Buddhist meditation

Nuanced Emotions

One Mind Dharma Mindfulness

I’m emotionally conflicted.

This happens a lot. It’s pretty normal I think.

I woke up this morning missing my life in Telluride something fierce. My girlfriends in particular. Just feeling so far away from them. And so, so sad.

I also woke up this morning feeling grateful to be here. Grateful that I got to be of service yesterday. Excited to see how my life unfolds in this new city. Full of energy and hope.

So, both sadness and gratitude are present. I am working to hold them both.

When I began to meditate I was really surprised by how often I was holding conflicting emotions. I was under the impression that sure, sometimes things are “bittersweet” but in general things have one clear emotional flavor. As my practice developed I came to understand that most of my emotional reactions are nuanced; few of them are clear cut.

It’s a cultural norm that we try and put or emotional experience into a label of some sort. It’s how we communicate to one another. But as I become more intimate with my emotional experience I see the limits of that language. “Fatigued” is not the same as “I feel like an old sponge that has been wrung out for the 100th time and is beginning to fall apart at the corners.” But it’s not the social norm so we use the existing language.

And I’ve internalized this. As soon as I feel an emotion arise in my experience I work to give it a known label. Which then limits my ability to truly feel the whole of the emotional experience. I constrain it.

Over time, as I’ve deepened my awareness of my present moment experience, I’ve begun to let go of these labels a bit and try and see the entirety of my emotional experience. I often have to start with what body sensations are arising. That then can lead me to what emotions are present. Rather than using the traditional “sad, mad, glad” identifiers I instead come from a place of curiosity. I might ask myself questions like “How does it feel? Is it hard, is it soft? Is it sharp, is it fuzzy?” Or “What color does it feel like?” Or “When you feel this emotion what images come to mind?”

When I feel an emotion arising I try to stay really curious. I can have that tendency to think I can predict the future. I think I know exactly how an emotion is going to manifest and what triggered it and how I’m going to react. But if I stop for a second, and allow myself to be curious, I can see each experience with fresh eyes.

I absolutely do not feel like writing today. My overwhelming emotional experience is one of resistance, and I feel a tightening in my muscles and jaw. It feels stormy, and hard, and sticky like molasses and dark. And as I sit with this emotional state I am able to see something underneath. It feels like beneath the dark storm there is this light, delicate sprout that wants to be seen.

Before I had a practice I wouldn’t have seen that there was something other than anger and resistance. And I would have walked away from the computer. But today, I can see this fearful vulnerability underneath. I can be aware of the part of my emotional experience that wants to be expressed but is afraid to be rejected. The part that wants to share about the complexities of emotional experience and is afraid of opening up that much.

So often when I explore my emotional landscape I find hints of fear underneath. I fear if I share my ambivalence That’s my tendency, my pattern. Your pattern may be different, but as you explore your emotional experience see if you can develop some curiosity about what your tendencies are.

Even now, even as I more deeply understand the complexity of emotional life, I am still placing shoulds on myself. I should be over my grief of leaving Telluride, I should be more adjusted to life in LA, I should not be feeling tired, I should not feel so conflicted about the move etc. etc. My practice allows me to see I’m doing this, to see that I am trying to pigeonhole my emotional experience, and I can work to let that go. But it’s a process, and some days are easier than others.

Another example in my life, of navigating nuanced emotions, is my emotional experience around my decision not to have children. While I feel very calm and certain about this decision in many ways, underneath I have had to tend to the sadness of knowing I will never experience pregnancy, and never get to pick out baby names, and never be a mother. And I always was a little strident, or defensive about my decision until I dealt with the feelings underneath. When I was ignoring them, I was ignoring my truth. Now, honoring all of my emotions, I feel more authentic about this decision.

In Buddhism we are asked to look at our whole present moment experience. Not just at the emotions we like, or can label, or seem most appropriate in the moment but at our ENTIRE experience. And as practice deepens and we see the whole of our emotions we see more and more of our authentic self.

About Kate

Kate Spina, LCSW, is passionate about applying the early teachings of the Buddha to 21st century life. Kate is a meditation facilitator at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, and an Adaptive Ski Instructor. Her home base is Los Angeles, CA. Kate can be reached at it.is.kate@gmail.com. Check out all of Kate’s posts!