A newborn child does not have a choice as to whether or not they will move their bowels or relieve their bladder; they just soil themselves whenever the urge comes to them. But by the time they are two years old they have been ‘potty’ trained; they have been taught to become aware of the status of their bowels and bladder and how to go to the bathroom and relieve themselves.
This awareness training is called mindfulness, in this case mindfulness of the bowels and bladder. In so doing they have gained some mastery over the human instrument through which they will experience life and that mastery will enhance the quality of their life experience.
As we go through life we gain mastery over many aspects of our body/mind instrument. We first learn to crawl then walk then talk then ride a bike and so on. Each new mastery or skill enhances the quality of our life experience by empowering us to get what we want from life.
Not all people learn the same basic skills in life. Most people are potty trained and learn to walk and talk. Some are taught mental disciplines that enable them to concentrate their mind on a task until it is accomplished. Others who have not been taught that discipline are easily distracted and never seem to accomplish much of anything in their lives.
It is a very rare person who is taught Emotional Self Care; how to practice emotions that are healthy for us and give us a sense of contentment, peace, joy, beauty, empowerment and love in life. Emotional Self Care, like any discipline or habit, takes practice or an effort to develop.
If we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that what we want is a life filled with positive experiences like beauty, happiness, joy, love, peace, freedom and the like. Yet, because of circumstances, we develop habits that produce negative experiences like ugliness, misery, sadness, fear, anger, anxiety, bondage, guilt and the like. This is not necessarily our fault, for much of society wants us to develop these unhealthy habits. Others can then use these unhealthy habits to gain power over us. [I will talk more about this elsewhere.]
There is an old saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and I say that so is ugliness, good and evil, heaven and hell. Being ‘in the eye of the beholder’ means that beauty is not something that is intrinsic to an object but is subjective to the individual. Two people may see the same object but one will see it as beautiful and have a beautiful experience while the other will see it as ugly and have an ugly experience. If we were honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that we want the beautiful experiences. Therefore, why not develop a habit of finding the beauty in whatever experience we are having? Of course, this makes sense but how do we do that?
Since beauty and ugliness are NOT inherent in anything, they are entirely subjective, our choices to see and experience something as either beautiful or ugly are conditioned responses and being conditioned responses means that we can RE-condition ourselves to have different reactions to the same stimuli. In other words, we can find a way to look at anything and experience it as beautiful or to find joy or peace or whatever experience we want.
Emotional Self Care is about practicing this IN SPITE OF OUR CONDITIONING.
As I sit and write this I am outside a café with cars driving by and people walking around. The cars and people could be a distraction to my effort to write and I could find that annoying, which is to say I could see them as ‘ugly’ in a sense. Or, I could see them as the elements of life that I am working at describing here and appreciate them for how they have added to my life experience; thus giving me an experience of ‘beauty’.
Consciousness or being awake is recognizing that I ALWAYS have that opportunity to choose the quality of my life experience.
I am not saying this is easy, it is not, at first, but with practice it does become a lot easier, just like riding a bike.
As with being potty trained, it first takes awareness of what I am experiencing. Am I starting to feel irritated by the cars driving by or the people walking by and distracting me? Are my unconscious habits creating tension in my body that would lead me to perceive my experience as negative? Maybe I am slouched in my chair as I write and that slouching creates tension in my back which radiates out to the rest of my body, thus causing me to feel uptight and negative.
My meditations in the morning often consist of first just sitting and feeling what is, letting go of all desires and allowing what is to just be. Then I go deeper and recognize that there is eventually a desire to get up from sitting and do something, go on with the rest of my daily life. In that recognition I also recognize that I want to fill my life with positive experiences including this moment. So, as part of my meditation I start by practicing appreciation of this moment or I practice feeling grateful for the fact that I am alive and all that I have to be grateful for. Appreciation and gratitude FEEL GOOD in my body so I then focus on how good that feels. I have found that in so doing my body relaxes, any tension or dis-ease melts away and the quality of my life experience dramatically improves.
