Emotional Mastery

Written by
Michael Wells

Emotional Mastery

And How to Develop It

Written by
Michael Wells

Emotional Mastery

And How to Develop It

Written by
Michael Wells
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QUESTION
“I have a question about Buddhism.
“If something unpleasant happens, I still have a gut reaction like ‘That sucks!’ or ‘Why does it have to be that way?’
“After a few seconds, I calm down and see things as they are. That took me a long time to achieve.
“Is this what Buddhism is about OR is it to eliminate your negative gut reaction to begin with?”

I am not a Buddhist.

However, I've spent some time exploring a meditation practice that originated in Buddhism called Vipassana, which means "insight" or "special seeing."

It basically involves learning to simply see our experiences as they truly are- as sensations, thoughts, and emotions that naturally arise, and then naturally fade away.

How Your Mind Works

If you go deep into Vipassana theory, everything we experience has four stages- Sensation, Perception, Interpretation, and Reaction.

Imagine that your prankster-buddy Fred dumps a huge bucket of ice water on you without warning.

Here's how Vipassana describes that experience...

  1. The Sensation itself is intense, it's just your nerves firing in response to a strong stimulation. You just feel... intensity.
  2. Perception is separate from that, it's where we identify that intense feeling as COLD. We determine that partly from past experience and pattern-matching, and partly from situational context, and partly from the further information processing that happens in our brain.
  3. Interpretation. "A bucket of ice water was just dumped on me"
  4. Reaction. FRED!!!! Shock, anger, outrage, "I've just been attacked." Maybe kick Fred in the nuts and start a brawl.

All four of these happen in the blink of an eye, and without being aware that they're four separate stages of processing, we have very little control over our reactions.

The first two stages - Sensation and Perception - are very low-level. We'd describe them as being much closer to the central nervous system, and mostly automatic and subconscious. We have very little influence over those- though we do have some influence over Perception.

The last two stages - Interpretation and Reaction - occur in our conscious-mind, and we have a lot more control there than we realize.

Why the Ability to Control Our Reaction Matters

The reason that this is important to understand is that the Reaction creates new Sensations and starts the process all over again.

This cyclical effect has the effect of prolonging and amplifying the whole experience, and turning a relatively minor incident into a major event that's consuming all of our attention, for days, weeks, or even years.

A Thought Experiment

Consider this scenario...

Imagine you're sitting on the sofa late at night with your dog, watching a movie. Suddenly someone tries to break into your house. What happens?

Your dog goes into defend-the-home mode, barking angrily at the door, and let's say they scare the would-be burglar away.

60 seconds later, your dog is comfortably relaxed and resting again on the sofa, half asleep. Crisis averted.

But how relaxed are you? Chances are, you're still a nervous wreck, worried that they will come back, worried what would have happened if your dog wasn't there, worried about going to work the next day.

You probably won't sleep a wink that night.

Why? Because your reaction is different. You prolong, and amplify the experience, because we have good imagination, and few of us have learned to control it. Your dog, by contrast, has no imagination, and therefore his emotions simply evaporate as soon as their role is complete.

Welcome to being human, where your greatest strengths - prediction, imagination, curiosity - can also be your greatest sources of misery.

So What's the Goal?

Back to your question.

I'm not Buddhist, but as far as I can tell from Vipassana, the goal is not to eliminate the experience "as though it never happened." It is also not about avoiding or suppressing the experience of emotion.

It is about learning to see our thoughts and feelings all the way from inception through to completion, and to reprogram how we respond in each stage so that we eliminate unnecessary suffering.

You'll soon discover, 99% of our suffering is something we create all by ourselves.

How to Develop Emotional Mastery

We can develop our emotional mastery by starting our work where we have the most awareness and conscious control - at the Reaction, and then moving through the stages backwards - Interpretation, Perception, and Sensation.

Here's how I develop each of my own mental phases of processing...

Reaction

Stop, reflect and ask yourself...

  • "Will this reaction, that I'm feeling, actually improve and resolve this situation? Or will it make things worse?"
  • "Will I feel as though the situation is resolved?"
  • "What's actually the most useful way to respond to this situation?"

My favorite tools for reviewing and improving my reactions include the standard "count to 20" when emotions are overwhelming. I do a lot of journaling, which gives me a much clearer and more meaningful understanding of the situation and my own core values. For bigger issues that I struggle to get perspective on, I'll talk to a coach, or close friends.

Interpretation

At the same time, while we're working on seeing and choosing our Reaction, we want to work on Interpretation.

Ask yourself...

  • "Is my interpretation of this situation correct, or could I be entirely wrong?"
  • "Is there more to this story that I don't know?"
  • "What's going on right now - and before this event - for the person I'm experiencing this situation with?"
  • "Are there other possible explanations here, that I'm not considering?"
  • "How else could I possibly interpret this situation?"

Our gut interpreted Fred's ice bucket as an attack, but maybe he's autistic and simply doesn't get humor well. Maybe Fred thought we'd find it hilarious, too. Perhaps Fred is drunk and not thinking clearly, or maybe he slipped and it was totally unintentional.

Seeing those possibilities and questioning our Interpretation is important to managing our Reaction too.

That crazy guy that just cut you off in traffic, and totally pissed you off? Yes, maybe he's a total ass, or maybe he's rushing his daughter to the hospital. How you interpret that situation has a big impact on what you feel, and how you react.

Perception

Getting good at this are you? Great, let's go deeper.

From there you can play with Perception, but this took very deep meditation for me, it wasn't until about day 7 of the 10-day retreat that I began to see how I could influence my Perceptions.

Things get weird here, because even your identification of pain v. pleasure is somewhat under your control. The most painful leg cramp can actually become pleasurable if you can tweak your Perception of it.

Weirdly, you can control that, with practice... but finding those switches in your head is like stumbling around a dark room you've never been in before, trying to find the light switch.

But if you find it... holy f@#$, you'll never see things the same way again.

That discovery was easily one of the most mind-blowing parts of my Vipassana experience. It changed everything about how I relate to my emotions, thoughts, and feelings.

Sensation

Still want to go deeper? Wow, ok.

If you get to this level, where you can manipulate your Sensations - without drugs - then you are a JEDI.

Frankly I don't know if this is possible, but even my own mind continues to surprise me in amazing ways...

If you find those internal switches, let me know.

Final Thoughts

If you keep unpacking each of your experiences, and reflecting carefully on what's objectively true versus what your mind is adding to each experience - you'll see more and more where you have control.

I expect that if you go far enough, you probably wouldn't feel overwhelming emotions like anger automatically anymore.

Instead, you'd see the event happen, and then you'd rationally think, "Hey that was totally unfair, I need to confront this situation." And then you'd consciously allow the response of anger.

All of this would happen intentionally, rather than reactively.

Self-control start with self-awareness, so keep doing the reflection, journaling, meditation and coaching to unpack your life experiences.
I think you'll keep getting closer to that goal.

Most of all, enjoy the journey, it's great fun.

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First published on 
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June 10, 2021

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