I am currently about three months into Headspace – and I am sure I am feeling the benefit! In the discovery series, we practice “letting go” of emotions, and noticing how transient they are.
This is great for negative emotions, such as anger and shame – but what about the positive emotions of happiness and love? I feel nervous about letting go of these, and treating them as passing objects of curiosity. They feel integral to who I am. My question is, what is left of the central “me” when we let go of the emotions that (seem to) define us?
This is such a good question. It is central to meditation, to life and to our perception of who or what we are. In many ways, the way we relate to positive and negative emotions is really not so different. It’s almost like two sides of the same coin.
On the one side we have hope and on the other side we have fear. When we experience a challenging emotion we hope it will disappear and we fear it will stay or get stronger. When we experience a pleasurable emotion we hope it will stay, or maybe get stronger and we fear that it might go away. So this constant tension between hope and fear is ever-present.
At first, it may appear as though we can give up the hope and fear around the challenging emotion, but not around the pleasurable one. But hope is hope and fear is fear. If we learn to let go of it for one thing, we learn to let go of it for the other. In short, there is no way of learning to let go of the difficult stuff, without learning to let go of the pleasurable stuff. The impact of this is broad. Firstly we become aware that emotions are transitory anyway, there is no real way to prevent them or hold on to them, they simply come and go and the less we get involved or invested in them, the less bother they cause us. We also realise that beneath these transitory emotions is an inexhaustible supply of peace and happiness.
Secondly, we start to understand that the emotion itself is not really the issue or the problem, it is more to do with our relationship or attitude towards the emotion and the consequent impact of that reaction. Next, we get to understand how this tension exists in everyone, that it is part of the human condition. So our sense of empathy gets stronger as we start to see how and why people do and say the things they do. All of these insights are central to the experience of meditation and equally important.
But there is one more and it very much relates to your final question. If we are not our thoughts and not our emotions, then what are we? What is left? In short, who am I? It’s a fascinating topic and well worthy of reflection. The analogy which is often given is setting sail for sea and untethering the boat which has always been tied to the moorings. Once we let go of this idea of who we are and learn to rest in uncertainty, then we are free. Naturally, it’s a little scary and perhaps even overwhelming at first, but it’s a process and something we get used to over time.
The beauty of meditation is that it shows us the way to experience it rather than to think about it. Sure, we’ll reflect and draw conclusions along the way, but it’s more about how it infuses our sense of being and our interaction with the world around us.