Our emotions can have the unbridled power of wild horses on the run.
They can either rule us, or become a constant source of energy that we can harness.
Have you ever been carried away by a powerful emotion, and afterwards looked back at something you said or did as a result and asked yourself: “What on earth was I thinking?”
Most of us are guilty.
In certain situations some part of our intellect seems to just switch off, and words come out of our mouths without control, and sometimes we behave very badly.
Neuroscience has studied the phenomenon. It has even been given a name – it’s called an Amygdala Hijack – and there are some spectacular public examples.
“What on Earth Was He Thinking?”
Picture the scene: It’s July 2006 in Berlin, and emotions are at fever pitch across the globe.
Almost 30 million people are glued to the screen in over 200 countries as France and Italy duel it out in the Soccer World Cup Final. The scores are tied at 1-1 as full time approaches, everyone’s nerves are raw, and then suddenly it all explodes.
For the French international soccer hero, Zinedine Zidane, the emotional charge is too much.
He somehow loses his self-control, and in plain sight he head-butts Marco Materazzi, an Italian defender. A red card appears, and he is sent off the field. France’s hopes are dashed. The world is stunned, and baffled. What was he thinking?
In that one instant Zidane managed to ruin his professional reputation, and cost France the World Cup title.
This is an extreme example, of course, but the same process can operate in everyday life.
In any given situation, our emotions can override our best intentions. Moods can derail us at work, and negative emotions can destroy relationships.
It can ruin more than a soccer match. It can ruin your life.
Science explains what was happening in Zidane’s brain:
The amygdala and limbic system are parts of the ‘emotional machinery’ of the human brain, which regulate the fight or flight response. These brain regions play a part in how we react to emotion. But there’s a snag – a relic from our evolution. The system can “short-circuit” and cause us to act without thinking, especially in a high-pressure situation. Hence the term “Amygdala Hijack.”
So let’s take a look at how we can avoid being ruled by emotion, and how we can practically harness that energy instead.
First, Understand What Emotions Are
Science tells us a lot about the physiological processes in the brain and the rest of the body that accompany emotions. But science finds it difficult to define exactly what an emotion is. One attempt at a definition goes like this:
“The neurobiological explanation of human emotion is that emotion is a pleasant or unpleasant mental state organized in the limbic system of the mammalian brain.”
That might be true – but it doesn’t help us practically. Are emotions thoughts, states of mind, feelings, or body sensations? Are they real things, and if so, how do we harness them?
One of the most useful explanations I’ve come across is from George Gurdjieff, an early pioneer of esoteric and psychological thinking. He used an old-fashioned analogy to explain emotions – the horse-drawn carriage.
It’s a way to understand the totality of a human being, and it puts everything into the proper perspective:
- The carriage itself corresponds to the human body.
- The driver of the carriage corresponds to the intellectual mind – which holds the reigns, so to speak.
- The horses are our emotions – all the energy comes from them. They understand only simple commands: “Go, stop, left, and right.”
Horses, driver and carriage are linked together by the reigns and the harnesses. In ideal circumstances all three parts work together in harmony, resulting in a smooth ride.
But when the horses (who have minds of their own) take fright, the driver loses control, and the carriage may be damaged in the mad dash that follows. In other words, by analogy, when our emotions run wild, our minds lose control, and our bodies may suffer.
In the same way, when the driver (the mind) tries to command the horses (emotion) in a language they don’t understand, they simply don’t co-operate. The mind shouts “Forward!” but the emotions stand still.
The best way to think of emotions is in terms of driving force – or even as semi-skilled energy. Emotions are what turn our otherwise impotent thoughts and intentions into real actions. With no horses the carriage and driver are useless. Each part is necessary.
Learning to harness emotional energy requires knowledge, skill, and practice. It’s not automatic. It’s something you can only master through personal development.
Emotion arises at the place where mind and body meet. It is the body’s reaction to your mind – or you might say, a reflection of your mind in the body.
– Eckhardt Tolle, The Power of Now
Suppressing Your Emotions Won’t Work
It’s common sense, and we know it from experience: Suppressing emotions will have a negative effect on mental and physical health.
This is because our emotions are linked to our minds as well as our bodies. It’s all part of one natural continuum. When we suppress emotions they wreak havoc on the body, because they have no other form of expression.
It’s like binding the feet of the horses, while the driver whips them, trying to move forward. That kind of thinking borders on insanity.
There is a constant reserve of emotional energy which is available to attach to any thought or circumstance you encounter through life. But remember, the circumstance on its own means nothing. Circumstances are only “bad” or “negative” when our minds label them that way. To the emotions, it’s all one thing.
Whatever you constantly think about will connect to that energy and find expression in some way. In other words, what you choose to dwell on mentally, changes your emotions, and therefore your biochemistry.
For example: If you worry all the time there will be a build-up of energy in the body. Fearful emotions are felt as physical sensations like constricted muscles, elevated heart rate, and changes in breathing rhythm. Adrenalin and cortisol are released in your body, and the physical sensations are experienced as stress.
Those physical sensations are re-interpreted by the mind as unpleasant, and the cycle continues.
But emotions are a vital part of being human. They are not the enemy – they are integral to our experience of life.
So if mastering emotions doesn’t mean suppressing them, then what does it mean?
Learning to Harness Emotional Power Intelligently
Coming back to the analogy of the horse-drawn carriage for a moment, consider how the driver uses the reigns to control the horses. The only real tool you have at your disposal is your ability to focus your mind on what you choose. In other words: awareness, presence or mindfulness. Those are your reigns.
Don’t let your “driver” fall asleep on the job.
Understand that emotions only take on meaning when we supply that meaning with our thoughts –we choose to connect our thoughts to our emotions, even if we’re not aware of it. It’s a habit.
It happens so quickly that we’re not even aware of what happened.
For example, somebody cuts in front of us in a queue, and almost instantly we’re annoyed.
But if you’re awake to what’s happening internally, you can learn to stop the process of connecting emotional energy to the thought “that’s so annoying, what a rude person!” Instead, you can just let go of that thought, before it has time to stir up your feelings.
Suddenly the energy that you would have wasted on anger is available for something more positive. What you’re doing here is learning to command “the horses” in a language they understand.
When you become more present and more aware of your habitual thoughts, and how those thoughts translate into emotions, you start to become free from emotional slavery.
When you notice that your mind is dwelling on fear, anger, or any other negative emotion, the simple act of observation will start to break down the conditioned responses that normally take over.
Now you can choose to dwell on positive ideas instead.