Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why do we stuff them down and mask them in self-deception? What is the real role of emotions in our lives and how can we honour it?
In this 12-part series I attempt to share my understanding of how our much-maligned emotions are programmed to relay important messages to help us live more abundantly.
My references are The Messages Behind Emotion: An Epona Emotional Fitness Program by bestselling author, teacher and horse trainer, Linda Kohanov; The Language of Emotions by award-winning author and social science researcher Karla McLaren, and Horse Spirit Connections.
“The fastest way to freedom is to feel your feelings.”
Facilitator, Mentor, Coach
Recently I was at the barn with a client facilitating a session of Wu Wei ~ the Taoist practice of “non-doing.” The purpose of this exercise is to spend a prescribed amount of time simply “being” in the environment and going with the flow. It is a wonderfully grounding and stress-reducing exercise, providing a way to escape the confines of our chaotic minds to dwell more solidly and knowingly in our bodies, in the moment.
I had assigned my client 15 minutes to sit on a picnic table located on a berm beside the paddock and observe, without judgement, the horses as they went about the non-doing business of grazing. Why non-doing? Because the horses don’t think about it, or make it happen … it just is. As the sun rises and sets effortlessly in a day, so too the horses wander the paddock in search of sustenance … effortlessly.
There were, actually, two paddocks within view ~ the closest with two horses (including my own horse, Bear), and the paddock beyond with four horses, all peacefully grazing by the fence beside the quiet country road.
Within moments of starting the exercise there was a commotion in the far paddock. The horses, spooked by a cyclist sprinting past on the road, galloped as one across the open, descending terrain to the gate, bucking and leaping and squealing in fright, their flight instincts kicking in full force and carrying them to a place of safety. Once down by the gate, there was much head tossing, pawing at the ground, trotting in circles ~ a general shaking off of the incident. Then, in a matter of moments, the horses had settled again and were going about their quiet business of grazing.
For my client this was a great opportunity to watch the change in energy as it went from grazing to flight to grazing again. A flow of non-doing. Nothing calculated; no judgement ~ just the horses going with the flow of energy as it moved in and out of their space. The horses felt the fear associated with the perceived threat, fled to a position of safety, shook off the stress of the experience and then, relieved of their anxiety, went back to life as normal.
This lead me to wonder, how good are we at processing our own emotional disturbances?
Horses, with their finely tuned nervous systems and focus on self-preservation, can teach we silly humans, who have drifted away from listening to the body’s innate intelligence over the centuries to focus on the mind alone, much about processing our emotions.
Over Millennia most of humankind has been conditioned, by a variety of influences, to deny what we feel and to stuff our emotions away where we think they can do the least amount of harm. The only trouble is the more we stuff them down the more damage they can do ~ to us and everyone with whom we come in contact. Emotions left unaddressed in the moment ~ feelings not felt and processed ~ live inside us indefinitely, creating another kind of physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual debt which we eventually must pay.
From my own experience and observation the mid-life crisis in all its guises marks the tipping point. In our middle years, when our physical body starts to show its wear and tear, old emotions rise to consciousness. Stored emotional energy must play itself out; must be respected and released. When it isn’t a crisis of identity can occur. We feel stuck. We panic for no apparent reason. We get sick. And we delude ourselves with the notion that if we just work harder and appease the unforgiving ego, all those unprocessed emotions will simply go away and we’ll be okay.
Sadly, for most us, it isn’t until we are forced by circumstances beyond our control, i.e. some form of personal tragedy or “wake-up call,” like a chronic illness, accident, death of a loved one, etc., that we are forced to take a good look at our lives and, if we are wise, take the necessary steps to release old, negative, stagnating emotions and the events attached to them. Events and feelings which have had a hold on us, perhaps for a life time, and influenced all of our decisions and how we’ve lived our lives, without us even realizing it.
Through my many years of personal therapy and from working with wise teachers, I’ve learned to understand that emotions are, essentially, energy messengers on a mission to bring us through an event or experience so we can come out the other side of it feeling whole again. Emotions and feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, give us the leg up we need at any given moment to move forward with life. When we ignore or disrespect their messages inner chaos ensues and we become stuck in patterns of negative, debilitating behaviour that get in the way of our ability to thrive.
Evidence is being gathered by organizations, such as the HeartMath Institute, to demonstrate how heart resonance i.e. the electromagnetic energy generated by the heart that creates a powerful energy field around every living being, allows the body to experience incoming information a split second before the mind understands and puts meaning to it. That is to say, we feel through heart resonance first and then the mind interprets the message of the feeling according to its pre-conditioned responses as determined by environment, upbringing, and life experiences. This is why we can see and experience the same thing as someone else and yet have such a different reaction to it.
So, what about fear?
By definition, fear (and we all know what that feels like) is an “intuitive, focused awareness of a threat to one’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual well being.”* Fear is a warning bell; an alarm; a siren signalling a need to seek safety.
