In the yoga sutras, Patanjali tells us that when negative thoughts arise, positive ones should be thought of instead. Patanjali is trying to help us break the negative cycles of emotion that we all get caught in from time to time, but of course this instruction is easier said than done! This month, we’ll spend some time examining yogic strategies to overcome negative emotions.
First, let’s take a minute to consider the dominant emotions in our lives. This will be different for everyone. What strong emotions do you feel frequently? Are there any well-worn emotional paths in your mind that you find yourself going down over and over again? What emotions typically come up for you when faced with stress or unexpected difficulties – how do you react to such situations? When strong emotions come up, how do you cope with them? These questions may be difficult to answer, but spend a few minutes thinking it over. Be honest, too – don’t just think about how you wish you reacted or what you’d like to be, but think about who you actually are. It’s all in the interest of greater self-knowledge!
For me, the dominant emotions in my life tend to be anger, fear/worry, joy, and love. (Don’t forget to include the positive emotions too!) I’ll often experience all of these emotions in a short period of time: for example, walking home from work, I might worry over a future event, fearing an adverse reaction, and then invent a scenario where the worst happens and get angry at the imagined poor treatment. I do this all time (seriously, I’ve concocted whole tearful deathbed conversations when no one in my family is deathly ill and had arguments with the schoolteachers of children I don’t even have yet). When I catch myself at it, I try to turn my mind around. Pretty soon, I’m looking up at the blue sky and feeling joy about what a beautiful day it is, and then I arrive at home, where my husband is waiting to greet me, and I feel a powerful surge of love (that is, before he sends me out to mow the lawn). Of course I often experience other emotions, both positive and negative (like sadness, laziness, compassion, laughter, nervousness, relief, or many others), but these tend to be the ones that dominate my life.
When stress and unexpected difficulties arise, my instinct is usually to go on the defensive. I have to work really hard to push this instinct down, because I can come off as nasty and abrasive. I’m trying to learn to keep calm and focus on communicating about the problem – often it’s not as bad as it seemed at first! Sometimes problems come up that we can’t do anything about, and in those instances, it’s best to find a way to let go and let what happens happen. For example, my train is often late. A year or two ago when faced with a late train I would’ve been manic, worrying about being late to work or making up missed time, stressing out about getting home late. Lately, though, I find myself just sort of shrugging. The train’s late – nothing I can do to make it go faster, so why worry? The other day when my train was late I noticed a woman getting visibly upset, talking on her cell phone, obviously worrying. It made me glad I don’t put myself through that anymore – I don’t need any extra stress in my life!
When strong negative emotions come up, my usual instinct is to push them down or hide them. I don’t want to be perceived as an “angry person”, so I just won’t acknowledge that I’m angry! Yep, that really works well. I can’t do anything to move past the emotion if I don’t acknowledge I’m experiencing it. Or I might explode – doesn’t the other person see how stressed I am? Neither reaction is a productive way to handle the emotion. Deep breathing and cultivating a better consciousness of my emotions helps me to catch these strong negative emotions before I have an instinctive reaction, which allows me to choose how I handle the situation rather than letting my instincts choose for me.
What are your dominant emotions, and how do you handle them?