Mindfulness and Self-Love: The Antidotes to Trapping Emotional Energy & the Keys to Resting in Flow
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
"Emotions in essence, are just pure energy but because of dualistic perception,
we identify the emotion as “me” and it gets very locked in . . . [t]he energy gets frozen.”
~ Pema Chödrön, ordained nun of the Shambala Buddhist lineage,
excerpted from her book How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind (Sounds True, 2013) and published in Tricycle, (The Buddhist Review), Summer 2013.
If you have embarked on the journey of releasing emotional baggage through a complementary health modality or otherwise, you are well on your way to good emotional and physical health. Learning how to stop emotional energies from lodging within the body is central to maintaining homeostasis and energetic flow.
It has taken me some time to completely release years of accumulated emotions and negative energies. I eventually realized that I was too readily picking up the emotional energies of others because my energetic boundaries had worn down under stress and “the trauma of everyday life”. In another article I discuss the importance of strengthening energetic boundaries from the outset while working with the Emotion and Body Codes so that absorbed emotions don't replace trapped emotions in the body's weak spots that we are trying to heal. However, in this article, drawing on the wisdom of Buddhist practitioners, I discuss the ways in which we can truly acknowledge the energy of our emotions and optimally process that energy so that we give ourselves the best chance of sustained good health. Put simply, once we have released as many trapped energies as possible, which might be negatively affecting our health, how do we ensure that we do not generate more?
Understanding Emotions as Energy, Distinct from Thought and Distinct from Self
In her succinct and clear article cited above, Pema Chödrön, citing Ponlop Rinpoche, notes that without having a direct experience of our emotions we can never touch the heart of “buddhanature”. Direct experience of our emotions is accomplished through letting the emotion flow through our body, separate from the thought or mental attitude that may have given rise to it and without attaching new thought to it. Chödrön, quoting Trungpa Rinpoche, states, “ '[f]undamentally, the reason emotions are discomforting, painful, and frustrating is that our relationship to the emotions is not quite clear.'” Indeed, it is the identification of the self to the emotion through thought that causes the emotion (itself simply a form of energy) to get stuck and takes the body out of homeostasis or flow.
"That is to say that energy itself is not a problem. We always associate our emotions with thoughts – we're scared of something, or we're angry at somebody, or we're feeling lonely or ashamed or lustful in relationship with ourselves or somebody else. Our emotions have a lot of mental conversation – and in my experience, it is often hard to discern between what is the thought and what is the emotion."
Developing a Strong “Muscle of Consciousness” to Maintain Flow
Chödrön then goes on to detail how meditation can help us “get dirty with [our] emotions”. My personal experience is that meditation, and particularly mindfulness meditation, is an extremely useful and necessary adjunct to the work of the Emotion and Body Codes because it helps us develop the “muscle of consciousness” which is an essential prerequisite for dealing with powerful emotions when they arise off the meditation mat. A strong muscle of consciousness or meta-cognition enables us to observe rather than overly identify with daily emotions, ensuring that they do not get stuck in the body and necessitate even more Emotion and Body Code work. Moreover, the body awareness that meditation and specifically mindfulness meditation engenders is also key to preventing the energy of emotions from lodging in the body. In a mutually reinforcing loop, releasing powerful trapped emotions and beginning to bring the body into equilibrium through the Emotion and Body Code work is very helpful to cultivating the discipline of daily meditation practice.
Daily Mindfulness: Internally Acknowledging and Tracking Our Emotions to Ensure Uninterrupted Energetic Flow
Similar to the methodology of mindfulness meditation, when emotions arise in daily life we must first acknowledge them. Even if social convention dictates that we must not in that moment speak to, or act on, the feeling, we must acknowledge the feeling internally. Do this by noting where the sensation arises in the body and labeling it if necessary. Indeed, labeling is probably helpful when one is first beginning this practice, but it is important to label the emotion carefully. Instead of identifying with the emotion by saying, “I am angry”, say, “I feel anger in my chest” or “I feel sadness in my stomach.” This may seem contrived but it is the first step in separating the ego (and mental thought processes which are often born of the ego) from the physical energy that constitutes an emotion. Of course, it may be necessary to convey your feeling to another in a way that makes sense in ordinary conversation so we may say: “I am angry”, or “I am feeling depressed”, but to oneself, one should maintain an awareness of the sensations in the body, separate from thoughts, so that the feeling can continue its journey through, and out of, the body.
