How to Work with Painful, Disturbing, Horrible Feelings and Be Okay
We enter now into an exploration of what Daniel Goleman calls “the last great uncharted territory of the mind”—our own emotions. Rather surprisingly, given how fundamental they are to our lives, there is no scientific consensus on what emotions actually are. Do they result from thoughts, or are they the cause of them? Are they symptoms of disturbance? Neurobiological twinges? Biochemical secretions of the brain? Mainstream science offers little beyond its attempts to chemically manipulate the emotions through drugs.
‘Emotional integrity is about letting a feeling be itself, from beginning to end.’ — Christine Caldwell
Mythologies around the world view the emotions as gifts from the gods, or perhaps the very gods themselves, manifesting in energetic form within us. A surge of anger, a flood of joy can seem divinely inspired visitations. Emotions move us from within, a deep and vibrant mystery at the very core of what it means to be human.
The Role of Emotions
As the word suggests, emotions are meant to move us (from the Latin root -movere), to wake us up to what’s truly important in our lives. Emotional energy flows through us in powerfully transformative ways, directing us into action, fine-tuning our relationship with reality. Communicating with us directly and viscerally, they alert us to what we need to know.
For all that, our relationship with emotions is often fraught. Seldom are we content to be fully present with our emotional experience just as it is. We struggle to feel more, less, or a different selection of emotions. We seek to control them, latching onto happiness while rejecting fear, anger, and sadness, or keeping them at bay through overwork, overthinking, addictions and distractions that numb our emotional nature. The degree to which we cling to ‘positive’ emotions and suppress or avoid the remainder skews the natural balance, in a way that creates far more suffering than the original experience.
Emotions are categorized, vilified, repressed, manipulated, humiliated, adored, and ignored. Rarely, if ever, are they honored. Rarely, if ever, are they seen as distinct healing forces. – Karla McLaren
We often feel guilty for even having emotions. But the truth is, emotions are how we connect and bond with one another. They are intrinsic to intimacy and social connection. Humans are social creatures: we all have needs, and we must embrace these, not reject them, in order to work skillfully with them. Feeling bad about one’s feelings is about as realistic, and as useful, as feeling guilty for the state of the weather. Emotions arise and pass, just like clouds in the sky. They are not meant to be controlled or avoided, but rather accepted, appreciated, and worked with.
Emotions and Ayahuasca
Working with ayahuasca can plunge us directly into the emotional whitewater. Terror, bliss, disgust, shame, ecstasy, grief, and everything in between can arise in ceremony, so powerfully and immediately that they are impossible to bypass—although we may struggle mightily to do so, and get trapped in a loop of avoidance, which the medicine will faithfully reflect back to us.
In ceremony as in life, it’s our relationship with emotions that is key. We cannot control what arises within us—we can’t help what we feel, however hard we may try. But how we choose to receive the emotions that arise—how we feel about our feelings—offers the opportunity to release the additional suffering that attraction/aversion imposes atop our natural state.
Working with emotions is thus at the very core of the integration process. The feelings you reject—fear, shame, anger, whatever your personal recipe may be—these unwanted parts of yourself are offering something crucial. The shadow presents us with exactly what we need to integrate and grow as individuals; precisely the emotional vitamins we are lacking. As Christine Caldwell writes, “Emotions are evolution on the spot.”
Embracing the emotions, all of them, is thus at the core of your ongoing work with ayahuasca. How you relate to yourself—how you relate to your emotions as key aspects of yourself—is vital to the integration process. Ayahuasca shines a light on exactly what you need right now: it doesn’t work with the future version of you or where you think you’re at. Your emotions are the direct doorway to transformation, offering energy for change and growth.
Emotional Work: A Primer
So if avoiding or grasping at emotions doesn’t work, what does? How do we work with our emotional nature in a way that feeds our life? What kind of relationship is needed here?
Be honest about your emotions. Learn to recognize and name your emotions. A list of feelings and needs like those offered in Non-Violent Communication can be helpful in identifying what you’re feeling in the moment. Explore your emotional experience (hint: it’s often embedded within body sensation) so that you can easily identify your own unique signals: the quiver of fear in the belly, the contraction in the throat that accompanies sadness; the rush of energy into the arms that signals anger.