What happens when we ignore this important messenger?
Consider, when was the last time you were afraid? Did you think fear first, or feel it?
Everything happens in a split second, but if we’re in touch with ourselves and with the visceral, we are aware of the fear energy ~ subtle or tsunami-like ~ as it waves through our body. The thumping of the heart; the sweaty palms; the racing pulse; the nervous system energized to run. The body feels the emotion ~ the energy as it moves in ~ before the mind knows what’s in the environment that creates that emotion.
Once we feel fear the mind searches for the source; asks the questions: What is the threat? What must I do to move to a position of safety?* What are these feelings telling me? Once we receive the answer, usually by way of an intuitive thought or gut feeling, we must honour it or suffer the consequences. The trick is to be in touch with those gut feelings.
A Tsunami of Fear
In late October 2012, my husband and I were in Waikiki for a four-night stay to break up a long trip from Toronto to Sydney, Australia. At the time I was deep in adrenal fatigue mode and long-distance travel was hard on my nervous system. On the second full day we rented a car and toured beautiful Oahu, ending the day at a restaurant across the street from our beachfront hotel. The place was busy, but we were fortunate to get a table with an ocean view and, after taking our order, the waiter returned with a basket of bread before getting our drinks. Moments later he returned, somewhat pale, and said with alarm:
“I’m sorry, you have to leave. There’s a tsunami warning for the islands and … .”
I didn’t hear anything else. A tsunami-like tidal wave of fear whooshed dramatically through my body landing electrically charged in my feet telling me it was time to move. We didn’t panic, but we certainly didn’t waste any time getting back to our 24th floor hotel room where we ordered room service and awaited the worst.
With visions of the the Japanese tsunami of only 18 months earlier crashing through my mind I ate little, saving the rest in case we were to be holed up for a few days. I filled the bath tub. Put on my most comfortable clothes. Washed my face. Brushed my teeth. Basically tried to get comfortable for an event over which I had no control and which was forecasted to unfold at 10:27 p.m. We had the TV on to follow reports. Regular announcements from the hotel manager filtered into the room through the hotel sound system every half hour or so. I played Angry Bird to channel my angst. My husband hung out on the balcony, filming with his iPad the bright sparks standing at the end of the wharf waiting for the first wave to arrive. Car horns honked. Whistles blew. Sirens wailed. People yelled. We were all in it together. The anticipation was jarring. The wait interminable.
As it turned out, there was no tsunami at 10:27 p.m. Only a one-foot wave lapped the shore line bringing with it a collective sigh of relief. Still, the fear response had been activated, and my experience with adrenal fatigue had made me aware enough to know that to release the fear energy I would need to find a way to shake it off. The next morning I booked an early (and wonderful) lomi lomi massage to encourage my body and mind to release the stress of the night before. It was wonderful and it worked!
The bottom line ~ within the experience itself there was only so much I could do: get to higher ground and wait it out. Had I not taken action my initial fear response might have escalated to more intense feelings of worry, anxiety, confusion, numbness, panic, terror or dissociation.
Feeling the fear of that evening was not a pleasant experience. Still, by being present with the emotion and taking care of myself, I was able to flow with it and shake it off when the danger had passed.
Learning to be more horse-like in how we deal with disturbances that create fear can help us to deal with our fears more effectively. Being present enough in our bodies to ask the appropriate questions during a time of crisis instead of over-reacting and creating unnecessary panic is crucial if we’re to maintain our equilibrium and promote long-term health and vitality.
By working with the horses, who so naturally reflect back to us our energetic truth, we can begin to learn about our own patterns of crippling behaviour and create awareness for change. We can learn to be “in our bodies” and allow its too oft ignored messages to help us function more fully in a modern world all too willing to de-sensitive and exert control over us.
Horses don’t lie. They know when we carry fear around with us. When a fearful person puts a brave face on and approaches a horse, the horse doesn’t see the face, he feels the fear. The horse doesn’t understand that he’s the source of the person’s fear. His awareness tells him that there is something in the environment of which to be afraid, and he feeds off of that energy.
It isn’t until we acknowledge our fear, thus releasing any accompanying tension, that the horse can relax and be with us. Simply acknowledging our fear allows us to experience our authenticity. Horses perceive the energy behind a lack of authenticity as a threat and will always move away from it. Conversely they will always honour the intentions of those who move in truth.
Learning to honour our emotions and their messages will, no matter how unpleasant in the moment, protect us in the long run. What we don’t face today we inevitably face tomorrow in a more amplified way. Fear, when honoured early allows us to act without over-reacting, and gives us the opportunity to take care of ourselves without bringing harm to others and perpetuating bad feeling.
Confront and release fear and feel your freedom.
Let the horses show you how …
Healing begins in the heart …
Next: Part II … Sadness
*The Power of the Herd: Guiding Principle 1: Use Emotions as Information (Linda Kohanov)
©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2015