Stay with the feeling as long as the feeling persists and try to identify where the feeling moves within the body. This is not easy to do when we are struck by intense emotions, but maintaining a high level of body awareness keeps us grounded and encourages the energy to move freely within the body rather than getting lodged. Some of us may in fact be aware in micro-moments of the energy lodging, especially if we are not able to fully express the emotion in a public setting, for instance. If you realize that the energy is lodging or that you are suppressing the energy, focusing on your breath with the intention to let the emotional energy flow can help. This is discussed further below.
A short aside on acknowledging our emotions: we would all do well to expand our lexicon of emotions. The Emotion Code draws on about 60 emotions thought to correspond to different energetic frequencies. It is helpful to be able to articulate the subtler emotions of “Unsupported”, “Blaming”, “Overwhelm”, “Creative Insecurity”, “Defensiveness”, or “Low Self-Esteem”. Indeed, these are perhaps not what one would ordinarily consider emotional states, but conceiving of them as such often helps us understand what action needs to be taken externally in our relationships to others, our job or the environment we live in. More on external action below.
My sense is that the act of acknowledging emotion is easier if we have already cultivated or restored what Mark Epstein MD, citing Michael Eigen, calls “'the unknown boundless support of primary aloneness'”. That is, a deep sense that everything will be okay, come what may. Once again, in another mutually reinforcing loop, psychotherapy, disciplined meditation and energy healing modalities, individually and in conjunction, can all help restore this important foundation of our consciousness. Once we are routinely able to tune into this sense of universal, boundless support our emotions are somehow more easily acknowledged and more easily processed. The tendency to identify oneself with the emotion rather than feeling into them from a place of security will lessen. Epstein writes that the “emergence of [the sense of the unknown boundless support] helps make the inevitable changes of life more tolerable, allowing suffering to be acknowledged and clinging observed with something akin to humor.” Mark Epstein M.D., “What Changes? Psychotherapy, Buddhism and a Sense of Boundless Support”, Tricycle (The Buddhist Review), Fall 2013.
"We don't have to attach so much meaning to what arises, and we also don't have to identify with our emotions so strongly. All we need to do is allow ourselves to experience the energy – and in time it will move through you. It will. But we need to experience the emotion – not think about the emotion."
I would add here that of course, in every day life off of the meditation mat, one has to think and feel simultaneously and sometimes act on those feelings and thoughts. But again, to the extent that we can separate the thoughts from the feelings and the feelings from our sense of “I”, the more chance we have of maintaining uninterrupted energetic flow in the body. At the very least, let not the thoughts that arise be ones of denial of the feelings or of berating yourself for feeling a certain way since this is what causes the energy of the emotion to lodge. Tuning into the breath here, while you acknowledge the emotion, feel into energy or sensation of the emotion and assess what you need to do to act, can be extremely helpful. As already noted, awareness of the breath itself in emotionally charged moments relaxes us and settles us back into our natural state of flow.
Teah Strozer, guiding teacher at the Brooklyn Zen Center, in his article cited herein, succinctly explores these ideas of recognizing, accepting, investigating and non-identifying with emotions. He writes:
"This energetic emotional component has to be willingly and thoroughly felt until the body returns to open relaxation. You breathe and wait and breathe and feel the body at first tight and then slowly, changing, relaxing and letting go. If this is not thoroughly done, then we haven't really felt the emotion…and that energy gets stuck in the body and adds to the conditioned structure.
This openness to physical events is what integrates the energy, dissipates it, and if it is practiced over and over, eventually dissolves that particular egoic structure, which has no concrete core."
Teah Strozer, “Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-Identify”, Tricycle (The Buddhist Review), Spring 2015. Strozer notes that the acronym RAIN was originally created by Michele McDonald of the Insight Meditation Society and is more fully explored by Diana Winston in Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens and Tara Brach in True Refuge.