Part of recognizing your emotional truth might involve working to dismantle chronic patterns of shallow breathing and physical tension that hold emotions at bay. Skilled bodywork (Rolfing, Rosen Method, Bioenergetics) can help in this process. Another aspect is noticing your automatic responses to certain emotions: When I’m sad, I want to stay in bed all day and eat. When I’m angry, I yell. Or, When I’m angry, I hold my breath and get very still. Or, When I’m angry, I eat. Discovering your unique patterns is the first step in learning to respond differently.
Respect the intelligence inside every emotion. Anger often arises in response to boundary violations. Sadness appears when something needs to be let go of. Anxiety can help us better prepare for the future—and so on. All emotions bring gifts. Welcome them, respect them, and give them the space to work as a team.
Recognize their transient nature. The worst feeling you ever experienced eventually passed. Yes, emotions can hurt. But they always, always transform into something else. Emotions are like water: they want to deliver their information and flow through us, out into the world. When we try to dam their flow, the internal pressure becomes painful.
Let them be. Loosen up, physically and mentally, and just let the emotion be. Experience it fully in your body, without shutting down or leaping into (re)action. Meditation practice comes in handy here, if it’s the open, spacious awareness that sees and accepts everything, without clinging. However, meditation is often misused to transcend or block out emotion, paradoxically reinforcing the very blockages that need to be released.
Listen, with your body and mind. What’s the message? If you’re struggling with a situation, two very useful questions to ask yourself are: How do I think it should be? and How is it? These can help you tune into any holding or resistance that might be happening.
Respond, rather than react. Reactions are the automatic patterns you’ve explored in the first step. Responses are the conscious choices you can make when there’s a bit more spaciousness around emotions. Sadness needs a response of soothing and comfort, and a letting go of something—often our expectations, hopes or plans. Grief requires mourning, and eventually a complete letting go. Fear asks for action of some sort, whether it’s moving away or speaking up. Anger often signals the need for protection, and/or the restoration of boundaries. Anger also needs physical expression. This is not a license to smash plates, but a round of wood-splitting or tennis, a gym workout or some furious dancing can give the physical energy of anger a safe outlet to flow through. In the process of reconnecting with your anger, you may find a huge reservoir of vitality—your own life force.
Over time you will find it actually feels good to work consciously with sadness, grief, fear, and other unpopular emotions. To be able to let any feeling arise, inform you fully, and respond appropriately—this is emotional fluency, emotional intelligence in action.
Bringing Compassion to Your Path
Kindness and compassion are vital elements in rebooting your relationship with your emotions. You may need to learn to be kind with yourself, particularly with the more vulnerable emotions like fear, sadness, and shame. This means gently peeling back the layers of holding and resistance that surround the feelings, allowing the tension to release into open awareness and the warmth of your compassion.
Try this when you’re struggling with a difficult emotion, taking five minutes or so to practice this slowly:
Pause and take a conscious breath, creating a softer space within where the feeling can rest more comfortably. Touch yourself kindly with your own compassionate awareness; maybe even the gentle touch of your hand on your cheek or heart. Name the feeling to yourself: This is pain … fear … grief … shame. Ask yourself: Can I just be with this for a little while? Can I give this my loving attention? Take the feeling into your own heart, and love it to the best of your ability, loving the part of you that is feeling afraid, or ashamed, or sad. And remembering as well: This is part of life. I am not alone in feeling this; others feel it too. Feel your heart expand in response to the suffering of others.
Recognising and allowing like this creates a pause, a moment in which you can slip free of reactivity. In this state of presence, you can embrace the feeling that’s there. If you don’t quite know how to do this, simply state your intention to relate to it with kindness: I want to be kind to this (fear, shame, sadness …). As Tara Brach says, “Trust you will learn.” Intention is that powerful.
This kind of awareness is what you need to cultivate in your integration process—an open, embodied, loving presence inside that you can come back to, again and again. You cultivate this through reading, studying, practicing in the form of meditation, but most of all remembering in day-to-day life to soften around difficult emotions, to keep breathing through them, to give yourself loving support as you slowly learn to open to them. Trust the core of your own heart in this process, as you connect with the vastness of your essence, your true self.
Karla McLaren’s The Language of Emotions outlines the deeper meaning of every emotion and offers brilliantly practical ways to engage with them. Her website features a blog, online courses and podcasts: https://karlamclaren.com/start-here/
Tara Brach is a psychotherapist and meditation teacher whose book Radical Acceptance shows what it’s like to work with emotions in a deeply compassionate way. Here’s an interview with her: ‘The Awakened Heart: A Conversation with Tara Brach’
Miriam Greenspan, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair
Penny Fenner on ‘Being with Emotional Energy’: