Yesterday I wrote a blog post about the tragedy at the Cincinnati zoo. What I noticed was how difficult the situation was for people to handle emotionally. There were so many heavy and difficult feelings floating around. So I started to wonder: are we prepared to feel all of this?
I am a yoga teacher, I specialize in Myofascial Release, which focuses a great deal on movement restriction, and the resulting compensation patterns. (For example- if my shoulders are restricted in mobility, I may have to use my rib cage to lift my arm, rather than keeping the shoulder isolated to lift it.)
What became apparent as I researched the tragedy was how hard it is for most of us to feel something as difficult as the loss of this beautiful creature. What hit me was that, just like the physical body will compensate for lack of mobility, the emotional body will compensate for lack of emotional resilience. This makes sense because, in our culture, most of us are not taught how to ‘train’ ourselves emotionally, we don’t learn how to be with difficult emotions in school; we learn how to do math and science, but we are not taught how to grieve or be bored.
The thought that kept coming to me during my research is that it shouldn’t be this hard. If we were more emotionally prepared for these events, they could be a catalyst for positive change, for personal growth and for the evolution of our species.
In the human body, muscles that get exercise will grow. And muscles that are underused will atrophy. (Have you ever noticed an astronaut’s muscles when he gets home from being in space??)
The thing is, this is true on the emotional level also. When we avoid certain feelings, the capacity to feel those feelings shrink, just like our muscles do. And when you train yourself to sit with difficult emotions, your capacity to feel them grows.
While I was delving into the tragedy, I was reading a lot of social media posts and comments, and noticed a theme of knee-jerk blame. I also noticed a lot of people responding from compassion and concern. And I started to notice a quality that the compassionate commenters had that the blamers didn’t. They had emotional strength. They were the ones willing to do the emotional heavy lifting required to feel grief, loss, and ultimately love, for everyone involved.
Before going on, I want to say (and this is important) that there is nothing wrong with blaming. If you are a blamer (and I am one, myself, in many cases!) there is a good reason for that. Blaming is something we do to discharge or diffuse intense emotions (to lighten the load of them, so to speak). It is something we use to protect our emotional bodies from too much weight. And in some cases this is a smart thing to do.
It would be as if someone handed me a 200 lb box and I couldn’t hold it. This doesn’t mean anything bad about my personhood that I can’t hold it for very long without hurting myself. But it does mean that if I *want* to hold 200 lb boxes for long periods of time, I would need to do a bit of weight training. Emotional strength is the same. If someone jumps immediately to blame mode, it’s equivalent to immediately dropping the box. It was too heavy, and it hurt too much. So, looked at in this way, there is really nothing wrong with blaming in and of itself. It’s what your inner wisdom did to protect yourself from something too heavy. I see myself jump to blame often, and when I do, I take it as a sign that I need to take myself to the emotional gym, and do some inner weight lifting. So if you catch yourself blaming, it may be a sign that your emotional self is crying out for some deeper attention.
When I work with clients in yoga classes, I tell them that building up strength and mobility is going to take time. We can’t just go to the gym once and expect to come home with bulging biceps. It takes time to build strength, and it takes time to increase movement range and agility.
The same is true for emotional resilience. If you have never been taught how to process difficult emotions, it would make sense that your emotional muscle mass is small. If emotional resilience has never been practiced, it makes sense that an event like the Cincinnati tragedy is going to be way too much to bear. Just as if I had un-exercised arms and someone dropped a 200 lb box in them; I would strain under that load.
Emotionally, this is exactly what happens: we strain under the load of a heavy emotional response, because we are not trained to lift it. And just like in bodies, this ability is going to need to be exercised, practiced and repeated over a long period of time to get stronger. If I wanted to hold 200 lb boxes, I would need to start by holding 25 lb boxes for longer and longer periods of time, and graduate up to holding 200 lb boxes in a way that my body can manage safely.