The other day I had a guy get very angry at me. I had not seen him for a couple of months and the first thing he did after acknowledging me was to get riled up with some ideas that he had about me and my ‘agenda’ that he apparently disapproved of. He was right in my face and acting very aggressive. For my part, I remained calm and non reactive, saying nothing and just listening to him as he vented his pain or frustration. He seemed to want to engage me in some sort of ‘battle’, probably most likely a verbal contest of some sort that would justify in his mind ejecting me from the meeting we were about to have. So when he asked for a response I said that I was staying in the moment and I encouraged him to express himself fully. Inwardly I was appreciating that opportunity to practice positive emotions IN SPITE of my conditioned habit of reacting in a defensive manner to this type of confrontation. I could feel the power of the appreciation as it relaxed my body (not completely but considerably) which allowed me to stay present with him looking him in the eye and fully listening to him. Being relatively relaxed my mind did not need to come up with arguments to defend myself or my position or ‘agenda’ as this guy imagined I had.
I was able to do this because I had practiced relaxing using positive perspectives and emotions.
Unfortunately for this guy he was not able to finish venting as others came and he seemed to feel self conscious about his behavior. Nor were we able to resolve his imagined ideas as to my ‘agenda’ in the meeting.
What for me was important was that first I had taken care of myself emotionally and did not personally feel hurt by his aggression or words. I did feel hurt FOR HIM, my compassion motivated me to want to reach out to him to offer him an opportunity to fully vent and to help him clear up any inaccurate assumptions he had about me that might be causing his discomfort. I was not dead to him emotionally nor did I harm myself with my emotional reaction to his hurt.
Even now as I think of that situation I keep reminding myself to practice positive emotions as I think of him and that situation. In the past it has been very easy for me to mull over the situation and to feel undignified or insulted by the situation, thus motivating me to feel some sort of negative emotion as I think about it. In the past I would have thought he was disrespecting me and I too would have been angry. Now, I recognize the most important person who must respect me is ME, and that if I react to something like this with anger or some other negative emotion then I am NOT feeling and showing respect for myself.
Emotional Self Care is a process, not a particular practice. It starts with being aware of my conditioning and how I might be emotionally reacting in THIS moment to whatever life is offering. It takes discipline to focus one’s attention on the Present Moment, the Here and Now. Life, or society conditions us to always be thinking about the past or the future, to concern ourselves with the there and then. Yet life is always experienced in the here and now. When we are thinking about the there and then we are basically only experiencing our thoughts, not what the rest of our body is experiencing.
A second and very important step in this process of Emotional Self Care is to be honest with ourselves. This includes accepting the fact that our emotional states or experiences are entirely a product of our reactions to the thoughts we have about what life is offering. Words cannot hurt us, it is our reactions to words (or the thoughts they produce in us) that can cause us harm. Yet, part of this truth is to accept that we HAVE BEEN trained or conditioned to be reactive to words or various stimuli in society. Emotional Self Care is the process of re-training us to react to those words or stimuli in a way that works for us.
This means we have to own our feelings and not blame others for how their words or behaviors “make us feel”. Everywhere we go we are taught or encouraged to think that others or situations “make us feel” this or that, and if we can only change who we are around or our situation then we can feel the way we want to feel. This belief enables others to maintain control of us and keeps us trapped in cycles of emotional abuse where we have fear or get angry, upset, offended or some other painful emotional reaction and then we blame others or our situation for that pain. Thus we are saying to ourselves that others or the situation have the power to end our emotional pain. This dishonestly traps us in the painful feeling. Owning our feelings starts the process of accepting the fact that we CAN do something about our painful emotional states.
In my experience, pain is more intensely experienced in a tense body. Because of this, for thousands of years people have been taught to take deep, whole breaths when we feel tension arising in our body from our emotional reactions. By consciously taking deep, whole breaths we soften some of our attention (at tension) on the activity in our brains and expand our awareness into our bodies. This softening of attention helps us relax thus lessening our negative experience.
And, finally, practicing positive emotions IN SPITE OF OUR HABITUAL REACTIONS continues this process of relaxing at the level of our mind or nerves. Again, for thousands of years people have been encouraged to ‘love one another’ or even to ‘love your enemies’ or ‘don’t worry, be happy’ or to practice gratitude for what life is offering. All of these are encouragements to practice positive emotions. The more we practice positive emotions the more relaxed we will be and better able to flow with what life offers.
In the example I used above where the guy was expressing considerable anger at me, I used appreciation and gratitude to relax myself. I was appreciative of the fact that he had found the courage to express himself about the obviously painful feelings he was having. And I was grateful for the opportunity to practice Emotional Self Care in a situation where I habitually would not be doing so.
