Grief, hurt, anger, resentment, hatred, loneliness, anxiety, fear, shame - we've all experienced at least some of these emotions; sometimes more often than we care to admit. But is there a way of managing these feelings so that we aren't overwhelmed or swept away by them? And what can we do to mitigate the suffering they bring, both to ourselves and to those around us? The contemplative traditions offer a variety of suggestions for working wisely with these most human of emotions.
1. Recognise them as painful
When we're in the grip of difficult emotions we often condemn ourselves for feeling what we're feeling. This only increases the suffering we're already experiencing. When we examine the way we relate to our anger or fear or difficulty, it's often tinged with shame or judgement. But what if we looked below whatever story we're telling ourselves in that moment and simply recognised these emotions as painful -simply recognised that, right now, we're in pain, end of story. How would that change the way we relate to these emotions?
No one asks to experience painful emotions, but we can't prevent them from arising when the conditions are right. And we aren't wrong or defective for having them. If we can simply acknowledge the suffering these states create when they arise, we can often get below the stories that accompany them and respond to ourselves from a place of compassion.
2. Practice kindness
Sometimes kindness is the only way we can respond to the pain in our lives. To hold your own pain in gentle awareness is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and allows these emotions to arise and pass away at their own pace. This spares us the additional suffering of fighting against or trying to change what we're experiencing right now.
Change what you can, but so often difficult emotions arise not necessarily because of external circumstances, but because we tell ourselves that things should be different than what they are, and so set up an internal struggle that simply doesn't serve us.
Human beings can endure the most appalling of circumstances - think Victor Frankl or Nelson Mandela. But fighting against the way we're feeling is a sure path to suffering.
Treating ourselves and others with kindness in these difficulties allows us to relate to these experiences differently, and provides an environment of solace and support until our fear or anger dissipates.
3. Choose not to act on them
We can't prevent painful emotions from arising, but we can choose not to act from those states. Even though we often think and act like we will always feel this way, all emotions will arise, stay for a while and then pass away, and the more difficult emotions are no different. Non reactivity is always an option, and is often the wisest choice when in the grip of anger, hatred, fear or some other painful state.
Choosing not to respond from these states doesn't mean that strong action isn't required at times, but it will allow you to be more discerning about what particular actions are required and constructive.
4. Cultivate healing emotions
Sometimes we can allow difficult feelings to pass in their own time, and sometimes we can be more intentional in the way we manage our emotions. The active cultivation of healing emotions can be a wise response to our hurt or anger or judgement. For example, the Buddhist texts identify the cultivation of love and kindness as a direct antidote to fear.
Cultivating healing emotions - love, compassion, acceptance, joy - is different from wishing away a certain emotion. It is the intentional nurturing of a certain emotion to shift our current state, and at times it can be an immensely useful response to the difficulties in our lives.
5. Practice gratitude
No mater how difficult your current circumstances may be, or how much pain you're experiencing, there will always be parts of your life for which you can be grateful. This is not to deny what you are currently feeling, or to wish away your pain, but to recognise that not everything is bad.
You can start with gratitude for the most basic of things if necessary - fresh air, fine weather, the support that currently exists in your life, nourishing food, valued relationships, pets etc. Once you turn your mind towards what already exists in your life, you'll be surprised at how much you can find to be grateful for. And practicing gratitude guards against catastrophic thinking - where you mistakenly think that nothing is good in your life. It's possible to be aware of your own pain, whilst also recognising the many blessings you also have.
6. Let go of the pursuit of perfection
Life is messy, and at times painful - fact. It is also wondrous, joyful and mysterious.
Accepting that so much of life is beyond our control releases us from striving for perfection - in our relationships, our jobs, our health and bodies, and in our thoughts and actions.
Having healthy aspirations is one thing, but trying to control the uncontrollable and expecting a degree of perfection in all aspects of life only leads to anxiety and frustration. Letting go of the need for things to be perfect allows us to see how fine things are right now, just as they are.
7. Recognise your shared humanity
One of the most painful aspects of these more difficult emotions is the sense that you are alone in your suffering, when the reality is that at any given time there is likely to be hundreds, potentially thousands, of people experiencing a similar feeling. Their life circumstances may be different, but these emotions are so universal that it's a safe bet that you're in good company with your grief, loneliness, fear or whatever it is that you're feeling.
These mind states are part of the human condition and you can no more avoid them than you can control the weather. The next time you feel in the grip of one of these emotions, reminding yourself of the universality of your experience may ease the depth of your pain and prevent you taking it too personally.
Whilst painful emotions are unavoidable, and at times have much to offer us and our lives, there are ways of relating to these feelings that reduces the suffering they bring. These experiences are part of what it means to be fully human, and can help us to relate - to ourselves, to others and to the world around us - with greater kindness and compassion. Learning to work wisely with difficult emotions allows us to live fuller, richer lives and not to shrink from life and all that it has to offer.
Has there been a time in your life when you've been in the grip of difficult emotions, and what has helped you work with these feelings?