Image by Redd Angelo
“Emotions are our faithful guides, like owls that guide us through the dark night, back home.”
Yoga is a conscious path of inner exploration. It is a journey of returning, again and again, to our wholeness. Along the way we meet, again and again, our conditioned self. This is the part of us that is reactive, wounded or struggling in some way. There is always, consciously or unconsciously, an emotional aspect to this conditioning. The emotion may be buried, surfacing or expressing freely. We will explore here how to trust in the guidance of our emotions as an essential part of an authentic journey to wholeness.
Let’s pause here and contemplate some questions: What is your current relationship with your emotional self? Do you spend time with emotions? Do your avoid emotions or act them out in conditioned behaviour? Do you separate emotions from your spiritual practice or your daily life? Do you have a way of regularly connecting with your emotions so you receive the gifts that witnessed emotions bring?
This is an invitation to courageously embrace all of our emotions as an essential part of authentic spiritual growth. To do this may require a personal paradigm shift. Culturally, we tend to suppress, avoid, pathologise, denigrate or, at least, underestimate the power of emotional exploration. Within spiritual circles, emotions can be regarded as mere signs of separateness that should be transcended. Yet, for our journey to wholeness to be absolutely real and authentic, we need to see our wounding, our conditioning, exactly as it is. This includes acknowledging the emotional impact of our conditioning. The way is through, not around, emotions. Rather than seeing emotions as a hindrance to our spiritual life, we can see them as wonderful messengers. Emotions are our faithful guides, like owls that guide us through the dark night, back home. These owls bear their gift: a message. Through emotions, our wounded self speaks what needs to be spoken, to heal the wound and return us to wholeness.
How do we receive the messages that our emotions convey? The answer is utterly simple, yet opens up a profound way of living: we listen to our emotions. So simple, yet humans habitually run away from this simple act of being with our emotions. What does it really mean to listen to our emotions? Listening is a balance, a dance, of both witnessing and expressing emotion.
Witnessing an emotion means to simply ‘be with’ the physical sensations, thoughts and beliefs of an emotion, in the present moment. The practice of being the witness is a common undertaking for yoga and meditation practitioners, but perhaps less commonly applied to emotions. Can we simply witness emotions in the same way we listen to sounds, or follow the breath or watch sensations? In fact our practice of witnessing sensations, the breath and so on gives us the foundation to witness the sometimes intense realm of emotions. The witness does not react against, suppress or avoid the emotion. Nor does the witness get caught in the habit of intellectualising or repetitive story-telling that circles around, but never penetrates, the emotion.
The attention of the witness is on the felt experience and this involves an immersion into sensation and emotion. The witness stays anchored in the immediate felt experience of the sensations that form the basis of that emotion. This requires making space to sense the body. It takes time and space to simply witness the body’s felt experience in this moment.
The witness is not the intellectualising or thinking level of the mind. The capacity to witness is a function of our pure awareness or consciousness, which may also be recognised as our deepest essence or self. The witness provides a stable centre in the midst of even intense sensations. The witness watches what arises and yet, at the same time, the witness is intrinsically connected with consciousness itself. We can use an analogy here: the emotions are like clouds moving through a vast sky, the sky of consciousness. The clouds move, even stormy emotions may come, yet the sky remains clear, open and accepting. The witness can see both the storm of emotions and consciousness at the same time. In this way, the witness gives a resting place and a larger perspective to allow emotions to be, just as they are. Just as we don’t mistake the clouds for the sky, the witness does not mistake our emotions or thoughts for our deepest self. At the same time, emotions are deeply respected as sacred messengers from our deepest self. The emotions are witnessed from the viewpoint and larger perspective of our deepest self.
In wonderful counterpoint to this witnessing capacity, is emotional expression. In my experience, it is necessary to fully express an emotion to bring forth the (deepest) message it contains. This emotional expression is generally stifled in human cultures, beginning with childhood, where full emotional expression in children is rarely given the space it needs.
For myself, I was twenty years old before I began the long journey of emotional expression, expressing my experience of years of violence from my father. During this time of intensive emotional expression, there were many deep insights that surfaced. The capacity to witness emotions paradoxically gave me a safe place to allow the full and often intense expression of many emotions. Looking back, this difficult time was a gift. I learnt how to be fearlessly present with all emotions, even fear, which has always been my most challenging emotion. I learnt to connect with myself and this gave me a precious inner guide that has never left me. And fear remains the most insightful guide of all the emotions that have come my way.
Through a dance of witnessing and expressing, we welcome all emotions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness and the myriad of emotional variations on these core emotions. We welcome all emotions as inherently positive as they all communicate messages. This process can lead us to edgy, unknown, intense places, a labyrinth of emotions, revealing intricate layers of meaning. I find there is a natural flowing cycle, moving between emotional expression, witnessing, gaining perspective and receiving insights.
The greatest paradox, and the most wonderful gift of emotions, is that when we express the emotion and listen to our conditioned experience, that layer of conditioning seems to purge and we reconnect again with our deepest consciousness, our wholeness. Perhaps we are afraid that meeting our wounded self will take over the show, but in fact any emotion that is fully expressed and witnessed, then melts. This cycle repeats until there is a very natural and authentic feeling of completion.
Of course, at times we need the support of an excellent listener to help create a safe and steady witnessing container for this emotional exploration. Over time we can progressively learn to listen to ourselves and gradually build our emotional stamina and emotional maturity.
I will finish with a hypothetical example, a summarised fusion of many stories I have listened to. A woman described to me how she could not meditate because her feelings of grief about a broken relationship, would arise. She found herself repeating the same story of wounding again and again with her friends and not feeling that she was getting anywhere. She did not see the point of talking about it. She felt frozen, unable to move on.
As she spoke I listened deeply, feeling my own body as I listened and saying very little, perhaps occasionally reflecting back what she had said or guiding her to stay with her felt experience. A mostly silent presence helps the person communicating to feel more deeply what is going on inside. She said she felt stuck. She paused and the expression stopped. She seemed to embody her stuckness. She seemed to watch what was going on inside and saw the fear. Then she let the fear speak. She said that she was afraid of the grief, afraid that it would overwhelm her. As she named the fear, it became a gateway for tears, expressing grief and pain. Then some laughter came as she felt relief that she was letting the tears just be, laughing that she thought the grief would overwhelm her, but she could see now that that was the fear speaking.
We sat together quietly, acknowledging fear, grief and the relief. We also acknowledged her feeling of being strengthened and heartened by the process. She said she felt more spacious inside, like she was connected again with the spaciousness she would feel during meditation. She noticed the irony of
avoiding meditation because they brought up emotions and then the emotions led her into a more spacious meditative space anyway. The session felt like a gateway to an ongoing journey of bravely, and simply, facing emotions, just as they are.
The emotional journey is a journey of entering vulnerability that paradoxically strengthens and empowers us. By witnessing and expressing emotions, we develop a powerful life skill that can help us navigate our way through all of life’s events. May we all trust our emotions. May we give our emotions space and time so that we will hear their important messages as they guide us back home.
Anahata Giri October 2014
Anahata Giri offers embodied listening sessions, yoga therapy, yoga classes and retreats, to help others connect with their inner guidance and wisdom.