Managing Emotions, Managing the Mind
Some practices for the holidays
Managing Strong Emotions, Cultivating Positive Emotions
In many yoga practices, we learn to slow down emotions and replace challenging emotions with positive ones. The practices of Bhakti Yoga, often called the Yoga of devotion, is also known as the Yoga of cultivating positive, devotional emotions. Chanting, worship, service, and prayer are practices that are engaged in to create or nurture loving emotions and to invoke states of gratitude, humility, awe, forgiveness, and acceptance.
These are the sorts of things the holiday season should be about. But as we all know, they often devolve into stress-centric interactions.
Practices of Bhakti yoga begin to change our underlying emotional traits so that when we are challenged by situations that normally evoke strong emotions, we spontaneously remain calm and have an inner sense of stability by which we can gently and rationally choose a response. Every once in a while, when this happens to me, I notice it and think, wow, this stuff works!
There is an interesting word, sublimation, which has a few different meanings. In science, sublimation refers to a solid that changes to gas, skipping over the liquid phase. In Yoga, we find the teachings about the three bodies, the physical, subtle, and causal. The physical body is compared to ice, subtle to water, and causal to vapor. They are all contained within each other as changing states. To go directly from ice to vapor would mean to go directly from body consciousness to bliss consciousness, skipping past the mind.
Sublimation is from the Latin word sublimis, which means “up to, upwards.” Alchemy uses sublimation, an elevating process, and refers to ascending transformations of elements, the same as solids to vapor, and how to capture the essence of the vapor, or spirit, and make use of it. The body transformed into a spirit, and the spirit was captured in the body.
In psychology, sublimation is a defense mechanism by which someone can channel a response to a situation that could be negative into a constructive output. Rather than lashing out at someone who you feel has wronged you, you channel the response into something else: meditating, going for a run, painting, or a creative project. It’s an intermediate step on the path of learning not to be ruled by our emotions. If we can notice something is about to burst forth, but instead of giving in to it, channel our energy into something constructive, it’s a win. But we don’t want to stay in that space forever; ideally, we would like to be in a space where intense reactions don’t arise and overtake us.
In Yoga Sutras, there are some hints of what could be called sublimation. Remember, sublimation is not suppression; suppression leads to the creation and eventual bubbling up of neurosis. To suppress emotion is to ignore it or try to bury it. Sublimation is to take something challenging and transmute it.
Here are two practices that use sublimation to acknowledge an experience and not act upon the emotions they may draw up in us:
Imagine a happy or challenging event that has occurred to you sometime in the past. Nothing too intense or heavy. Recall two or three things that happened leading up to that event; imagine them as the steps that led you to the event. For example, you were late returning an important email. The steps leading up to it were that you were up late working, you slept late, and you forgot to check your email.
After you have chosen your event and the steps, you will do this.
Imagine step one and take one breath pausing there.
Imagine step two and take one breath pausing there.
Imagine the event and take one breath pausing there
Now, repeat the process taking two breaths at each step instead of one breath.
When you conclude, let go of the event.
It seems simple, and it is. What you’ve done is you have slowed yourself down at each step, whereas conversely, if you ruminate on the event, your mind begins to freak out again, and you induce a state of stress. You are sublimating rumination into contemplation by simply taking a breath at each step. Your relationship with that event will begin to change.
The second practice is based on sutra 1.33 of Patanjali Yoga Sutras and is a practical way to transform challenging reactions to the behavior and characteristics of people around us.
Imagine a happy person whose happiness is because of something wonderful that has happened to them. Feel friendliness towards their happiness and towards that person. Sometimes we feel jealous of those who are happy when we are not.
Imagine a person who is suffering. Sometimes we wish to avoid suffering because it is too much to bear. Feel compassion towards the suffering person instead. You do not need to take on their suffering as your own. Simply acknowledge their pain without pushing anything away.
Imagine a dharmic person who has attained much merit and renown through their actions, perhaps even from birth. Imagine the joy that they feel is your own as well. Feel a sympathetic joy towards this person; their joy is yours. Your joy is theirs.
Imagine a person lacking kindness, compassion, sensibility, or truthfulness, filled with a selfish, destructive temperament. Feel a sense of equanimity and equilibrium when thinking of this person and visualize yourself moving away from them. Move away from adharma. Move towards dharma. You can’t change this person, but you can change your reactions – but to do that sometimes requires distance. Create distance through learning equilibrium of mind.
I try to practice these two practices, and honestly, they work. The first one especially. The second one is more of an exercise in mind management. The best way to avoid a crisis-situation is to prepare outside of a crisis-situation. Try these and see how they go!
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