Taking External Action to Stem the Generation of Unhelpful Emotional Energies
Often we find ourselves in chronic situations that are routinely engendering negative emotions in us, for example, a difficult relationship or a frustrating job. If this is the case, we need to initiate a process of examining the situation and our internal conditioning and developing a plan to change. No amount of any complementary health modality will work if the underlying situation that you find yourself in is somehow not aligned to your highest good. Ideally, the conventional or complementary health modality, in combination with a meditation practice that you are engaging in, will enable you to understand what needs to change and how it should change. And of course, engaging with these modalities is important to helping us to discover the desires and needs of our highest, unconditioned self.
Self-Love to Keep Us in Flow
Throughout this process, it is important to be extremely gentle with ourselves and not generate any additional negative energy. In addition to trapped emotions, there is one form of energy that I routinely detect as underlying specific imbalances in the body while working with the Emotion and Body Codes. It is a type of “offensive” energy but it is not absorbed from other people. Rather, it is self-generated.
This energy seems to occur when we are hard on ourselves; when, often in micro-moments, we berate ourselves for a mistake or for not having what we believe we should have materially or otherwise. In some sense this energetic form is perhaps the underlying energetic frequency of the mental attitudes of craving and aversion, thought by certain schools of Buddhism to be at the root of human suffering. Or, to use the language of energy-based modalities, it is a mixture of insecurity and negative attachment energy.
In these moments we are essentially engaged in the denial of ourselves. Not our ego-self but the more precious or higher self, and it is this self that we are most in need of cultivating and protecting. It is this self that is connected to, and can readily access, the sense of universal, boundless support which, as noted previously, is essential to processing other emotions. Moreover, this specific energetic form of insecurity and negative attachment will lodge in the body, often in the weak spots that we are trying to heal and will elongate the work that needs to be done with the Emotion and Body Codes.
Once again, generating awareness in these moments and recognizing what is happening is key. Identify where in the body the sensation of self-condemnation is manifesting. Focus on the breath to help release the sensation and return the body to a state of flow. Then turn these moments into opportunities to cultivate self-love, a pure and soft energy not borne of defensiveness or ego but derived from a pervasive sense of the boundless nature of universal support. It is important to work through this process rather than acknowledge and then ignore the feeling since the latter will not ensure that the energy moves out of the body.
Embracing our Emotions is Part of Our Path to Awakening
Emotions are an essential part of who we are. Indeed, they are an essential part of what connects us to each other. They are, at their most fundamental level simply energetic frequencies, which produce chemical reactions within the body. Denial of the emotion, or indeed, failing to fully experience an emotion that arises, may leave the energetic residue of the emotion frozen or trapped within the body and this can negatively affect the body's systems. In her important book, Molecules of Emotion, Candace Pert Ph.D., the scientist who discovered the opiate receptor and, amongst other contributions, significantly advanced HIV/AIDS research, notes that her scientific journey paralleled her spiritual one. She writes:
"I was beginning to think of disease related stress in terms of an information overload, a condition in which the mindbody is so taxed by unprocessed sensory input in the form of suppressed trauma or undigested emotions that it has become bogged down and cannot flow freely, sometimes even working against itself at cross-purposes . . . When stress prevents the molecules of emotions [neuropeptides] from flowing freely where needed, the largely autonomic processes that are regulated by peptide flow, such as breathing, blood flow, immunity, digestion and elimination collapse down to a few simple feedback loops and upset the normal healing response."
Candace Pert PhD., The Molecules of Emotion (Scribner 1997), p. 242-243.
Not only are emotions an essential part of who we are, but Buddhist practitioners seem to be in agreement that they are part of our path of spiritual growth. Pema Chödrön notes:
"[B]uddhanature and the natural state are not just made up of happy, sweet emotions; buddhanature includes everything. It's the calm, and the disturbed, and the roiled up, and the still; it's the bitter and the sweet, the comfortable and the uncomfortable. Buddhanature includes opening to all of these things, and it's found in the midst of all of them."
Chödrön notes that if we cease to perceive dualistically, in terms of “good” and “bad”, we will cease to shut down when energy arises. If we are in touch with the bounty of the boundless unknown, we will view the energy of the emotion as part of the larger journey, as embedded in our essential nature but not as ultimately definitive of that nature. And we will move forward with ease, equilibrium, and flow.
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