An Ancient Practice for Taming Your Emotions (Backed by Science)
Working with the inner forces that move powerfully through our hearts, bodies and minds
Hello & welcome to another edition of Beyond Self Improvement!
Last Wednesday, I shared an important concept about setting intentions and trusting your inner wisdom: Look where you want to go. The comments on the post are beautiful because the beyond self improvement community comes with its heart open.
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Anger was one of my most challenging and persistent visitors. Everything irritated me: idiots, interactive voice systems, and drivers who passed me only to slow down later.
Like many, I suppressed anger for fear of embarrassing myself or cutting people’s heads off. I didn’t want anger to control me. Instead, I directed my frustrations inward, which made me depressed. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time.
Sometimes the pressure from suppressing anger became too great. I would flip off another driver or yell at my sister. I even once shouted at a manager at a Starbucks. “You walk around like you’re depressed all the time,” she said. “I asked others in the office, and they all agreed with me.” She was right. I felt depressed. But I wasn’t prepared for her to reveal my darkest secret in front of customers cued up for coffee on a Tuesday morning. So I vented my frustrations about her. Somehow, I survived two rounds of company layoffs.
It wasn’t until I discovered a practice called naming that I found a better way to deal with my temper. Naming is a process of labeling whatever it is we are experiencing. For example, as I type this sentence, I feel tension in my eyes and tiredness in my back. I could name these “tension” and “tiredness.” The benefit of naming experiences is that they no longer control us.
I began naming anger where it was most apparent—my straight-commission sales job. Where did I feel it in my body? What physical sensations were present? What color was the anger? What was its temperature - hot or cold? What shape was it—was it round or square, rectangular or triangular? If I could learn to notice the sensations of anger, perhaps I could catch them before erupting in a volcano of righteous swearing.
The first few times I tried naming, the sensations of frustration came and went too quickly for me to respond. I went straight to hostility. But over time, I began noticing anger bubbling up so I could catch it before becoming consumed by it.
My belly would become hot and fiery red. My vision narrowed, and my body contracted around the anger as if readying for battle. Being mad felt righteous, justified, and empowering. The more I practiced, the earlier I could detect the sensations, the less likely I would react to such powerful emotions.
Of course, we can use naming to work with common difficulties other than anger.
Ancient healers understood that naming our fears helped recover our lost power. But today, we are often unaware of the names of the inner forces that move powerfully through our bodies and lives. We can start by practicing naming beautiful states like joy, delight, peace, and calm. Then we can move on to naming our difficulties to see more clearly, freeing up energy trapped within them.
Naming our experiences is the first step to bringing them into conscious awareness. This allows us to inquire into whatever challenge presents itself. As we feel and name our experience, we can observe what causes it to arise and how to respond more skillfully.
Begin by sitting comfortably and paying attention to your breathing. Gently acknowledge each breath: “in-breath, out-breath,” saying the words silently and softly. Noticing breathing encourages awareness rather than getting lost in thought. As your mind quiets and your skill grows, you can be more exacting, “long breath,” “short breath,” “tight breath,” or “relaxed breath.” Over time, every kind of breath will reveal itself.
Soon you can start noticing and naming other experiences such as “itching,” “hot,” “cold,” and “tightness.” You can name feelings, such as “worry” or “doubt.” You can include naming sounds, scents, images, and thoughts such as “remembering.”
When practicing naming, focus on breathing until a stronger experience calls your attention. Then feel this new experience. Gently name it in your awareness—“planning, planning, planning,” or “boredom, boredom, boredom.” Then return to naming the breath until another strong experience arises.
In the beginning, naming may feel clunky or disruptive to sitting still. Be sure to name very softly while giving most of your attention to feeling into the experience rather than the naming. If naming begins to feel like judging, remember that it is simply a gentle way of noting what is present.
In time, you will begin naming the difficulties throughout the day, like restlessness, doubt, sleepiness, grasping, and anger. The more you practice naming mental states, feelings, and sensations, the more you will see them clearly as they arise.
As our spiritual life deepens, we find the capacity to be with the most stubborn places in ourselves. Usually, we think of moods as lasting a long time, an angry day, or a sad week. But we discover a great truth in developing the skill of naming our experience. No state of mind, feeling, or emotion lasts more than fifteen to thirty seconds before another replaces it. This is true of pleasant states and painful ones.
When we look closely and name a state, such as “loneliness, loneliness,” we realize it has vanished after ten or twenty seconds of soft namings. It may turn into an associated state, like self-pity. We may notice self-pity for a while, then it turns into depression, followed by resentment. We observe resentment for a time, turning into anger, relief, or even laughter. As you open, you will see the unending flow of emotions and find true freedom beyond all conditions.
The purpose of spiritual life is not to discover some blissful state of mind. Instead, it is about learning to attend directly to the most essential aspects of body and mind. It is a means to see how we get entangled by our desires, anger, and fears and discover our capacity for freedom.
Our difficulties can become a place for understanding and opening our hearts rather than a misfortune or a source of frustration.
That’s all for this week. Thanks for being here and giving me this space to share with you. I’ll be back in your inbox next Wednesday.
Whenever you’re ready, I can help you transform chronic stress and worry into ongoing calm and feeling in control in 90 days. Schedule a free, 30-minute discovery call today.