From moments of joy to pangs of sadness, bursts of anger to flutters of excitement, our emotions are as diverse and ever-changing as the weather. Yet, understanding and managing these emotions can often leave us feeling overwhelmed. But what if we could learn to manage these inner weather patterns more skillfully? This is where the concept of 'agility' comes into play. Just as a dancer moves with grace and fluidity, responding to the rhythm of the music, emotional agility is about learning to move harmoniously with our emotions, responding to their rhythm without losing our balance. This blog post is a summary of episode 185 - Weathering the Storms Within
You are the sky. Everything else – it's just the weather. - Pema Chodron
What is Emotional Agility?
Emotional agility refers to the ability to navigate the ever-changing weather of our emotions. The concept of emotional agility embraces the wisdom that we are the sky, and everything else, it's just the weather. Our emotions, like clouds, come and go, shaping the atmosphere of our minds, influencing our decisions, our actions, and our words.
The Parable of the Two Arrows
In understanding emotional agility, consider the Buddhist parable of the two arrows. The first arrow represents life's changes, which are inevitable. The second arrow symbolizes our emotional response, which we can work with and temper through mindfulness. Our reactions, our second arrows, are what we hold the power to shape and influence.
Tips to Cultivate Emotional Agility
Here are three powerful tips to cultivate emotional agility:
- Cultivate Selective Attention: This involves learning to pay attention to our emotions. Picture this: On an average day, would you be aware of how many red cars you saw? Probably not. But if you were offered a reward for every red car you noticed in a day, you would suddenly become highly aware of them, not because there are more red cars, but because your attention has become sharpened. Similarly, by being mindful and attuned to our emotions, we can recognize their subtleties and patterns.
- Embrace the Pause: When strong emotions start to consume you, take a moment to pause. Acknowledge what you're experiencing, and then try to correctly identify the emotion. This pause allows us to look at things a little bit closer, to be more introspective.
- View Emotions as Informative Messengers: After taking a moment to pause, delve deeper and look closer. What message does this emotion convey? What is it trying to tell me? Emotions offer insights rather than commands. They indicate underlying feelings or needs without necessarily prescribing specific actions.
The Dance with Emotions
Think of emotional agility as a dance with your emotions, where the goal is to move in harmony with their rhythm without losing your balance. This involves recognizing and understanding our feelings without becoming entangled with the emotional weather patterns that take place within us.
The Transformative Power of Emotional Agility
Emotional agility empowers us to navigate our emotional experiences more effectively. It encourages us to lean into our emotions without resisting them and gently ask, "What are you really trying to tell me?" This approach allows us to interact with our circumstances in a more effective and constructive manner, leading to personal growth and resilience.
Emotional agility is not about altering the weather of our emotions, but rather about acting skillfully with it. It's about mastering our minds, an ongoing journey that requires mindfulness and introspection. So next time you're feeling overwhelmed by a strong emotion, remember the mantra, "I let them come and I let them go," and experience the transformative power of seeing emotions through this new lens.
Click here to read the full transcript of the podcast episode
Hello and welcome back to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. Today we're embarking on a journey through a universal topic, one that we've all wrestled with yet often find elusive. Some of the ideas I'll share in this episode were discussed in our online community discussion, a weekly Zoom call for podcast supporters and community members. If you're not aware, we have a vibrant online community where we engage in weekly video calls. In these calls, we delve into Buddhist concepts and teachings, share experiences and explore how to apply these teachings in our daily lives. Can learn more about that at secularbuddism.com. In today's episode, we will explore the concept of emotional agility and talk about how we can work with our emotions more effectively. We will draw on insights from both Buddhist teachings and contemporary science to guide us on this journey.
Here's a mantra for you to consider I let them come and I let them go. What do these words evoke as you think about them? Imagine yourself lying under the open sky, observing the clouds as they pass by. Some clouds are light and wispy, while others are dark, heavy and imposing. These ever-shifting forms that we see in the sky mirror our ever-changing emotional states moments of joy, pangs of sadness, bursts of anger and flutters of excitement. While picturing yourself in this meditation, looking at the sky, bear in mind the wisdom of Pema Chodron when she says you are the sky. Everything else it's just the weather. Like these clouds, our emotions can sometimes cast looming shadows, or they can be brief moments of brightness, but armed with our mantra I let them come and I let them go, we anchor ourselves to the truth of their impermanence. They might linger for a while, but eventually they drift on like clouds, leaving us with the vastness of our inner sky. This understanding is at the heart of emotional agility. Like the sky remains undisturbed by the ever-changing weather. Through emotional agility, we too can navigate our emotional storms with greater equanimity and calm, just as we adapt our actions according to the weather. Moving effortlessly through our emotional states, without being anchored to any singular emotion, offers us a more centered and balanced way of life. Let's explore the transformative power of this agility in our everyday life.
