On Our Emotional Journey


Leaves sml
(image by Shasha Gong)

Today’s post is something I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks (ever since my last post). I’ve wanted to write this but wasn’t sure if I could succeed in putting it down in words. So here goes.

I will start with a metaphorical situation, try stay with me on this.

As you are walking along an empty street at night, suddenly you get pulled on the arm by a stranger. The stranger seems warm and harmless, yet the unfamiliar body has you curious but nervous. You’re not quite sure how you feel, it’s all happening too quickly.
You realise that you cannot escape their tight grasp no matter how hard you tug, as they beckon you towards a glowing door. You understand they want you to go through it. It seems attractive, exciting, mysterious. You don’t really have a choice to turn back anyway, your gut pulls you in.
As soon as you step inside the room, it falls to complete darkness. The door shuts behind you, just as you hear it closing. Frantically, you run towards the sound, hoping to catch the door before it shuts. But you cannot find the point of entry, not even the doorjamb. You trace the wall along with your hands, hoping for something, but it feels like a blank wall. You’re not even sure how many walls are there. Panic ensue.

Let’s be honest, yes it’s a strange and unlikely situation but I actually think it’s more familiar than it may first appear.

If you consider the graveness of the scene, does it trigger these responses:

  • panic as you don’t know how to get out, or how/why you were there
  • not knowing where to even begin to comprehend what has just happened
  • trying not to loose your wit
  • trying very hard not to panic
  • trying to ignore the sinking feeling
  • trying to manage the physical symptoms like short of breath, quickened heartbeat, sweating, dizziness …
  • not knowing what to do, and feeling the utterly sinking feeling in your stomach

Emotionally, it’s a state where you feel anxiety and panic. We’ve all been there. But nobody knows how to properly deal with such rush of adrenaline, and most of us just let it overcome us completely. Then you may do or say something you didn’t mean, and soak in the guilty aftermath. But hey, let’s not pretend there is a one-size-fits-all band-aid solution to this.

When I was growing up, I punished myself for being this way, as I constantly found myself anxious and unable to calm down (due to various environments I was living in). By putting myself down or worse, bottling up all the emotions and trying to distract myself from it, I thought was the right thing to do. But that just gave me a fair bit of distance from the situation that pushed my buttons, without actually addressing them. The more distance I placed in-between me and the conflict that surrounded me, the colder and stiffer I became. Until eventually I was pretty insensitive on the outside, and devoid of warmth on the inside – I was so far from myself.

In the process of distancing myself from my feelings, I prolonged my chance of understanding myself, who I am, how I feel about certain things and what I want in my life. The things that I would later find could bring me joy, give me reasons to live.

Let’s take ourselves back to that dark unpleasant room.

So, you find yourself in the situation – and the only way out is to find a door somehow, or a point of exit. No use sitting and crying. You start to collect yourself after the panic attack, and while still wobbly, begin to methodically profile the room with your hands. You may do this for a few minutes, a few hours … but emotionally what is happening? I would take a guess that another  panic isn’t far away. You will swing from moments of awareness, to completely loosing it, to becoming terribly depressed about the situation, to wanting to give it all up but cannot, to frustration after frustration. And maybe a very very long time later, you come to accept the situation and that the only way is to come up with a plan. Not just any plan, a plan that will see you cover every inch of the walls until you find what you’re looking for. But your moods and patience will fluctuate even then.

I feel like this dark room is one (of many) representations of our emotional life, the most misunderstood part of our lives. And it’s not so much about finding your way out of the room (which albeit is still important), as it is to understand why you are there, what brought you there and what you will learn from it.

There is something in this kind of lesson, that is persistent throughout your entire life. I speak with people, and those that are particularly self aware know this is one thing that persists throughout your existence. As long as you have feelings and sensations, you will experience all kinds of ups and downs. There in lies the wonderment of being sentient. You won’t know elation unless you’ve felt deep despair, you won’t feeling longing unless you have been close to another.

The biggest difference between who I am right this moment, and who I was year ago isn’t evident by the house I (don’t) own, my bank account, how many pairs of shoes I still have (hey, I’m allowed this guilty pleasure surely), even the freckles on my skin. It is evident by the leaps and bounds I’ve felt I’ve made internally. Nobody else gets to have a say about my journey, I’m fully responsible for all the choices I’ve made leading up to this moment.

Recently, after being moved by reviews of Sam Harris’s book Waking Up, I got myself a copy and have been working through it. A particular passage that rings loudly for me is as follows:

It is difficult to raise a happy family, to keep yourself and those you love healthy, to acquire wealth and find creative and fulfilling ways to enjoy it, to form deep friendships, to contribute to society in ways that are emotionally rewarding, to perfect a wide variety of artistic, athletic, and intellectual skills – and to keep the machinery of happiness running day after day.
There is nothing wrong with being fulfilled in all these ways – except for the fact that, if you pay close attention, you will see that there is still something wrong with it. These forms of happiness aren’t good enough. Our feelings of fulfilment do not last. And the stress of life continues.
[… here Sam refers to meditation, a spiritual master who is able to realise and practice the importance of being present, right here right now …] At a minimum, she will no longer suffer certain cognitive and emotional illusions – above all, she will no longer feel identical to her thoughts … this is not to say that such a person will no longer think, but she would no longer succumb to the primary confusion that thoughts produce in most of us: She would no longer feel that there is an inner self who is a thinker of these thoughts… but I know from direct experience that it is possible to be far more enlightened than I tend to be.
The crucial point is that you can glimpse something about the nature of consciousness that will liberate you from suffering in the present. Even just recognising the impermanence of your mental states – deeply, not merely as an idea – can transform your life. Every mental state you have ever had has arisen and then passed away.

He has really found a way to describe the developed world’s struggles. I do often hear others and myself try to put things in perspective, cry over the imbalance of power and wealth and the suffering of third world countries. Yet, I get nowhere fast? I’m still here, finding that I don’t like myself very much. And further punishing myself for having these thoughts when many others don’t even have food on the table. But this just seems to paralyse me further, until I am immobile with depression. I don’t think that serves me anything useful nor the world I exist in.

It’s in these moments, I try to bring things back to my immediate focus. Through meditation on the present moment, I am able to find a short solace from the despair I feel. Giving myself a break allows my mind to be clearer and maybe one day figure out how my insignificant existence, in someway, could be part of a larger community force that is able to affect change on a large scale and improve other’s living situations.

That is what meditation really is for me, and for a lot of people who have done their research on it. It is far from mystical cults and self proclaimed salvation. The likes of which, if it sounds too good to be true, it always is.