Habits: Stalking negative emotions
My favorite book on dealing with negative emotions is a compilation of meditations by Thich Nhat Hanh, Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions (2004). He has several themes dealing with negative emotions. He continually recommends honesty and openness with your loved ones about how your feeling. (study indicating that this is a physically healthy practice). He also recommends being gentle with one self. He recommends reminding yourself, and meditating on, the things that make you happy. Much of his recommendations fall under the practice of Stalking. The practice that I touch on below is a first step in the process of Stalking.
“It is very helpful to see yourself in moments when you are angry. It is a bell of mindfulness.” ~ p. 27
“One of the main causes of our suffering is the seed of anger inside of us.” ~ p. 5
Notice that each of the above quotes asks us to step outside of our heads and observe (in this case our anger), our difficult emotions. This stepping outside of our selves is a critical step in the process of Stalking, because in doing so we create some space, however momentary, between our emotion and any subsequent reactions or impulses we display when we feel this anger.
Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t say that negative emotions are habits, but I contend that if not the emotion, then our subsequent expression and behavior is. Further, I contend that much of our subsequent reactions are inhibitors in our life.
If we hope to restructure our reactions and impulses away from regrettable behaviors, the space Thich Nhat Hanh points to is necessary to be able to later reconstruct events and discover the lynch-pin behaviors.
Remember, typically in a habitual sequence of behaviors, there will typically be a point where we shift from mindful to auto pilot. I discuss this sequence in my earlier post. After an argument, or a rough weekend, or some other set of negative emotions, once the sting has subsided, it is important to retrace events in our mind and find the one behavior or reaction which if we didn’t do, could have turned the tide. Or once we did do, things went down hill.
A couple of weeks ago I had an especially hard day. In looking back I can see that I had several opportunities to meditate and organize my thoughts and game plan, but I always felt rushed and put the planning off. Had I taken five or ten minutes to make a couple of lists, when the crisis of that day peaked, I could have fallen back on those lists. Going forward I have resolved to remind myself to set down and scratch out a couple of lists when the though occurs, and not put it off. Since that weekend, I have had one such opportunity, and I didn’t make great lists, or give myself quite enough time, but I was able to better organize my thoughts, and operate with a better game plan. Things still didn’t work out as well as they would have if I had focused more, but not as bad as they would have had I only the seat of my pants to work with.
Similarly with anger. I have had a couple of chances to practice creating some space, and interrupting my impulse to escalate arguments, even when clearly invited to do so by my fellow antagonist. This issue of escalation is interesting. Often, in an argument, our fellow antagonist is more comfortable with an all out irrational confrontation instead of calmly addressing the points actually on the table. We must be careful of this desire, and resist the temptation to bait people into it, and to take the bait when so deliciously offered. Some space and observation is required to see the bait coming and to resist taking it (or resist throwing it out there).
There are several specific techniques we can use to build more productive habits surrounding negative emotions.
- cognitive restructuring
I will not go into detail here. It is most important to first practice being the observer to our emotional expression and reaction. This simple (not easy) act of creating space and observing will often point the way to what action we can take next.
Your comments are welcome below. . .
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