Agility, by its nature, is our innate ability to respond swiftly and efficiently to the unpredictability and intricacies of life. It's the nimbleness to adapt and stay resilient amidst ever-shifting circumstances. When rain clouds gather, I can instinctively reach for my umbrella. As they disperse, revealing a bright sun, I might shield my eyes by reaching for sunglasses. These responses are, in a way, a form of agility in the face of ever-changing external conditions. Emotional agility, in this essence, mirrors this same adaptability. It's our capacity to recognize and label an emotion and then act skillfully, while anchored in the understanding that emotions, like clouds, come and go.
Emotions shape the atmosphere of our minds, influencing our decisions, our actions and our words. But how do we cultivate emotional agility and why does emotional agility matter? I'm going to talk about that in the rest of this episode. Now I do want to share a quick note Again. This is a thought that came from the discussion we had about this topic yesterday in our Community Zoom call. That's the notion of, if we equate emotions like we do weather, the sky is the container and all weather phenomena inside of the sky, the sky allows it. That's the witness of what's taking place in it. If we were to compare that to this notion of, the mind is like the sky and all of the emotional weather patterns that take place in it. They are impermanent and they come and go. What about more long-lasting emotions, like grief, for example? That was brought up as an example.
We talked a little bit about using the same weather analogy, the distinction between climate versus weather. It may be that the climate of a certain region is predominantly a certain way, like, for example, the gray and cloudy weather that people know to be associated with England, compared to, let's say, the sunny and bright climate that's known to be associated with somewhere like Cancun, Mexico. The idea here is that certain regions do have certain climates, and yet it's still not impermanent. In the UK you may have your six days of sunny, bright weather With our emotional weather. Comparing all of this as an example, it's possible that the life circumstances that you have lived or your genetic predispositions could give rise to a particular climate that tends to be more predominant for you. Some people are naturally more optimistic and cheery, while others may be more naturally pessimistic and gloomy. But by the same token of this analogy, it's still impermanent, because it's not all the time, and yet you can carry certain climates with you. I'll get into that a little bit more, especially with this notion of grief, because I do think that this is important to understand that the goal of this topic and this conversation, this understanding, is not to alter the weather. That's not our goal. We can't do that. But how do we act skillfully with the weather? That's the name of the game here.
Buddhism places great emphasis on the idea of mastering the mind, and emotions play a significant role in this endeavor. Emotional agility, from a Buddhist perspective, refers to the cultivation of mindfulness towards our emotions, understanding their impermanence and then not being too attached to or repelled by them. So consider for a moment the parable of the two arrows. This comes from the Sallatha Sutta: Picture a man struck by an arrow, naturally writhing in pain, and moments later, another arrow strikes him in the exact same spot. This second inflection of pain is no longer just physical. It's coupled with a surge of emotional despair.
The Buddha's interpretation on this story sheds light on the human experience. That first arrow symbolizes the unavoidable hardships that we face, whether that be loss, illness or just the mere act of aging. And the second arrow symbolizes our emotional reactions to these events. That could be anger, resentment, sadness, sorrow. So while the first arrow's strike is often beyond our control, with mindfulness and with insight we can temper the sting of the second arrow or avoid it all together and ensure that our emotional responses don't amplify the suffering that we are experiencing from the strike of the first arrow.
In essence, this ancient wisdom is a testament to this idea of emotional agility. Emotions, like unpredictable weather, are a natural part of our existence. Yet our reactions, our second arrows, are what we hold the power to shape and influence. Consider the teachings of the Buddha. In another discourse, the Satipatthana Sutta, he spoke of the contemplation of feelings, teaching us to recognize and understand feelings without becoming entangled with the feelings. This, to me, echoes this understanding that our minds can be silent observers of the emotional storms that brew within them, and the same way that the vast sky remains untouched, merely witnessing the ever-changing weather that unfolds within it. Emotions, like storms, may sweep through, but we have the ability to observe without being entangled or defined by them. So, in contemporary terms, you can think of this through the lens of emotional agility and think of it as a dance, a dance with your emotions, where the goal is to move in harmony with their rhythm, without losing your balance. This is a concept I talk about a lot while I teach paragliding.
When you're learning to paraglide, the very first skill that you have to develop is how to kite the wing. We call it kiting the wing, where you inflate the wing into the wind and you learn to manipulate that wing, and I always tell my students who are learning to kite that it's a dance, it's not a fight, it's not a wrestling match. And then I emphasize that if you think of it as a wrestling match or as a fight, you'll never win. We are no match for the wind, the strength of the wind coupled with a big wing. You're just no match. If you try to fight it, you can't. So the strategy here is you're learning to control to some degree this piece of fabric that's flying in the wind. You can't control the wind or its direction or the intensity of it, but you can learn to manipulate this piece of fabric to dance in the wind, and if you do it just right, it will actually pick you up and take you for a flight. It's a really neat thing, but it really is a lot more like a dance than it is a fight.
