate the emotions through drugs.

Mythologies around the world view the emotions as gifts from the gods, or perhaps the very gods themselves, manifesting in energetic form within us. A surge of anger, a flood of joy can seem divinely inspired visitations. Emotions move us from within, a deep and vibrant mystery at the very core of what it means to be human.

Why Do We Have Emotions?

As the word suggests, emotions are meant to move us (from the Latin root -movere), to wake us up to what’s truly important in our lives. Emotional energy flows through us in powerful transformational ways, directing us into action, fine-tuning our relationship with reality. They communicate with us directly, alerting us to what we need to know.

For all that, our relationship with emotions is often fraught. Seldom are we content to be fully present with our emotional experience just as it is. We struggle to feel more, less, or a different selection of emotions. We seek to control them, latching onto happiness while rejecting fear, anger, and sadness, keeping them at bay through overwork, overthinking, addictions and distractions that numb our emotional nature. The degree to which we cling to ‘positive’ emotions and suppress or avoid the remainder skews the natural balance, in a way that creates far more suffering than the original experience.

Living in emotion-phobic societies, we often feel guilty for even having emotions. But the truth is, emotions are essential in helping us navigate through life. And they’re how we connect and bond with one another. They’re intrinsic to intimacy and social connection. Humans are social creatures: we all have needs. Feeling bad about your feelings is about as realistic, and as useful, as feeling guilty for the state of the weather. Emotions arise and pass, just like clouds in the sky. They aren’t meant to be controlled or avoided, but rather accepted, appreciated, and worked with.

Emotions and Ayahuasca

Working with ayahuasca can plunge us directly into the emotional whitewater. Terror, bliss, disgust, shame, ecstasy, grief, and everything in between may arise in ceremony, so directly and immediately that they are difficult to bypass—although we may struggle mightily to do so, and get stuck in a loop of avoidance, which the medicine will faithfully reflect back to us.

In ceremony as in life, it’s our relationship with emotions that is key. We cannot control what arises within us—we can’t help what we feel, however hard we may try. But how we choose to receive the emotions that arise—how we feel about our feelings—offers the opportunity to release the additional suffering that attraction/aversion imposes atop our natural state.

Working with emotions is thus at the very core of the integration process. The very feelings you reject—fear, shame, anger, whatever your personal recipe may be—these unwanted parts of yourself are offering something crucial. The shadow presents us with exactly what we need to integrate and grow as individuals; precisely the emotional vitamins we are lacking. As Christine Caldwell writes, “Emotions are evolution on the spot.”

Embracing the emotions, all of them, is thus at the heart of your ongoing work with ayahuasca. How you relate to yourself—how you relate to your emotions as key aspects of yourself—is vital to the integration process. Ayahuasca shines a light on exactly what you need right now; it doesn’t work with the future version of you or where you think you’re at. Your emotions are the doorway to transformation, offering energy for change and growth.

Emotions and Meditation

As a Buddhist-oriented psychotherapist, I’ve had the opportunity to see how meditation is misused in a quest for emotional peace. People feel sad, or angry, or “depressed” (whatever that might mean to them), and turn to meditation as a means of bypassing these feelings.

By the second session of our work together, I’m often telling them: Meditation is not about blocking your feelings. It’s about going into them, feeling them deeply in the body, working with the emotional energies at play, uncoupling them from the old stories you may be carrying, and connecting with them in fresh and vital ways so you can learn what they’re telling you, take appropriate action, and move on.

Part of meditation is learning from experience that emotions rise, fall, dissolve, and return again in different form . . . that nothing is permanent. But this patient awareness involves paying exquisite attention to what is happening in the present moment, without getting lost in the story. It’s not about shutting down your feelings.

As the saying goes, “It’s not about feeling better, it’s about better feeling.” Being connected with the full range of your emotions is rare in modern society. For many men, the permissible emotional range is even more severely restricted by social mores. Anger is just about the only emotion men are traditionally allowed to feel, and perhaps euphoria. As a result, all other feelings—sadness, grief, fear, shame, envy—can display only as anger. (Which is often difficult for women to understand.)

Unlocking your full range of emotional expression is  essential to becoming fully human and completely embodied. Like learning to play a musical instrument in all its depth and beauty, the human body is tuned to emotional vibrations. Unlocking these and allowing them to flow is part of the beauty, blessing and wonder of full humanity.

More Resources

Karla McLaren, The Language of Emotions. Her website features a blog, online course and podcasts.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

Miriam Greenspan, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair

Paul Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions