Checking in with Emotions Responding emotionally but with awareness BY: Troy Murphy
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We respond to life with emotion—spirits leap, chemicals flow. Biological programming pushes us forward in excitement or recoiling in fear. The emotions pull upon strings of the past, inviting memories into the feelings of the present. The past isn’t the past at all; it lives in the present. We can vehemently hate our past. We can fight it, detest and blame but here in the present the past resides.
Accepting past behavior differs from stagnating settlement. We don’t accept and ignore impacts of behaviors. We accept and evaluate for better. We’re not satisfied with yesterday’s subpar performance but accept we worked subpar. We are human; subject to errors—momentary lapses causing pain to ourselves and others. We can grieve the pain creating behaviors; often the grief motivates change. Whether it’s grief, sadness, anger or love, the emotion encourages movement. The need to act arises from the feeling.
Emotions are complex. We use words to describe feelings to satisfy verbal expression; but words aren’t emotions. The experience is more than a simple word—sad, angry, afraid or ashamed. Our bodies experience a change, a chemical movement motivating action. The emotional waves immerse the organism in changing balances and intensities. We feel something. Culture and language gives meaning to the internal movements. Our human need to understand illuminates prominent feelings that we simplify with an explanation of words—I’m mad or sad. Constructing a workable theory, presentable in words, transforms feelings into conscious understanding. These theories can be constructive or destructive. A poorly constructed theory transforms feelings of sadness into guilt, shame and self-loathing. A well-constructed theory may, conversely, include a deeper understanding of human loss, treasuring current connections, and gained wisdom for future choices—wisdom.
There’s a difference between feelings and explanations. We often give priority to the explanation, clinging to the meaning and overlooking the experience of feeling. The practice of mindfulness focuses on the feeling, avoiding troublesome explanations, and just bathing in the experience. This proves difficult for most, accustom to thinking. The practice of mindful feeling draws us closer to an experience, allowing chemical changes to ebb and flow without muddying the experience with wandering thoughts.
Awareness can extend beyond simple focus on the feeling. We do need workable theories of experience. Often the feeling is important to understand, brining new lessons, and valuable guidance. But successful integration requires attention, moving from automatic responses to observations of thoughts, impulses, and biased meanings. We move from blind acceptance of mean justifications to skeptical examinations, challenging thoughts, questioning impulses, and identifying dysfunction. Only through openness can we entertain possibility of change.
The reactionary chain can be broken, harmful translations can be challenged and replaced. Feelings are the sacred encounters with humanness, to be treasured. We shouldn’t be ashamed because we feel. Properly processed guilt may motivate healthier practices. Sadness may ignite future appreciations, and anger may direct thoughtful attention to injustices. We gain wisdom by learning from our missteps. Excusing the past because of uncomfortable emotions creates ignorance. Discomfort over blunders in thought and action are healthy when the discomfort adds meaning and direction to future action, instead of cruel evidence ruthlessly used to self-demonize. We should repair mistakes, express sincere apologies and then quietly forgive, moving forward with renewed desire to do better. We must constantly muddle through the dynamic path of change throughout our lives as we navigate the challenging roads of living.