Gaining some mastery of your emotions so you can move through them without being taken for a ride.
A health crisis can be an extremely trying time. Being told that we have a serious illness or that ‘There is nothing more we can do for you,’ may set us off on a roller coaster of feelings. Having some sense of mastery in our emotional world can make all the difference to how we cope with the constantly changing challenges this presents.
But where does that kind of mastery start? For instance, when we’re feeling angry or anxious, lonely or confused, how can we find a sanctuary inside… some sense of composure and peace?
What doesn’t work
- Denial, or somehow managing to pretend that what’s happening, isn’t really happening at all.
Not acknowledging the uncomfortable thoughts or feelings that are plaguing you, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Known as ‘ostrich logic,’ this attitude makes you worse off; not acknowledging the reality of your feelings actually makes you more vulnerable, not less.
- Keeping a lid on things
You know that a particular thought or feeling is there but whenever it makes its presence felt you push it back down and distract yourself by doing something – anything, rather than looking at it.
Inner calmness can’t keep company with thoughts and feelings that are clamouring to be acknowledged.
- Trying to go it alone
You tell friends or family you’re fine when, in fact, inside you’re falling to pieces.
That can make for an unnecessarily lonely journey, and it distances those who love you. This, exactly when you need all the support that’s available. It’s also when those who love you are probably feeling distraught by what you are going through and are longing to help – but feel shut out.
What does work
*Coming to terms with the situation
Avoiding uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is a drain on your energy – something you can’t afford when you are tired or ill.
As Jeff Davidson, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing Stress says:
By stopping and noticing how you feel, you actually can dispel some of your negative emotions…. The mere act of acknowledging your undesirable feeling helps diminish it. I’m not sure how this works; I know that it does.
However desperately we might be wishing that things would change, that we could cope better, nothing can change until we acknowledge what’s happening.
We can’t get somewhere – physically or emotionally – without first being aware of the place we are in at present. So, paradoxically, it might be that our path to peace starts with noticing that, right now, we’re feeling the exact opposite.
Another paradox: the sooner we can say ‘Yes, this is where I am right now,’ the quicker we’ll find ourselves there – with those old feelings left behind – in a new place, with a new understanding.
In other words, the first step is …
Being aware, ‘mindful,’ of what you are feeling.
It can be confronting to notice that we have certain feelings and thoughts – such as hopelessness or anger or not being lovable – especially if they are new to us, are ones we tend to avoid, or which don’t fit with our image of who we are.
Yet pretending feelings are not there, pushing them out of sight or trying to manage alone, doesn’t help. All that takes energy and, when we are tired, ill or dying, the feelings and thoughts we imagined we had got rid of can resurface, and – like a boomerang we fling away – come back with a vengeance.
The second step …
Accepting the feeling
For example, let’s imagine your illness means you have to depend more and more on others. You fight the feelings that brings up in you – freaked out by no longer being in charge of your life and by a growing dependence on others. Perhaps your inner critic tells you that being dependent is weak.
So now, not only are you sick and having to adapt to a huge upheaval in your life; to make matters worse you are beating yourself up internally. That inner split – ‘I am freaking out’ versus ‘This is so not how I should feel or want to feel’ – creates tension…tension that you can do without!
Craving calmness while doing battle inside is not a good strategy. Now, more than ever, is the time to be loving and tender with yourself.
‘The deeper the self-awareness we cultivate, the more self-acceptance we allow, the more whole we become as we are healing our internal division.’ 
The third step ..
Recognising you are not that feeling
We often beat ourselves up when we have particular thoughts or feelings because we take ourselves for those thoughts or feelings. We say: ‘I am frightened’ or ‘I am so angry!’ That’s how we’ve been brought up – to think that we are the sum total of our physical-mental-emotional selves – so it’s understandable if we become ‘identified’ with all those aspects. But that identification only adds to our stress. Not only that: it’s based on a mistaken view.
That is to say: we are not our thoughts or our feelings.
You’re not being asked to believe that; it’s an observable reality. When we watch carefully we can notice that all thoughts and feelings come and go, so it’s more accurate to say, ‘Fear is present right now’ or ‘I am noticing anger passing through me.’
But rather than taking anyone’s word for it, try this small experiment:
Pause in your reading and for a few moments tune in to what you’re feeling right now. (This may be easier if you close your eyes.) Curious? Sceptical? Confused? Maybe a mixture of emotions?
Notice what the feeling is, without judging it. Keep watching over the next few seconds…. As you continue to observe it perhaps the feeling is decreasing or growing and then becoming another feeling….
…Now, see if the following is true of what you just experienced:
- I could observe that feeling: that means it was separate from me.
- That feeling was changing as I watched it.
- The part of me that observed the feeling changing was constant; that is, although it was able to observe the feeling changing, it wasn’t changing.
The recognition that we are none of the physical, mental and emotional changes we can observe – and remembering that reality as often as we can – is very powerful. The beautiful word sammasati means just that: ‘right-remembering.’
That reality is the sanctuary we were seeking, that place where, in spite of all the ups and downs, there is a sense of peace, of being in touch with the one constant in our lives. The ‘sanctuary’ is in fact ourselves at our most essential.
Yes, it does take a conscious intention to remind ourselves – again and again, every day, whenever we can – that we are not whatever we are noticing but the seer, the observer, because the habit of identification is engrained. The good news is that the more frequently we do remember, and return to who we are, the easier it becomes. That’s because from there we can see how peripheral and non-essential everything else is – and having that perspective transforms everything.
Here’s a short method to increase your awareness of your feelings; it’s one that you can incorporate directly into your everyday life….
Take Note x 3 is an effective method to become more conscious of your feelings, not only when you are in the grip of a strong emotion, but at any time in your day.
In fact it’s a good idea to start trying out this strategy with feelings when they aren’t so compelling or persistent. Then, when you see how it works and gain more trust in it, try it with stronger feelings.
Remembering who you are: The Master Key
Knowing yourself as the unchanging observer means that though your body and mind continue to present a passing parade of potential problems, you no longer need to get sucked in. You have a choice because now you know that you are the watching consciousness, separate from whatever you can observe. That knowing is your key to inner calm.
‘Our thoughts are just clouds; they come and go. Our emotions are just smoke … momentary. Our childhood goes; our youth goes; our old age goes. Our life itself goes.
‘In all this only one thing remains the same, and that is the present awareness.’ 
1) Coming Alive: a practical manual for health and well-being Louis Proto (Thorsons)
2) Dogen, the Zen master: A Search and a Fulfilment Osho (Rebel)