Whether you call yourself emotional or unemotional, you may often find yourself in reaction to your emotions. From this state of reactivity it may seem that they come and go, subjecting you to their discomfort and dictating your behavior and choices. You would like some relief from the roller coaster of emotions. When you develop equanimity with regard to your emotions you have a sense of emotional emancipation. This means you can remain rooted in compassion and wise discernment regardless of the changing tide of emotion.
Emotions come and go based on the perception of needs met or unmet, whether in your own imagination or in an actual situation. Emotions are complex and recognizable sets of body sensations. This definition is critical to your practice with emotion and your eventual freedom from reactivity to emotion.
If emotions are simply complex sets of body sensations, then at least three practice approaches become possible: release from the tyranny of meaning*, subtle observation, and receiving feedback.
The Tyranny of Meaning
One aspect of reactivity regarding emotion is the meaning you assign to your experience of them. The tyranny of meaning is the unconscious impulse to add meaning to every emotion. That is, if you are feeling a certain way it must mean something about who you are, who others are, or the way things are. The most obvious example is anxiety. Anxiety is, perhaps, most obviously associated with deeply unconscious and habitual perceptions/thoughts that there is an impending threat. These thinking habits are often so unconscious that attempting to intervene at the thinking level is ineffectual without considerable support.** While you may not have contact with habitual unconscious thought, if some part of you can recognize that having anxiety doesn't mean there is an actual threat, you can interrupt the feedback loop of looking for and focusing on what's wrong, which escalates anxiety.
In addition, because you judge some emotions as unacceptable, you might use emotions to make judgments about who you are. For example, you might make a particular emotion mean that something is wrong with you. This is another form of reactivity in which you assign meaning where no meaning is present. The practice with the tyranny of meaning is to catch yourself in the meaning making process and turn your attention to the truth; that emotion is just complex sets of body sensations that constantly arise and fade away in response to your perception of needs met or unmet.
If emotions are complex sets of body sensations, it means that you can learn to observe them rather than react to them. You have likely heard the instruction to be present for with your emotions. This can be difficult or even make things worse if you don't really know how or where to direct your attention.
Where to direct your attention:
For observation to be an effective intervention with reactivity to emotion, both the how and the where are important to refine. Obviously, you body is the "where", but it's not enough to say, "I feel sadness in my chest." Observing emotion as body sensations requires more subtlety. It means noticing exactly where in the chest; how deep, how broad. It means noticing the qualities of those sensations; how do they move, are they sharp or dull, do they have color or shape. This kind of subtle observation helps to anchor your attention in the observation mode.
How to direct your attention:
True observation implies a neutral stance toward its object. However, we can never be totally neutral and when working with reactivity to emotion even less so. Thus, it's helpful to shift the valence of the observing to the positive. For example, loving your anxiety. Generating a felt sense of love or compassion before or as you observe your experience helps to prevent habits of aversion or making meaning. Something as simple as putting your hand on your heart or bringing to mind a beloved pet can wake up a sense of loving-kindness which then infuses your attention.
Lastly, subtle observation requires consistent focus over time. If your attention is jumping back and forth between noticing body sensations and you're reactive thinking this practice won't be effective. It requires sustained attention on the body sensations. You will know when you have given enough attention when you start to release or relax around the experience, that is, you are no longer fighting your own experience.
When you are not reacting to emotions you can receive them as the feedback they are meant to be. Emotions are simply messages about your perceptions of needs met or unmet. In some cases, these perceptions are relevant to actual events in the present moment. In which case, emotions help you pay attention so that you can respond to the situation at hand. In other cases, perceptions arise out of reactive patterns and habitual thoughts. In these situations emotions are feedback about where your mind has wandered and what it's up to. Meditation practice is particularly helpful for noticing emotions as feedback. it's difficult to blame circumstances and other people when you are simply sitting still on a cushion and suddenly have a rush of emotion. You have only your own mind to examine.
Experiencing emotions as feedback you might ask yourself the following questions: What was I thinking about just now? What's important to me about the situation? What needs am I perceiving to be met? Am I reactive? What values are alive for me?
When you cultivate equanimity with all parts of your experience, including emotions, you can not only make choices and behave from wisdom and compassion, you can also find deep fulfillment in the vibrancy of life that is always there.
Set your intention to pause the next time you notice an emotion and ask, "What am I telling myself right now?"
**Anxiety support groups can help intervene with mental habits that trigger anxiety. Work with attachment issues can also help with anxiety.