Updated: Feb 13, 2020
Do You Let Your Emotions Control You?
Once you get the hang of mindfulness, you can’t really turn it off. You can do something mindless, but you’re very aware that you’re doing something mindless, which is actually a way to practice mindfulness. So once you’re mindful, you’re mindful. Period.
But there is always more learning, more depth, more meaning to glean and share in mindfulness. I’m currently working on strengthening my skills in non-attachment. I’m really pretty good at not attaching to negative events, like someone saying something rude or when something upsetting is happening. That doesn’t mean I lack feelings or that I don’t sometimes get angry or frustrated, but it’s become automatic for my mind to immediately remind me to let it go. If I’m angry, it ultimately only hurts me and I’ve practiced this lesson so many times that now it’s a habit to let it go quickly.
But I have recognized that I don’t do so well at non-attachment, yet, when it comes to good news, a happy event, or something exciting happening. Now, you may be wondering why I wouldn’t want to react to good news. The answer is that I want to feel content and joyful all of the time, regardless of what is happening in my external world. If my happiness is based on external events, then I’m riding a roller coaster of feeling great when things go well and feeling sad or angry when things don’t go my way.
Non-attachment doesn’t mean being emotionless. Feelings don’t cease to exist as we learn to let go. We just relate to them differently because we understand their fleeting nature. Consider the meditation practice of noticing your thoughts. We have between 40 and 50 thoughts per minute. If we believed, or attached, to every thought we have, we’d get absolutely nothing done in life. We’d be too busy, upset or excited by our thoughts to focus on anything else. But through this meditation practice, we begin to realize that thoughts continuously come and go, and that as soon as one occurs, another follows, and another.
Non-attachment simply means we don’t get entangled in emotional states. When I was first introduced to this concept, I thought it would make life very boring. I misunderstood it to mean I would always stay emotionally in the middle, with no upset but also no excitement. But that isn’t how it works at all. It’s more a matter of recognizing that those emotions are also fleeting. As soon as one occurs, it’s followed by another, and another. By not attaching to these emotions as they arise, but more observing them and accepting them as they are, we can stop spending energy on trying to avoid “negative” feelings or seek out “positive” feelings. Non-attachment creates a feeling of freedom and greatly strengthens our focus on the present moment. Whatever is happening is happening. There’s no reason to attach to or resist it.
Through non-attachment we can relate to the world as it is rather than to our concepts about it, which never brings lasting happiness. It widens our perception of the world and actually increases our compassion for others as we observe suffering without attaching to it. For example, many people are upset right now about the homeless situation. Here in Los Angeles, it has recently exploded and there are tent encampments everywhere, not just on skid row or along the train tracks. When we are attached to our emotions, it can be much more difficult to feel empathy for a homeless person.
Let’s say we’re stopping by the grocery store on our way home from work. We’re tired. We feel pressure to get home and start dinner for the family. We have trouble finding a parking space. We finally do and race toward the door to the store, only to encounter a homeless person asking for money. They might be dirty and smell unpleasant. They might look a little scary. We might feel angry for being bothered, disgusted that this person is present right now, fearful that properly values could decrease because homeless people have moved into the neighborhood, frustrated with the government for not fixing the problem and guilty over not giving this person money. As we attach to all of these emotions, we tell ourselves a negative story and view the world through that negative lens. We continue to emotionally churn over this event, perhaps even once we get home, as we cook dinner, and on and on. Instead of feeling compassion for the homeless person, we see ourselves as a victim and cause ourselves distress or suffering.
The same scenario through non-attachment looks very different. We encounter the homeless person and can feel empathy for him or her because we’re not telling ourselves a story about how awful it is. We accept that we have a big problem, but we don’t attach to all of the negative emotions just described. We may or may not decide to give them money, but there is no guilt. We can talk to the person, smile at them, and wish them well or good luck. And we go about our business without upset or anger. By the way, I cannot tell you how grateful a homeless person is when you simply acknowledge them by saying hello or smile at them. Sometimes I give them money, but more often than not, when I get home, I donate money to a homeless shelter in the hope that they will be able to take in more homeless people to get them off the streets. That’s not a reaction to an emotion, but an action in response to a situation that I can’t fix, but that I feel I can help in some small way. I may feel compelled to help, but I’m not attached to the outcome.
