From Yoga Journal, 2004
Our own intense emotions-even negative ones-can be a path for spiritual growth
It was the summer of 2003, but it could have been yesterday, or tomorrow. At the time, Mars was hovering close to the earth. Power blackouts darkened much of the Northeast, and car bombers were wreaking havoc in Baghdad, everyone I met seemed to be talking about intense their lives were becoming. There was too much of everything: too much to do, too many arguments, computer failures, explosive feelings, weird dreams, and intrusive thoughts. My email box filled up with messages about how to handle the accelerating energies. More meditation and self-inquiry, some advised. Time for political action, said others. One site spoke of the importance of connecting with people through the heart. Another suggested we lay in water supplies and start growing our own vegetables.
In the midst of all this, I kept remembering a verse from the Spanda Karikas (Verses on Pulsation), a text from the Hindu tantric tradition. The verse says that pure consciousness-the heart-stopping brilliance that composes the core of reality-is especially close to us in moments of emotional intensity, moments that might seem like the very opposite of peace. The text goes on to give examples: “When you’re angry, or overjoyed, or at an impasse reflecting what to do, or running for your life, find within that state the perfect condition of the primordial energy.”
This is a deep clue about how to practice in our speeded-up times. It’s no secret that strong feelings and experiences carry a lot of energy. Why else would people go to raves, become war correspondents, or provoke their lovers into screaming matches? But there’s a big difference between using strong energy to get high or to feel more alive, and consciously using energy as a way to move deeper into our own essence. That movement, of course, is what the inner life is all about.
And it’s the radical truth behind the Spanda Karikas verse: If we choose to practice with such strong energies, they can lead us into the very source of our own power. Entering a strong feeling is like splitting an atom, except that when you practice going to the heart of an intense feeling, the power you will find inside it is essentially the very creative force of the universe.
Peeling the Layers Around the Heart
Linda has been meditating for several years, doing retreats with one of the hard-core Indian teachers of the older generation. Her basic MO was always the straight, classical, chitta-vritti-eroding yogic approach.
Recently, however, she went to Mexico on vacation, met a guy, fell in love. Her heart flung open, detachment melted. There was, as she put it, “big soul-mate energy” between them. They were together for a while and then it was over. She found herself on a plane back to Oakland, roiling around in an emotional stewpot full of conflicting feelings. The pain was extreme. But Linda decided to dive in, decided to bring her practice-honed attention into the pain itself, and take a look into her own heart space.
She said it was like peeling an onion. Layers of swampy sadness. Layers of hurt pride and bitterness. A big, thick shell of indifference. More sadness. Then, she dropped into a huge, open stillness: One minute her heart was an emotional swamp; the next, it was pure spaciousness. She told me that once she tapped into that spacious heart energy, it stayed available. Ever since, her basic practice has been “sitting” inside her own heart space.
As I listened to Linda, my first thought was that she had discovered the power of meditation in the heart. Yet the deeper point of her experience isn’t simply that it’s nice to meditate in the heart center, or even that there’s a better way to deal with unrequited love than wallowing in it or trying to be stoical. Her story illustrates how the inner spaciousness can be especially present and available when we’re going through something that feels horrible-like having our heart broken, or getting fired, or facing our own capacity for anger. It’s as if there’s a balancing principle at work, a secret gift that our inner self can offer us during times that wring the soul.
Energy collects strongly at intense moments. If you don’t know how to work with it, it can spin you into confusion or stress you into adrenal overload. But if you understand what intense energy is, and have a practice for working with it, that same energy can and will transform your consciousness.
This is one of the deepest and most liberating truths that yoga offers us. I would even go so far as to say that it contains the gist of why we do inner practice at all. The whole yogic paradigm, of course, is based on the idea that there’s something vast, loving, and spacious in the heart of reality, an awareness that connects all of us, and which we uncover when we turn our attention inward. As we practice, we naturally keep waking up to the source of our own energy, moving past our fixed perceptions, feeling how it is to live from that vast, loving, and spacious source.
The Practice of Inclusion
Yet, on the way to the spaciousness at our center there are, as we all know, many roadblocks. Between our ordinary state of awareness and our deeper being, there sometimes seems to be a swamp of distraction, emotion, intellectual barricades, fantasies, and just plain dullness. The big question, and its one that all yogic paths have to deal with sooner or later-is what to do with these obstacles when you come across them. The Spanda Karikas’ approach to practice aims at taking you to the core of yourself by including everything in your experience, yet reducing each experience and emotion to its essence. So the way it advises us to deal with obstacles is to move right into them, and let them transmute themselves.
The enlightened sages who originally taught this practice were not just theoreticians. They actually lived in a state that allowed them to experience pure awareness and ecstasy within the heart of everything, including the aspects of life that the rest of us reject. Their great realization was that anything we experience can provide us with a doorway into the divine. Since we are all, at our core, made of the same subtle loving energy, there is no part of us that can’t lead us back to what we are. Even our thorniest feelings-anger, greed, fear-can take us there if we know how to distill them to their essence. Loving energy and angry energy are both, at bottom, just energy.
We need to understand this in the right way, of course. On the level of ordinary action, love and anger are polar opposites. Loving actions lead to very different consequences than angry actions. It’s at the deepest level, the core level, that we can recognize that anger is not just anger, that fear is not just fear, that depression is not just depression. When you sit quietly with an emotion, say anger, and go deeply inside it without acting it out, you will find that it dissolves into pure consciousness, pure energy. This is true of every feeling you have, especially when that feeling is strong. Especially when you can let it mount to a peak without letting it explode. One of the most self-empowering choices that we can make, as yogis, is to begin to view the tough feelings that come our way as doorways to inner freedom.
Sam runs a video documentary company with a business partner, Paul. In last year’s tight economy, their little company found itself on the verge of going under. Then, Sam was asked to present a proposal to a big corporation. If the proposal was accepted, he knew, it would save their business.
On the morning Sam was scheduled to make the presentation, his business partner Paul, had a meltdown. Paul said he wanted to do the presentation; he was tired of having Sam be the star of the company. Sam refused, and the two wrangled painfully until it was time to leave for the business meeting. By this time, Sam’s mind was churning, his adrenaline was up, and he was wading through his own swamp of confused feelings, not the least of which was extreme guilt for losing his temper. For a moment, he panicked; how was he going to face these potential investors in his emotionally disheveled state?
Then, Sam took a few deep breaths. As he did, he found his attention powerfully drawn into the feeling of anger. He held steady with it for a moment. Suddenly, he said, there was a kind of implosion. It was as if a skin came off his awareness, and something large, strong, and centered unfurled itself from inside. When he told me about it later, it sounded like a spontaneous experience of what we sometimes call witness-consciousness. Some deep inner stillness and presence revealed itself. All through the crucial meeting, his mind was unusually clear and focused. It went so well that he ended up taking a long, companionable walk with one of the client’s principle negotiators.
Several hours later, Sam called Paul. To his surprise, Paul reported that he, too, had gone through an inner shift. He’d realized how much he valued his friendship with Sam, how much more important the friendship was than their differences. He didn’t care what it took to work things out, Paul said; he wanted them to preserve the partnership.
Sam’s experience, though dramatic, is not so unusual for people who are willing to work with their own emotional energy. When we have the fortitude to hold steady with negative emotions, without getting caught up in our thoughts about them, they actually will collapse-all on their own- into the energy of which they are made.
I’ve found that when I’m serious about this inner practice, the external circumstances that triggered my emotion will often get resolved as well, just as it happened FOR Sam. Misunderstandings clear up, sticky relationships dissolve or disentangle themselves. When we get to the core energy inside ourselves, we open up to the force that some people call grace and that Carl Jung called synchronicity. It’s a power that literally transcends duality, and its one of the great natural forces for positive change.
Some issues aren’t so easy to resolve, of course, and we can’t assume that making a one-time inner shift will automatically take care of everything that’s difficult about our lives. Sam and Paul had to do a lot more negotiating to make their partnership work smoothly; Linda needed to take a hard look at why she kept getting herself involved with men who weren’t available. And sometimes, the dive inside can turn into a way of escaping the hard work of digging through the issues in our sub-basement-in other words, it can look a lot like what is sometimes called the “spiritual bypass.” (How many frustrated husbands and wives have said to their yogi spouses, “Will you stop acting so damned detached and compassionate and talk to me?”)
But working with the energy of your negative emotions is the exact opposite of trying to avoid them, resist them, or make them go away. When we enter into the energy of our own feelings, we are learning how to find the transcendent by facing directly into our own emotional winds.
Start with Yourself
If you want to try practicing with intense energies, I suggest you start with your own feelings and moods, and start small. Stephen Levine once wrote that working with heavy emotional issues can be like getting into the ring with a 500 pound wrestler-if you haven’t trained for it, the wrestler will throw you in the first clench. One of the best ways to train is to practice during small private moments of meltdown.
