Getting to Know Your Emotions

Instead of leading us astray, our emotions become our guide towards living a more compassionate, creative, and fulfilling life.

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In Emotional Rescue (Tarcher/Perigee, 2016), by Dzogchen Ponlop, you will work to control your emotions rather than having your emotions control you. Though most of us would like to boast that we’ve got things under control, the reality is often at the mercy of our emotional tides. Mastering that ocean is no easy task, but it’s one that the highly respected reincarnate Buddhist teacher says is crucial: when we bring awareness to our experience of emotions, something truly amazing happens – they lose their power to make us miserable.

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Getting to Know Your Emotions

What would life be like without our emotions? Kind of boring? Like a flat soda? Without that fizz and sparkle, we wouldn’t be very interested in drinking life in. Emotions bring energy, color and variety to our lives, but we also spend a lot of time confused by them. They can transport us to blissful, peak states and drag us down to the depths of delusion and despair — and everything in between.    

People are driven by their emotions to marry each other and to murder each other (sadly, sometimes the very same person they married!). Every day we get in line for this roller coaster ride of emotion that thrills us one minute and turns us upside down the next.  What are these unpredictable feelings and why do they seem to control us, rather than the other way around?     

It depends on who you ask. You’ll get a different answer from a scientist, a therapist, a priest, an artist, or the usual beneficiaries of your love and loathing – your family and frenemies. There’s an Asian proverb that says: “Medicine, if taken with knowledge; poison, if abused.” This is how our emotions are. If we learn how to relate to our emotions skillfully, then they’re like medicine, containing great wisdom; but if we lack this understanding, then they’re like poison, causing great harm and suffering. While we’re under the spell of our emotions, it’s like we’re sick. We can’t wish away the aches and pains and fever. You have to let your sickness run its course or intervene with some kind of treatment.

If you understand your illness, you can take steps to heal yourself and end your suffering. But if you don’t know what you’re doing – if you take the wrong medicine – you could make yourself sicker. In the same way, when you understand your emotions and what makes them tick, you can work with their intense energy and start to heal your suffering.

To get real help with emotions, we have to go beyond a simple textbook understanding of them. It isn’t enough just to know how many and what kinds of emotions there are. When we strip away what we think we know and look freshly at our personal experience of anger or passion or jealousy, what do we find? This is not just about recognizing what kind of thoughts we’re having. It’s about discovering what our emotions are at their very core. Seeing that anger makes us want to strike back or that desire makes us want to please is just the beginning. Really getting to know our emotions is challenging, but it can be motivating too. When we see that we’re continually getting beat up by our emotions — we can become determined to learn how to rescue ourselves. 

 Before we reach real understanding and wisdom about our emotions, we first need a clear idea of what they are and how they work. Emotions get their power from a simple but deep-seated source: our lack of self-knowledge. For this reason, when we bring awareness to our experience of emotions, something truly amazing happens. They lose their power to make us miserable. So it’s vital to see how emotions operate in our lives and how devastating their influence can be when they are in command. With this knowledge we begin to regain our independence. We begin to see how to free ourselves from those old patterns of fear, doubt, anger, pride, passion, and jealousy that have robbed us of so much happiness. We regain the power to navigate the direction of our lives.

Yet our emotions have been around so long, they’re like old friends. We’d miss those familiar faces if they didn’t show up one day. But we also know how they can deceive us — how they can trip us up, over and over, with their promises: “Listen to me, this time it will be different! This time, blowing up in anger is clearly within your rights! You’ll feel so much better.  This time, it will fill that empty place inside.” 

With each step you learn, you become increasingly familiar with the inner workings of your emotions. You begin to see through the dense outer layers that mask their true nature. Eventually, you see straight to the heart of your anger, passion, jealousy, and pride. Even ignorance and fear become transparent. 

Taken together, mastering these three steps can bring about profound emotional healing. Each step can become a turning point, a place where your relationship with your emotions can change and evolve. Instead of simply struggling with your emotions, it’s possible to develop a creative partnership with them.  With time and practice, anxiety and doubt give way to trust and confidence. Gradually, you discover that your emotions themselves are the doorway to the freedom you’re looking for — they open the way for you instead of holding you back. 


Excerpted from EMOTIONAL RESCUE: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, available April 19, 2016. Printed with the permission of TarcherPerigee/Penguin, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche ©2016.