Blaming is actually a smart habit when you think about it from the big picture. Because humans are instinctively resilient, we will always find ways to compensate for lack of strength and mobility. Therefore, using blame to soften our emotional load makes a lot of sense, and it’s not a bad thing in the moment it’s used, because it was probably saving me from emotional injury. Blaming can be a convenient compensation for lack of emotional stamina. But the problem with *chronic* use of blame is that it’s not going to help us get stronger; it doesn’t give us what we need to evolve emotionally as a species. What we really need is to learn how to emotionally weight lift, and build up the strength and flexibility to navigate through a human life (which is a really hard thing to do!).
There is a way to build up emotional strength and, even though it can take some time, it is well worth the effort. Emotional strength gives you the ability to be really present with friends and loved ones during hardship. It offers you the freedom of choice when faced with a difficult situation. Compensation patterns are often unconscious protective mechanisms, which can be a good thing sometimes but robs us over time of the ability to take conscious action, and make positive changes in our personal lives and in our world.
In my gorilla blog post I asked the question, “If I am unable to blame, what do I have to feel?” This question is an example of emotional weight training. By using that question in a form of Self Inquiry, I was isolating the underused emotional capacity with the intention of strengthening it. I have learned over time that the more I sit still with feelings like grief or loss, the stronger those emotional muscles get. And the easier it is to hold them, both for myself and for others.
So if you are interested in building up your emotional resilience I would invite you to join me.
***Please note that this type of emotional practice may not be suitable for those with severe PTSD. If you have PTSD, please do this work only under the guidance of a trained professional.***
Before you begin with your emotional weight training practice session, begin with bringing to mind a place in nature that you love (or you can bring your smart phone and read this IN the place in nature that you love). As you imagine this place, notice the good feelings in your body and mind that occur. Take a bit of time to really get centered in a positive emotional state before you begin. If you would like an example of how to do this, click here.
- The first step to emotional training is to understand the nervous system’s function of ‘moving away.’ This is a survival feature, and it’s a good thing to have for moments when you accidentally put your hand on a hot burner. The problem arises when this is the *only* approach used when dealing with life. The ideal would be to have lots of options available, and to consciously choose the one that’s most appropriate for the moment.
- Introduce the concept of ‘moving toward’ emotional states. It’s helpful to approach this step slowly. Just like body building needs to be a gradual progression to prevent injury, emotional training also needs to be taken on bit by bit. Start with small uncomfortable feelings, and slowly increase the load over time. The key to ‘moving toward’ rather than ‘moving away’ is curiosity. The next time you feel something unpleasant, like boredom for instance, see if you can get curious about that feeling. The curiosity will automatically move you toward it. Notice if the feeling of boredom has a color or shape to it. Notice where you feel it the strongest in your body.
- The third step is to begin to hold the feeling. Once you have moved toward it in curiosity, see if you can stay with it for a few minutes. Think of the practice of ‘staying with’ as the moments where you are doing the heaviest lifting. This part of the training session is where you will start to build emotional muscle mass. Hold the feeling of boredom in your awareness as long as you can. Let the feeling be exactly as it is. Allow it to exist freely. As you are holding it, notice if it changes. Notice if it expands, or diffuses, or changes shape.
The final step is the ‘reset’. After you are finished holding, or you have stayed with it as long as you can…let it go. To hit reset, move your awareness toward something good. This is a really important part of the practice, to begin and end with something that brings you happiness, comfort, or joy. For a full meditation on how to build positive energy in the body, try the meditation for happiness, which can be found here.
The next time an event happens in your life that requires emotional strength, remember these steps to getting emotionally stronger.
Notice the automatic impulse to ‘move away.’
Get curious so that you can ‘move toward.’
Get even more curious so you can ‘stay with’ and ‘hold’ the uncomfortable feeling.
‘Reset’ yourself with something positive and nourishing
The final step once you have done the heavy lifting would be to take some type of action. For me personally, after I was done with the heavy lifting of feeling grief and loss for Harambe, I decided to write a post that would inspire people to appreciate gorillas. I know that people are most protective of things that they love. And we are also most available to be loving when we are willing to feel the other side of love, which is loss. If we are emotionally strong enough to feel pain, our capacity to love increases, too. This is the payoff of all that hard work. The more we love our world and the animals in it, the more we will be moved to protect it.
If we can get emotionally strong enough to feel the state of our planet, the more we can appreciate her beauty, and work together to heal and evolve