One of my favorite times for this kind of practice is the onset of road rage. Like many otherwise reasonable people, I have an inner road-warrior who only emerges when I’m alone behind the wheel. He’s mouthy, cynical, easily offended-a cross between a New York cabbie and one of those eccentric hit men from a Quentin Tarentino movie. There’s a lot of energy in this persona, however. So when I notice myself having snarly private dialogues with the driver who cut me off at the exit, I try to use it as the occasion for exploring the energy inside my anger.
You can do this too, any time. Below, you’ll find a step-by-step process for working with strong emotions and intense inner upheavals. If you’d like to practice now, I’d suggest you take a moment and call to mind one of your characteristic heavy emotions, or remember the last time you felt angry or grief-stricken or scared. Once you’ve found the feeling you want to work with, here’s what you do:
1. Acknowledge your feeling.
The first step-especially important when you’ve been ambushed by an emotion– is to notice and identify the fact that your inner world has been rocked by an intense, often primitive feeling. It helps to say clearly to yourself, “I’m feeling angry,” or “I’m sad,” or just, “I’m upset.” At this point, you don’t have to analyze the feelings or even think about where they’re coming from.
The second step would be to pause, to stop yourself from acting on the feeling. The time-honored way of creating this pause is to focus on your breathing, following the breath as it comes in and out of the nostrils.
3. Get grounded.
The third step is to find a way of grounding yourself. Start by getting grounded inside your body. When we’re experiencing strong emotions, we often lose touch with our physical body. To get grounded, bring your attention to the sensation of your feet on the ground; if you’re sitting, feel the contact between your buttocks and the cushion or floor.
4: Bring your awareness into the heart.
Once you’re grounded, find your center in the heart-not the physical heart, but the inner heart, the subtle energy space located in the center of the body. If you touch your finger to the spot on the breastbone, right between the nipples, you will probably find that there’s a slight hollow there, and even an achy feeling. Behind this little hollow lies the inner heart. Drop your attention into this center, using the breath as an anchor. Breathe in and out as if you were breathing in and out of the heart. Do this for a few minutes, letting your attention become more and more focused in the heart.
5: Explore the energy in the feeling.
Once you’ve found your center like this, focus again on the feeling you are working with. Where is it in your body? How does it feel? This is not an analytical process. It’s more of an exploration. You are giving yourself permission to fully feel and explore the feeling-space, the inner sensations created by anger or sadness or injured pride or fear. Feel whether it is hard or prickly in your body. Notice if there’s a color-field around your mood. Someone told me that his depressed feelings actually feel grayish.
At this point, you’ll notice that certain thoughts tend to attach themselves to your anger or sadness, thoughts that often begin ‘How could he?” or “I always?.” Acknowledge these thoughts then let them go, keeping your attention on the feeling rather than getting caught up in your personal storyline.
Some people ask the question, “Suppose there is content in my feeling that needs to be dealt with psychologically or practically? Am I supposed to just let it go?” For the moment, yes. For this particular process, it’s important to let go of believing the story that your thoughts and feelings are telling you. If you sense that something in these feelings or in the situation that provoked them needs specific action or attention, take note of it. Make a promise to yourself that you’ll come back to it later on.
6: Hold the feeling inside your heart until it dissolves into awareness.
Now consciously bring the feeling-sense of your emotion into the heart. Hold the feeling inside the energy space in the heart. As you do, let the heart space expand, gently and slowly, until you have the sensation that there is real space around your feeling. Now notice what is happening inside you, how the energy inside your anger or grief is shifting. It might become sharper and more intense for a while, or it might begin to soften around the edges, to become less specific, less prickly or swampy.
It’s important to realize that you aren’t just trying to make yourself feel better. You are in a process of shifting your perspective about this feeling. Your intention is to explore its energy, and to let the energy resolve itself back into its root, into the core energy that lies behind every feeling.
When we bring our heavy emotions into the heart space, it is as if we are bringing them into a place where they can be safely held and cradled. Psychologist Rudy Bauer has a way of describing this that I like very much. He says that holding our intense feelings in consciousness is like holding hot coals in a basket. The basket contains the coals, yet it keeps them from burning us. And it also allows the heat to build up so that the fire in the coals can be used to warm us without burning.
In this way we can harness the energy inside our intense emotion and use it as a vehicle to move us beyond our ordinary mind and toward the source, the Self, where we are powered and supported by something much larger than ourselves-something impersonal and yet loving, contentless yet full of wisdom. Abiding in this place, we see what Rumi really meant when he said that fighting and peacefulness both take place within God. Whatever the quality of the times we live in, when we know how to enter the energy of intensity, we have discovered a doorway into the infinite.