By Saroj Dubey
When you confront and face your dark emotions without flinching, you will transform them into love, gratitude and faith, says Saroj Dubey
“When we are confronted with moments of despair and grief and something hurts in life we don’t usually consider it to be our path or as our source of wisdom. However the fact is that anyone who has used these moments of despair to become wiser, kinder and more at home in the world has learned from what has happened right now”
These words from Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart struck a chord in my heart at a time when I was waging a losing battle with emotional turmoil. Being a doctor, I have dealt with a fair share of grief and despair not only among my patients but on a personal level too.
As Pema Chodron has beautifully described in her book, feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, jealousy, anger or fear teach us to perk up and lean in when we’d rather collapse and back away. She advises us to somehow let the energy of the emotion, the pure quality of what we are feeling, pierce us to the heart. This way the hardness in us will dissolve, and we will be softened by the sheer force of whatever energy arises, be it the energy of fear, anger or disappointment.
Moving towards rather than away from emotional distress is the way to real transformation, but it requires some practice and an immense amount of courage. Pema illustrates this in another book, The places that scare you, where she describes emotions as a combination of self-existing energy and thoughts. Below the thoughts lie a vital self-pulsating energy. There is nothing wrong or harmful about that underlying energy. One has to practice staying with it, experiencing it, and leaving it as it is. When emotional conflict of any form arises, we should practice letting the story line go and simply abiding with the energy. This is a felt experience and not a verbal commentary. We can feel the energy in our bodies. If we can stay with it without acting it out or repressing it, it wakes us up. In Vajrayana Buddhism it is said that wisdom is inherent in emotions, and when we struggle against our energy, we reject the source of wisdom.
Some time ago, I was faced with a severe professional crisis which threatened to turn my whole life upside down. A patient I was treating and had performed a therapeutic procedure (ERCP) on, developed a serious complication following it. It was a high profile case as the patient was a VIP with strong social links, and although there was no negligence on my part, the entire blame of the case fell on me. My reputation was at stake, and I felt that I was on the verge of being ruined and jobless. I was also racked with guilt. I began working out all my escape routes and ways to avert a potential catastrophe. Appointments with astrologers and tarot readers were sought. It was then that I chanced upon Pema Chodron’s book. Her suggestion that there was a lot of wisdom and learning in any situation, however messy or desolate, struck me forcibly. According to her if we embrace the fear and despair mindfully rather than avoiding it, a totally new dimension opens up. And so I decided to try it out in my case too. Not that I seemed to be left with any other choice, for my mind was not working at all, and I could not think rationally or analytically. All I did was to be brave enough to mindfully observe my feelings in all their intensity, and accept whatever the outcome was, however undesirable. It went against my usual instinct to imagine the worst and plan accordingly, such as search for a new job in case I was sacked, or hire a lawyer in case of a litigation suit.
This time all I did was to wait and surrender and accept. This went on for 21 miserable and painful days. Each day, the situation appeared to deteriorate as the patient became progressively sicker, and the relatives more aggressive. In my spare time I would just sit by myself in meditation and introspection and observe my feelings to the best of my ability. Initially, it was intolerable to be by myself amidst the tsunami of emotions for even a short period, but gradually things improved. It then dawned on me that once you surrender to a situation with deep acceptance, the situation doesn’t seem as bad as envisaged. We often conjure up dreadful images in our mind because we are convinced that we would never be able to face the worst, leave alone deal with it. But this episode taught me that if you can summon the courage to look the monster in the face, and confront it head on, it gradually loses its all-too dreadful impact. And you are well on the path of transformation or emotional alchemy. We start to understand that conflicting emotions and painful situations have the potential to wake us up and teach profound truths. The patient unfortunately died, and I faced a torrid time, no doubt. But I’m glad that I faced the episode like a spiritual warrior, with an open heart. The episode convinced me that acceptance and surrender were not weak or negative traits, but positive brave emotions that help you become more empathetic and courageous.
In fact, thinking back, I feel I had unconsciously followed the same path of healing after my father’s death. I was devastated and filled with a deep sense of despair and emptiness. For a few days all I did was to lie curled up in bed convinced that I could not move or breathe, and that life had come to a grinding halt. Then slowly but surely the searing pain and hurt turned to a sort of numb feeling, and finally gave way to a more tolerable feeling. Probably it was because I was able to experience the sadness in totality that I could get over the grief rather well.
Miriam Greenspan deals with this issue brilliantly in her book, Healing of the dark emotions. She says that when we can tolerate dark emotions mindfully, we can control our impulses without suppressing our emotions. She describes ‘’emotional alchemy” as the conscious flow of emotional information and energy. Emotional flow is about tolerating the energy of grief, fear and despair in the body and allowing the wisdom of these emotions to unfold. It is about a state in which one is connected to the energy of the emotion, yet able to witness it mindfully. Miriam further elaborates that when we can consciously and with awareness attend to, tolerate and surrender to the energy of the dark emotions as it flows, we open the doorway to the magic of emotional alchemy. Miriam outlines the three basic skills needed to deal with and transform the dark energies to gratitude, faith and joy. These are Attending, Befriending and Surrendering. Attending is to sense the emotions with focussed awareness, and name them. When we can focus our awareness on emotional energy in this way, it offers an opportunity for us to turn adversity into an opportunity of learning. Befriending emotional energy is a further extension of attending to it. In befriending the dark emotions you let them be, not trying to suppress, dispel, avoid, deny or analyse them. Miriam says that befriending emotional energy is about focussing our attention on these sensations and reactions nonjudgementally, allowing the body to feel what it feels and mind to think what it thinks while maintaining a witness consciousness.
Surrendering is about allowing emotional energy to flow to its end point. It means being fully present to emotional energy and letting it pass through the body until it’s gone. A basic axiom of surrender is that to let it go, you have to let it flow. You can’t fully let go of a dark emotion until you’ve fully experienced its truth. You surrender not by moving away from what hurts but by moving into what hurts with awareness as your protection. Mindful awareness and acceptance itself is the balm to heal one’s pain and in the process, the poison itself becomes the medicine.
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