Harnessing Your Emotions

A chat with Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

Posted Apr 05, 2017

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is the reincarnate lama of the Nyingma tradition, as recognized by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa. Ponlop is the founder of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist study, as well as a meditation master. His most recent book is Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You. Here are some of his thoughts about harnessing emotions. 

How do you define “emotion”?

iStock ID 000022831303
Source: iStock ID 000022831303

The basic dictionary definition tells us that an emotion is an intensified mental state that we experience as agitated, disturbed, or anxious, which comes with similar physical symptoms of distress—increased heartbeat, rapid breathing, possibly crying or shaking. Even the origin of the word “emotion” (from Old French and Latin) means to excite, to move, to stir up. And such feeling states are generally described as being beyond our conscious control or the power of reason.

You might ask: “But what about the emotions that make you feel happy? Aren’t love and joy emotions, too?” Yes. But states of mind like love, joy, and compassion don’t ruin your day. You feel better, more clear and peaceful, because of them. So they’re not regarded in the same way. When you’re “getting emotional,” you’re usually not feeling so great. So when we mention “working with your emotions,” it means unpacking and letting go of the heavy baggage of your pain and confusion.

Emotions seem to be at the very center of our suffering. How can the energy of emotions empower you?

Your emotional energies are a limitless source of creative power and intelligence that’s “on” all the time—like the electrical current we put to so many uses. When you finally see straight to the heart of your emotions, this power source is what you see. Before an emotion escalates to a fever pitch or you’ve managed to chill it out, there’s a basic energy that gives rise to it. This energy runs through all your emotions—good, bad, or neutral. It’s simply an upsurge that’s been stimulated by something in your environment—like an upsurge in the voltage flowing through a power line. If it’s just a slight increase, you may not notice it, but if it’s a strong burst, it can give you a shock. That’s why we have surge protectors for our sensitive equipment. It’s too bad we can’t wear surge protectors to modulate our temper tantrums.

It may be something internal and personal that stirs you up—a memory evoked by a familiar song. Or it could be something external, like your partner telling that same dumb joke he knows you can’t stand. Think back to the last time you were really upset. Right before you got so heated up and the angry thoughts kicked in, there was a gap. Your mind’s regular chatter stopped for a moment—one quiet moment without thought. That gap wasn’t just empty space. It was the first flash of your emotion-to-be: the creative energy of your natural intelligence.

You might be thinking, I like the sound of all this, but it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not the creative type. But you are creating all the time. You create your world all around you. You make choices, build relationships, and arrange the spaces you inhabit. You dream up goals, jobs, and ways to play, and generally envision the world you want. With a little help from the power of electricity, you can turn night into day. You can transform a cold apartment into a cozy home. In the same way, your emotions can brighten your world, warm you up, and wake you up with their vital, playful energy. When you feel lost, they can bring a fresh sense of direction and inspiration into your life.

So emotions don’t have to be a problem for you. Any emotion can bring a welcome sense of positive energy or the opposite—a dose of gloom and doom. It just depends on how you work with it, how you respond to the upsurge of energy.

Sometimes our emotions seem to take over before we even know what’s happening, like when we have a sudden attack of anger. What do we do then?

This is the central question, isn’t it? When you’re feeling tormented by your emotions, what do you do? You probably look for an escape route. But you can’t see your emotions the way you can see smoke or fire, so which way do you turn? You can’t exactly decide, My anger is hammering at the front door, so I’ll go out the back . If you react out of panic, without thinking it through, you might end up jumping from the frying pan into the fire. You never know what might be waiting for you in your backyard. Instead of leaving your well-being to chance, it’s a good idea to have a rescue plan for those times when you find yourself on shaky emotional ground, looking for a lifeline.