Consider how attached we can be to feelings of anger or hurt when our boss says something negative to us. We rehash it over and over, get upset, consider quitting, perhaps cry. We justify why the boss’s reaction is unfair or inaccurate and lament our situation. We make ourselves absolutely miserable. That’s because we’re emotionally attached to the words spoken by the boss. But if we detach from those feelings and simply observe the reality of the situation, it’s one of two choices. We did indeed screw something up or the boss has a perception that’s not accurate which we can choose to point out in a non-emotional way, or not. A message is usually much better heard and considered when we’re calm and factual than when we’re upset and trying to communicate a fact. Again, it doesn’t mean we don’t care about the perception our boss has of us, but we let go of the emotional angst that we normally get caught up in.
I’m sure you can think of a lot of scenarios similar to the above. And I find it easier to let go of these negative situations by detaching from my emotions, recognizing that they are transitory and will pass. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, I have more resistance to letting go of positive emotions and want to attach to those feelings. A lot of things are coming together in my life right now and I’m achieving goals that have been waiting for me to catch up to them for years. It’s exciting and joyful and I want to stay in that “high.” But these emotions are no different than the negative ones. They’re just fleeting feelings that will pass. So instead of hopping around my living room clapping over some great news, it will benefit me more to feel gratitude for whatever event is occurring but to also accept that regardless of these external events, I can choose to feel happy all of the time. My happiness is not dependent on external events. I can observe them, enjoy them, be appreciative of them, but if I attach to them, I am slipping into the “I will be happen when” syndrome. And that does not bring permanent happiness. That’s the roller coaster.
Non-attachment frees us because we're in charge of our mind and emotions instead of them controlling us. And, with this freedom, we can completely experience all of the nuances of every event in our lives without the need to cling to the emotions involved, which also releases the fear of losing those feelings. We can accept that some events in life feel pleasant and others not so much, but both will pass and new emotions will arise. Our gratitude increases through this practice because we recognize that good or bad, none of it will last. So we can enjoy it more knowing that it is precious in this moment and then it will be gone.
Non-attachment is a state of mind. New attachments will always tempt us, so to live with the state of mind of non-attachment, to realize the importance of living in a way that we go with the natural flow of things and respect the impermanence of all life, is the basis of realizing non-attachment. An interesting side-effect of non-attachment is non-judgment. We become less judgmental as we release the emotions involved in observing life. It truly is what it is. All of this leads to feelings of increased peace and contentment, increased compassion for ourselves and others, and increased clarity about the difference between what we’re thinking and feeling versus what is actually occurring.
This takes considerable practice, but virtually everyone has the power to tame their mind through cultivating mindfulness and awareness.
Take a few moments to look back at something that was really upsetting in the past, perhaps a couple of years ago. As you recall feelings of anger or upset, try looking at it with a new perspective. Did those feelings linger long after the event passed? Did those feelings change what occurred? Did those emotions affect decisions you made after the fact? Did those feelings finally dissipate, replaced by new feelings?
Now recall a past event that was very exciting and happy. Try looking at that event with a new perspective. How long did that level of an emotional high last? Did those feelings alter the event itself? Did feelings of disappointment creep in later, as the “high” dissipated?
We can find joy in any event, whether it is knowing that we’re learning something new, understanding that even unpleasant situations will pass, or in the observation that life itself is awe-inspiring. Non-attachment is not about not caring or not feeling what we feel. It’s about not trying to hold on to those feelings and to appreciate that we don’t need to. Life will unfold whether we cling to feelings or not and we can enjoy the whole ride smoothly and skip the roller coaster.