I can always find some reason or justification for some positive emotion. Of course, it is not easy in the beginning for we usually are so attentive to situation that we are not being attentive to how we are reacting emotionally to that situation. In primitive times or cultures being attentive to the situation was demanded, for if we were not then we might be physically attacked and possibly killed. I still encourage people to be mindful of the situation just in case it could become dangerous, but most of the time our being relaxed and calm alleviates the situation to some degree.
They say that a dog can detect if you are afraid of them, and if so they will more likely attack you. In my experience, that is true of people and all animals too. If we are reacting to them with fear or any form of tension then those people or animals are more likely to attack us. On the other hand, if we are reacting to them with compassion and caring for THEM then they will more likely relax their tension and aggression, thus alleviating the tension of the situation.
Also, if we are practicing Emotional Self Care we are modeling a healthy behavior for others who can and do recognize the healthy practice and that inspires them to want to develop the same healthy habits. This creates cycles of moving toward more peaceful, joyous, healthy interactions in society.
Other Softening Emotions
Of course, in the moment of being challenged emotionally we may not remember to breathe deeply or to be in the present moment or to practice positive emotions. When we become aware of our reactions that may have caused us discomfort or pain we first want to forgive ourselves. I like to laugh at myself and my silly reactions. This attitude and behavior releases the tension in my body allowing me to relax and feeling good again.
Sadness is often considered a negative or painful emotion, one that we don’t want to experience. In my experience, we can only feel sad because we care. Caring is an aspect of love, a very positive emotions and feeling. Thus, the feeling or emotion behind sadness really is love, and if we can be aware of that deeper feeling of caring and love then sadness can be a very powerful motivator to helping others with our compassion. It also feels really good.
I define compassion as a willingness to suffer with other. I get that definition from the etymological root of the word compassion; com is Latin for ‘with’ and passion is Latin meaning ‘to suffer’. Any suffering becomes a motivator to working to alleviate that suffering, assuming we can envision how to do that.
I am motivated out of compassion for others who are suffering from emotional pain to write this topic. I WANT TO hurt with them. I want to care for others because I am aware that caring is an aspect of love and love is what I want to fill my life with. And since I have found a way to alleviate most emotional pain, I want to share how I do that with others.
This is a rich process and it fills my life with a wealth that is unsurpassable by any other means that I am aware of.
Practicing all this is the most challenging part of the process. I often go to be around people or situations where I can practice Emotional Self Care. Often the most challenging people or situations are the most rewarding. Of course, if I am not up to the challenge then those people or situations can do damage to my confidence in my ability to deal with situations. Therefore, I encourage people to start out with less challenging people or situations.
I started by going to listen to lectures or talks by people of various perspectives, perspectives that were not similar to my own. At first I would only listen to the words and watch my habitual reactions to them, which often means I was resisting the ideas they were offering, and this habitual resistance, being negative, was painful or uncomfortable.
The practice got a lot more challenging when I started to openly question or challenge the words or ideas I was hearing. But still I practiced listening and questioning with compassion, often taking into consideration the ability of others to hear or deal with the questions or challenge.
When you put something out, like asking questions or confronting or challenging someone else’s perspective, you are asking for feedback that often comes in the form of criticism, judgment and possibly rejection. Naturally rejection hurts as it is cutting off a part of us, ourselves being the whole of humanity or life. But the reality is that rejection is a natural part of life and we sooner or later learn to accept that there will always be those who feel a need to reject and cut others off from them. If we care about ourselves we will come to peace with this process.
We are all responsible for taking care of ourselves. No matter how much another may love and care for us, if we do not take care of ourselves then we will not feel or be cared for and harm is inevitable. Life offers us many challenges and if we do not make a habit of caring for ourselves emotionally then we will eventually get ‘down’ as we drain our energy with our negative or painful reactions to what life is offering. It makes sense to practice Emotional Self Care.
Again, I want to acknowledge that there will be those who rebel against the idea of emotional self care. Some will do so because they see how powerful it could be for anyone who practices it and if it is empowering for the individual then it is disempowering to those who want to control or manipulate others. Since taking responsibility for your behavior and changing your habits takes effort, the lazy person will resist and will continue to abuse themselves and blame others for the consequences of that abuse. The only intelligent thing a conscious person can do is to practice loving them and by feeling compassion for them.
The freedom, peace, joy and love that come from Emotional Self Care can transform the quality of our lives, our relationships and our society. The more we practice Emotional Self Care the more we are modeling it for others thus encouraging a society that is open, honest and caring about one another.