Saturday, April 7, 2012

Emotional Intelligence (5): We Are Not Our Emotions

My jumping-off point for this next post about feelings and emotions is Bonnie's wise and helpful comment on my last post. I think it's so important that I'd like to quote it in full:

"With time and attention we can learn not to become identified with our feeling states. We can learn to let them wash over us, giving us the information we need without attaching to them. One of the keys to a balanced, open, healthy emotional life is to relate TO our emotions and not FROM them. E.g. 'Of course I am feeling over-wrought considering the trauma I have just experienced.' You acknowledge the emotion, give it room to be without allowing it to 'rule'.

E-motions are meant to move through us. Our goal should be to not allow them to possess us. Easier said than done, but with practice we can allow the emotion, glean the information it is giving us, and then move on to the next emotion that will surely follow. Feelings are essential to the flow of a human life — adding richness and depth — we just don't have to drown in them as we do when we become identified with them. E.g. 'I am experiencing angry feelings right now' rather than 'I am an angry person'."

Yes! The prime insight here, I think, is the recognition that we are not our emotions. They are closely involved with us but they are separate from us. This perception allows us to distance ourselves from our emotions slightly, to consider them from a more objective standpoint. You could perhaps say that it's our complete self, our whole psyche, that's the essential thing, and emotions take their valued but secondary place within this framework — or rather, as Bonnie states, they move right on through the frame, as feelings always seem to be in flux. Feelings do indeed give richness and depth to our lives, and we would be less than human without them. But we ourselves are more than just our transitory feelings, much more.

In a way, we are the sum of all our emotions, all the feelings we have ever experienced or anyone has ever experienced, just as we are the sum of all our thoughts and actions, and the sum of all anyone has thought or done. We are all connected to a kind of Jungian Collective Unconscious. We are unique individuals, but at the same time we are universally bound together. We are all carbon, all stardust. We all have bodies, brains, thoughts, feelings. And if I'm unable to achieve something in one area of my life, someone will realise it for me in theirs. And vice versa. In this sense, we are all saints and we are all sinners, and everything in-between, and if we truly understand what this means, then it may help us extend empathy towards the whole of mankind.


  1. I'm glad you found my previous comment had merit and meaning for you and your blog Robert.

    Your sub-title "we are not our emotions" is a key thought. Perhaps you are already familiar with Alberto Assagioli? He was an Italian psychiatrist (about the same time as Jung) that developed a school of psychotherapy known as "Psychosynthesis".
    One of his key tenets is exactly what you are saying that we need to take a higher, more objective view of our feeling, body and mind states. In fact he has a little scripts where he encourages people to disidentify from body/mind/feeling states by saying to themselves: "I have feelings, but I, myself, am not my feelings. I have thoughts, but I, myself, am not my thoughts. I have a body, but I, myself, am not my body." What are we then, you might ask? Assagioli posits: "I, my true self, am a center of pure awareness." This can help us not to get too caught up in (identified with) the suffering we can experience from these states.

    I was excited to read your insights, wondering if you knew of Assagioli - and if not - how special it is that you have come to the same conclusions as this, unfortunately rather unknown, sage.

    Your last paragraph is rich! It made me think, a la Assagioli, "I am not my body (which has experiencing walking pneumonia of late), I am stardust with awareness." I can feel a lightness as I allow your thought to help me disidentify from the body.

  2. Thanks so much for your response, Bonnie. I've never heard of Assagioli, but will certainly track him down now you've mentioned him. Exciting stuff! I knew for a week that I wanted to use your comment as the basis for my next post in this series. However I only started writing it a short time before publishing it — my usual way. That last paragraph came very quickly and even surprised me!

  3. "We are all carbon, all stardust." I found this a particularly gorgeous thought. Thank you.

  4. Great post and great comments, Robert. There's great wisdom here. The challenge, I think, is to remain mindful. It is through mindlessness that we usually confuse our emotions, our thoughts, and our bodies with our true, authentic selves. As you know, Eckhart Tolle writes a great deal about the need for the authentic self to become sufficiently detached from the ego to witness the hyperactivity—some of which borders on the insane— that is often occurring in one's life.

    Thanks for these fine insights, and Happy Easter.

  5. Thanks, Susan! Your comments are so welcome, as always.

    And George — I've developed this a little in my latest post — and what you say is also strongly connected with Bonnie's comment, isn't it? The true, authentic self. Will we ever get there? I'm trying.

  6. Read this twice, SW, this morning and now again this evening. I don't have anything wise to add but it did make me think. I know exactly what it's like to be subsumed by my own oft-extreme emotions. Sometimes they drag me up to some majestic summit and sometimes they deposit me like so much glacial sludge on the valley floor (where I am these days - well, five days out of seven anyway).

    Not that you're offering advice here as such, but I did tell myself to step back after reading this. (Ray Jardine in one of his hiking books talks about "changing channels" while in the grip of unhelpful emotions on long solitary journeys.)

    So...where do I send the cheque?

  7. Thanks for revealing part of yourself, Goat — which is what this new blog is all about. I too can swing this way and that, sometimes even within the space of one day. But I think these techniques we've been discussing — objective reflection, learning to separate the true self from one's emotions — are really useful, even necessary, if we wish to remain "on top of things".

    A Buddhist "trick" is to imagine the real self (pure consciousness, call it what you will) is standing on a riverbank and watching dispassionately (with amusement even) one's transient, unbidden thoughts and emotions, memories and expectations, flowing past and out of sight — to be replaced by more thoughts and actions, memories and expectations . . . I find imagining this really effective, and it helps to objectify one's emotions, deal with them more rationally, put them in their place, not be submerged by them.