Emotions are the background murmuring of life. They clue us into danger and discomfort. They also distract us from every day living.
They are no better or worse than our minds. They are like the lines we see on our EKG graph. They go up and down detecting discomfort, signals of impending death in our body. Our emotions have no words. It can only feel anger or sadness. Not given ample permission for the latter, the danger detector in our body for loneliness, sadness, low self-esteem show up as anger. Anger is easier when projected. Being angry with ourselves provides little outlet—unless we have been trained to breathe, meditate, jump or swim our way to better emotional regulation, or better yet to recognize the anger as sadness and longings. However, most of us are not trained to do that. Most of our parents hadn’t either. So we more likely pass on anger and isolation than compassion and empathy, generation after generation. Many of us do mature at later age, learning to hold our own brainstem and limbic reactions in more objective light, so we can organize our prefrontal cortex to react calmly rather than mere puppets for expressing explosive emotions or carrying out impulsive decisions. However, without learning to slow down and distance ourselves from the ups and downs in our emotional charts, we often are at the mercy of emotional waves that are out of proportion with the real danger we experience in life.
There are certainly many in the world who face real live/death situations that their body react to on a daily basis. As the more fortunate portion of human society, myself included, we face only limited amount of physical and emotional danger and have more safe days than precarious ones. While acknowledging our privilege, I do not want to underestimate the anxieties of a career, parenthood, couples’ relationships, sexism and racism, and all that come with modernity. All of those can still take a toll on any individual in a relatively wealthy society and peaceful times. Learning to slow down and step back from the demands of our fight and flight system can smooth out the curves in our day to day emotional rhythm. While it might slow down our negative reaction(such as projecting anger onto others, worrying about things we can’t change, rushing to do things at the wrong time), it will increase the efficiency of our positive responses. Without impulsive actions to drag us down with unpleasant consequences, we can better think, prepare and then execute what we need to do, whether it is a talk with a spouse, a discussion with a colleague, or the family planning with an elderly parent. Slowing down does not mean avoiding but more measured and timely actions.
Our brain steam and limbic systems are all vital systems in our body protecting us against danger. They are so practiced at detecting danger in our history, both inherited or experienced, they have left behind residues of coping mechanisms that create impediments for an optimal life experience—however we would like to define “optimal”. Once we are in a safe-enough environment, we can afford to act as an observer of our own fight/flight and emotional reactions. Those observations will become the stepping stone toward the fulfillment of life potentials in us.
Perhaps none of us could have a truly accurate measure of our safety level since death can come at any moment in any form. In that case, I wonder if we have no choice but to maximize the joy and minimize the sense of non-present danger in each moment. We could never stop living just just because we are afraid death might be coming.