When life is particularly beautiful or demanding, all of us can have difficulty distinguishing our real selves from our emotions. It happens regardless of whether we are sensitive, highly emotional people or not. We either minimise our emotions and become numb in order to avoid them, or then we are overly aware of them and identify with them entirely. If we feel anger, hate or despair, we may easily begin to consider ourselves angry, hateful, desperate people.
A childhood or a long period of time in an emotionally volatile environment will make us more prone to it: when everyone’s at it, it’s hard to distinguish what is real and what is imagined. Oftentimes drama is used to gain power in relationships and for self-aggrandisement: big emotions are thought to mean big commitment. Regardless of the cause and the way we live it out, we need distance from it. Finding our way to our inner, stable nature is a great relief and a source of joy. It roots our relationships with ourselves and with other people in calmness, truth and empathy.
Having emotions in charge of our lives makes us feel powerless. We become prone to thinking that there is some great answer out there, a grand solution, and that if we can just hit upon it, all will be well. This may take the form of searching for gurus or various methods of self-development, abandoning one because it’s not working fast enough for something else. Or we may think “if I only had a career / a spouse / money it would all be alright”, and search for an external solution.
In fact, a deeper self-knowledge and spiritual growth require simple and repetitive actions. It's helpful to think of training our self-perception in much the same way as we think of physical exercise: at first it seems unnatural and cumbersome, but with time it becomes easier and we even forget how stiff and weak we were – until some setback forces us to begin anew.
Gaining an understanding of where our emotions end and our true self begins, starts with creating distance between the two. It helps to have a toolkit of responses, small actions which we know will calm us and open up the way to our core again: doing the laundry, writing a letter, going jogging, doing simple breathing exercises, finishing a work task. It doesn’t actually matter much what it actually is, as long as you know that it is something which will stop the emotional freight train and direct your attention completely for a limited period of time to something else. This helps us notice that reality shifts constantly, that concentrating on one practical thing will make your world a new one. The body is a powerful ally in this: in B.K. Iyengar’s words, “if you understand many small things, you may eventually understand one big thing”: by spreading our consciousness evenly over every single tiny area of our body, we may grow to sense the Creator, the Life Force in the body and without.
One trick that works for me is that in better and more empowered times I have written out a small note to myself. It lists all the things I believe in, and the things I may do to regain clarity. It is important to me in a maelstrom of grief and pain that I can anchor myself to that concrete piece of paper and realise that what I am experiencing is only one of many alternate realities, and that I have a compass that will lead me to a better one. And that underneath all these realities is the real me, and God.
Little by little these somewhat dull, repetitive excercises will build your spiritual stamina. With practice, you become more and more aware of the core that is actually you, the part of you that is in touch with God, with other people, with nature. You begin to act more and more from the core.
A seemingly opposite but related process works if you tend to disparage and ignore your emotions out of fear that they will take you over. Stop what you are doing, sit down. Let the emotions wash over you, let them come. They will not destroy you. Once they have given their learnings to you, you can pick up where you left off, with less strain and with greater flexibility of mind and feeling.
We often try to work our way through grief or some other unsolved emotional matter by concentrating on it and studying it to death, trying to get to grips with it by understanding it totally. Monomanically staring down a fear may not disperse it effectively. On the contrary, what we concentrate on grows stronger and takes up more mental room than it did before. A physical example again: P’s lower back was very sore, and he assiduously did a great deal of exercises and stretches to strengthen it and was always very careful of it in daily life. Only when a doctor told him that it would be useful to try, instead, to strenghten the chest, the moola bandha, the abdominals and thighs, did the lower back begin to mend. Best to spread your consciousness to other things, find other interests and realisable dreams. The distance that this creates will give you a fresh perspective on the original sorrow too.
Once we begin to notice that there is a difference between us and the situation we are in, we begin to lift our eyes and see how much larger the world and the universe are, how much more interesting life is than we had imagined. We begin to accept that fear, grief, sadness, loneliness may not, as we so fervently wish, go away for good, but that they will take a much more limited role in our outlook on the world. It becomes possible to imagine those emotions as a man all dressed in grey who comes calling and settles in an armchair in the corner. We can look at him and say, “I see you there. You may stay, but I shall not serve you tea.”