Getting to Know Your Emotions

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


| November 2016



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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.