When I was on my 3-year cancer journey, my psycho-oncologist said that I was “dealing with” cancer. I wasn’t “fighting,” “struggling against,” or battling” it. I was simply dealing with it.
I really liked that construction, and I’ve been using it for all kinds of things ever since.
Since words – being labels – have impact, I choose them with care. Like “strong” emotions. I don’t say “powerful” emotions, because that implies they have power over us. They do not. At least not unless we let them.
All of this came up last night when one of my students asked for suggestions in dealing with her own strong emotions around the recent U. S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe V. Wade. For anyone unfamiliar with this ruling, the original gave women a right to abortions, although each state could place some restrictions on that right. Now, slightly over half of our population no longer has agency over their own bodies.
No wonder emotions are running high.
But this post isn’t about abortion or self-determination. It’s about any strong emotion and how to deal with it.
Here is the process I suggested to my student. It works well for me personally, and I recommend that you try it for yourself. Like a recipe, feel free to add, remove, or adjust ingredients to suit your taste.
1. Face the Emotion
Look at the emotion squarely. Face it head on. Label it, if you like. You might label it “frustration,” “anger,” “disappointment,” or “sorrow” to give a few examples. You might use language to label it, or you may have a felt sense of what it is, instead.
Do not think about the source of the emotion. As Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, “Let the storyline go.” Continuing to think about it is like pouring fuel onto a burning fire. Instead, encourage the emotion to extinguish all on its own. (Nirvana literally means “blowing out” or “extinguishing.”)
Do not “stuff” the emotion, as that’s unhealthy both psychologically and physically. Sometimes we need to be with the emotion for a few minutes, and that’s all natural and good. Just don’t feed it with the story.
2. Recognize the Emotion is Impermanent
When we meditate – and I hope you’re meditating regularly – thoughts come up all the time. It’s part of the process. When thoughts arise, we realize that they are as ephemeral as clouds in the sky. We notice and acknowledge them, then allow them to dissipate. This is the practice.
We can do exactly the same thing with strong emotions. No matter how intense the feeling or how much it seems like it’s about to overwhelm us, we know it will pass. All things do.
“All conditioned things are impermanent.”– the Buddha
Our emotions are conditioned on our upbringing, the circumstances, what we ate for lunch, and more. Remember that they are temporary and that “this, too, shall pass.”
3. Release the Emotion
Now that we’ve laid the ground work, it’s time to let that shit go. As my grand-teacher, the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, used to day, “Put it all down.” (He also used to say, “Changing, changing, changing, changing, changing…”)
Perhaps this is a purely mental process for you. Perhaps you take a deep breath and blow it out forcefully, imagining ejecting the emotion from your body. Perhaps you feel your body relaxing all over as you sense the strong emotion draining away. It really doesn’t matter. Just let go.
By the way, these three steps can be accomplished faster then it’s taken you to read this far. So don’t despair! Just do the work.
4. Go into “Action” Mode
This is where the rubber meets the road, we put our money where our mouths are, or we walk our talk. (Feel free to choose your expression or come up with your own.)
Don’t like how something is going? Make a plan to change it.
Let’s go back to the example of my student who was experiencing some anger about the overturning of Roe V. Wade. She already participated in a demonstration about it. What else can she do?
- Support organizations and officials who seek to change the law through donations or volunteering her time.
- Educate the people in her circle about why this is important to her.
- Support groups who are providing legal access to abortion to women in states where it is now illegal. (Usually this means providing them transportation to another state and back.)
- Avoiding spending money in states where abortion is illegal.
- Chanting and meditating for the benefit of all involved.
I’m sure you can come up with some others.
The point is that you are not powerless, no matter whether that strong emotion made you feel that way for a tick.
I encourage you to try out my “recipe.” Give it a taste test, then make your own adjustments. At the end of the day, nothing I or anyone else says matters unless it works for you.
The next time you start to feel yourself getting spun up, take a breath and try this process. I guarantee it’s better than doing nothing.