I found an insightful article by Sally Kempton talking about how to delve into your own feelings and peel back the layers of emotions wrapping the heart. Here's the exercise she details:
Start with Yourself. If you want to practice with intense energies, a good way to start is with your own feelings and moods, and to start small. Stephen Levine once wrote that working with heavy emotional issues can be like getting into the ring with a 500-pound wrestler—if you haven't trained for it, the wrestler will throw you in the first clench. One of the best ways to train for working with energy is to practice during private moments of meltdown.
One of my favorite times for this kind of practice is the onset of road rage. Like many otherwise reasonable people, I have an inner road warrior who emerges only when I'm alone behind the wheel. He's mouthy, cynical, easily offended—a cross between a New York City cabbie and one of those eccentric hit men from a Quentin Tarantino film. There's a lot of energy in this persona, however. So when I notice myself having snarly private dialogues with a driver who has cut me off at an exit, I try to use the occasion for exploring the energy inside my anger.
You can do this too, anytime. First, take a moment to remember one of your characteristic heavy emotions or the last time you were very angry, grief-stricken, or scared. When you've found the feeling you want to work with, here's what to do:
Acknowledge your feeling. Notice and identify the fact that your inner world has been rocked by an intense, primitive feeling. This is especially important when you've been ambushed by an emotion. It helps to say clearly to yourself, "I'm feeling angry," or, "I'm sad," or, "I'm upset." You don't have to analyze the feeling or even think about where it's coming from.
Pause. Stop yourself from acting on the feeling. To do this, focus on your breathing, following your breath as it moves in and out through your nostrils.
Get grounded. When we're experiencing strong emotions, we often lose touch with our physical body. To get grounded inside your body, bring your attention to the sensation of your feet on the ground; if you're sitting, feel the contact between your buttocks and the cushion or floor.
Bring your awareness into your heart. Once you're grounded, find your center in your heart—not your physical heart but your inner heart, the subtle energy space in the center of your body. If you touch your finger to the spot on your breastbone right between your nipples, you will probably find that there's a slight hollow there and even an achy feeling. Behind this little hollow lies your inner heart. Drop your attention into this center, using your breath as an anchor. Breathe in and out as if you were breathing in and out of your heart. Do this for a few minutes.
Explore the energy in the feeling. Once you have found your center like this, focus again on the feeling you are working with. Where is it in your body? How does it feel? This is not an analytical process; it is more of an exploration. You are giving yourself permission to fully feel and explore the inner sensations created by anger, sadness, injured pride, or fear. Feel whether the emotion is hard or prickly in your body. Notice if there's a color field around your mood. Someone told me that his depressed feelings actually feel grayish.
Let go of the story line. At this point, you'll notice that certain thoughts are attached to your particular emotion, thoughts that frequently begin "How could he?" or "I always..." Acknowledge these thoughts and then let them go, keeping your attention on the feeling rather than getting caught up in your personal story line.
Some people ask, "Suppose there is content in my feeling that needs to be dealt with psychologically or practically? Am I supposed to just let it go?" For the moment, yes. For this particular process, it's important to let go of believing the story that your thoughts and feelings are telling you. If you sense that something in these feelings or in the situation that provoked them needs specific action or attention, take note of it! You'll come back to it later on.
Hold the feeling inside your heart until it dissolves into awareness. Consciously bring the feeling-sense of your emotion into your heart. Hold the feeling inside the energy space in your heart. As you do, let your heart space expand, gently and slowly, until you have the sensation that there is real space around your feeling. Now notice what happens inside you, how the energy inside your anger or grief shifts. It might become sharper and more intense for a while, or it might begin to soften around the edges, to become less specific, less prickly or swampy.
It's important to realize that you aren't just trying to make yourself feel better. You are in a process of shifting your perspective about this feeling. Your intention is to explore its energy and to let that energy resolve itself back into its root, into the core energy of every feeling.
When we bring our heavy emotions into our heart space, it is as if we are bringing them into a place where they can be safely cradled. Psychologist Rudy Bauer has a great way of describing this. He says that holding our intense feelings in our consciousness is like holding hot coals in a basket. The basket contains the coals and allows heat to build up so that we can warm ourselves by their fire, but it also keeps the coals from burning us.
In this way, we can harness the energy inside our intense emotions and use it as a vehicle to move beyond our ordinary mind and toward the source, the Self, where we are powered and supported by something much larger than ourselves—something impersonal and yet loving, something that has no content and yet is full of wisdom. Abiding in this place, we understand what Rumi really meant when he said that fighting and peacefulness both take place within God. Whatever the quality of the times we live in, when we know how to enter the energy of intensity, we have discovered a doorway to the infinite.
Sally Kempton is the author of The Heart of Meditation. She also teaches Awakened Heart Meditation workshops. (For a schedule, visit www.sallykempton.com.)
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