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Lions Roar : January 2003
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 61 trigger emotions and take us away from them. Similarly, surrender is not about letting go but about letting be. When you are open to your heart’s pain and to your body’s experience of it, emotions flow in the direction of greater healing, balance and harmony. Attending to, befriending and surrendering to grief, we are sur- prised to discover a profound gratitude for life. Attending to, befriend- ing and surrendering to fear, we find the courage to open to our vulner- ability and we are released into the joy of knowing that we can live with and use our fear wisely. Attending to, befriending and surrendering to despair, we discover that we can look into the heart of darkness in our- selves and our world, and emerge with a more resilient faith in life. Because we are all pretty much novices at this process, we need to discipline ourselves to be mindful and tolerant of the dark emotions. This is a chaotic, non-linear process, but I have broken it down to seven basic steps: 1) intention, 2) affirmation, 3) sensation, 4) contextualiza- tion, 5) the way of non-action, 6) the way of action, and 7) the way of surrender. Intention is the means by which the mind, heart and spirit are engaged and focused. Transforming the dark emotions begins when we set our intention on using our grief, fear and despair for the purpose of healing. It is helpful to ask yourself: What is my best intention with regard to the grief, fear and despair in my life? What would I want to learn or gain from this suffering? The second step in using the dark emotions for growth is affirming their wisdom. This means changing the way we think about how we feel, and developing and cultivating a positive attitude toward challeng- ing feelings. Emotional intelligence is a bodily intelligence, so we have to know how to listen to our bodies. The step I call “sensation” includes knowing how to sense and name emotions as we experience them in the body. We need to become more familiar and friendly with the actual physical sensations of emotional energy. Meditation, T’ai chi, yoga and other physical practices that cultivate mindfulness are particularly useful. How does your body feel when you are sad, fearful or despairing? What kinds of stories does your mind spin about these emotions? What hap- pens when you simply observe these sensations and stories, without try- ing to understand, analyze or change anything? In step four, contextualization, we acquaint ourselves with the stories we usually tell ourselves about our emotional suffering, and then place them in a broader social, cultural, global or cosmic con- text. In enlarging our personal stories, we connect them to a larger story of grief, fear or despair in the world. This gets us out of the iso- lation and narcissism of our personal history, and opens us to trans- forming our suffering into compassion. Step five, the way of non-action, is the skill that psychologists call “affect tolerance.” This step extends our ability to befriend the pain of the dark emotions in the body. When we can tolerate the pain of grief, fear and despair without acting prematurely to escape it, we are practic- ing the way of non-action. Again, it is helpful to meditate on your emo- tions with the intention of really listening to them. What does your grief, fear or despair ask of you? In meditation, listen to the answers that come from your heart, rather than from your analytic mind. The dark emotions ask us to act in some way. While the way of non- action builds our tolerance for dark emotional energy, step six is about finding an action or set of actions that puts this energy to good use. In the way of action, we act not in order to distract ourselves from emotion but in order to use its energy with the intention of transformation. The dark emotions call us to find the right action, to act with awareness and to observe the transformations that ensue, however subtle. Action can be strong medicine in times of trouble. If you are afraid, help someone who lives in fear. For example, volunteer at a battered women’s shelter. If you’re sad and lonely, work for the homeless. If you’re struggling with despair, volunteer at a hospice. Get your hands dirty with the emotion that scares you. This is one of the best ways to find hope in despair, to find connection in a shared grief and to discover the joy of working to create a less broken world. Finally, step seven, the way of surrender, is the art of conscious emo- tional flow. Emotional flow is something that happens automatically when we know how to attend to and befriend our emotions. When we are in flow with emotion, the energy becomes transformative, opening us to unexpected vistas. WHEN WE LOOK DEEPLY intothedark emotions in our lives, we find both the universality of suffering and how much suffering is unnecessary, the result of social inequities, oppression, large- scale vio- lence and trauma. Our awareness both of the universality of suffering and of its socially created manifestations is critical to the healing jour- ney. Knowing how our grief, fear and despair may be connected to larg- er emotional currents and social conditions de-pathologizes these emo- tions, allowing us to accept and tolerate them more fruitfully, and with more compassion for ourselves and others. We begin to see the dark emotions as messengers, information-bearers and teachers, rather than “negative” energies we must subdue, tame or deny. We tend to think of our “negative” emotions as signs that there’s something wrong with us. But the deepest significance of the feelings is simply our shared human vulnerability. When we know this, we begin to heal in a way that con- nects us rather than separates us from the world. ♦ MIRIAM GREENSPAN is the author of ANewApproachtoWomen and Therapy. Her forthcoming book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair, will be published in January by Shambhala.