And I think the same principle applies to the relationship we have with our emotions. Emotional agility can be thought about as, or likened to, finding oneself in a sudden, unexpected downpour. Just as you can't stop the rain or you can't modify the intensity of the rain that's falling, you can't always control the onset of powerful emotions, but in these scenarios. In both of these scenarios, you do have choices, whether it's deciding to go out and dance in the rain, or deciding to seek shelter or to grab an umbrella. Whatever response you choose, how you choose to weather that storm is a reflection of the relationship you have with the weather and your understanding of whatever circumstances you're in. If you're on your way to work, you're more likely to get under an umbrella to not get wet, because you don't want to be wet. If you're going to go to work, if you're done with work and you've been playing outside, maybe that's when you'll feel like dancing in the rain. So again, the idea here is that there isn't a correct answer, but there are a variety of choices that we can take when it comes to how we encounter the weather or, in this case, how we encounter whatever emotion we're experiencing. So, in the same idea, similarly, emotional agility is the art of recognizing, understanding and then skillfully navigating through our emotions and the emotions that others are experiencing. It's about cultivating an awareness, embracing the complexity of our emotional landscape and then choosing responses that are both measured and constructive, whereas we often say skillful rather than unskillful. Dr Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard, has extensively studied emotional agility, and her research indicates that individuals with higher emotional agility tend to have reduced levels of stress, increased resilience and greater overall well-being.
With the crossroads of Buddhist wisdom and this modern psychology lies a profound insight. Buddhism emphasizes nonattachment and the practice of observing our emotions in the same way that we would observe the sky, so that we can notice the impermanent nature of our emotions. Contemporary psychology, on the other hand, emphasizes understanding and then integrating our emotions. For me, it's similar to the difference of looking at the sky to have an understanding of the nature of the sky Clouds are impermanent versus becoming a skilled weather observer, where you can notice the different types of clouds. You can start to predict the upcoming weather based on what you are observing in the sky, and in this way, we're not only prepared but we can also adapt and act skillfully, anticipating and knowing what's likely to come in terms of weather.
And with both of these approaches, they both converge on the simple yet profound understanding that we don't need to be mere puppets to our emotions. We don't have to allow our emotions to be the stimulus that regulates what we say and do or how we're going to respond. Instead, we can use our emotions as tools to better understand ourselves. So let me expand on that just a little here. First, think about a time that you snapped at someone because you were stressed, or maybe you made an unskillful, impulsive decision based on a surge of emotion. I know I've certainly done both of these, and these are moments that underscore the need for greater emotional agility. And again, remember, it's not about attempting to alter our emotional climate and decide these are the emotions you should have, these are the ones that you shouldn't. That's not it. We're trying to establish a more skillful relationship with whatever emotion is currently in play. When sadness or stress arise. With mindfulness, Our responses to such emotions can become more measured and appropriate to the circumstances that gave rise to those particular emotions. So here are three practical tips that we can use to work more skillfully with our emotions. The first tip is to cultivate selective attention. That means, essentially, learning to pay attention.
Consider the phenomenon that we know of called selective attention. That's tied closely to the RAS system in the brain, or what's called the reticular activating system, which filters and prioritizes sensory information, and here's how it works. You can picture this scenario On an average day. If you were to be asked how many red cars did you see today? You probably wouldn't be aware to be able to answer that question. You may be able to say, yeah, I'm pretty sure I saw a red car, but you're not going to be able to give an exact number of how many, and probably not even a close guess. But if you were told the day before that you were going to be rewarded for every red car you noticed that day let's say you were going to be given $100 or something well, suddenly you would become highly aware of the red cars. And it's not because there are suddenly more red cars or they're easier to notice. It's just simply because your attention has become sharpened. You have now selective attention to the thing that you're looking for and at the end of the day, it's very likely you're going to be able to give an accurate number of how many red cars you saw.
Similarly, by being mindful and attuned to our emotions, we can recognize the subtleties and the patterns of the emotions that we experience. If, and only if, we cultivate selective attention and we set the intent to pay attention to these things, this empowers us to respond with greater understanding and with greater intentionality of how we want to act when we're experiencing certain emotions. So the key to emotional agility lies in this ability to discern, to recognize, actively, notice and understand what emotion am I experiencing right now, and then we'll be able to skillfully navigate that landscape. But first we have to pay attention and we have to notice, which leads us to the second tip embrace the pause.
When strong emotions start to consume, you take a moment to pause, acknowledge in that moment what it is you're experiencing and then try to correctly identify the emotion you're experiencing. Our initial reactions can often be misleading as they stem from unexamined emotions. An emotion that's really strong will cause you to go into reactivity mode and you may not even pay close enough attention to that emotion to recognize what it really is or why it's really there. In the words of CS Lewis, this is expressed in his quote where he says I sat with my anger long enough until she told me her real name was grief, and I love the visual of that. I think anger is such a strong emotion that we experience and we don't want to let it sit with us very long so we don't get to look at it closely the realization that anger's real name might be something else, in this case grief this realization requires the ability to pause and to allow time for emotions to reveal their true nature. So that's the concept of the second tip is to embrace that pause and give time to the emotional experience that you're having, which then leads us to the third tip, which is to view emotions as informative messengers rather than commanding directors. So, after taking a moment to pause, you can delve deeper and look closer.
What message does this emotion convey? What is this emotion trying to tell me? Remember, emotions offer insights rather than commands. They indicate underlying feelings or needs without necessarily prescribing specific actions. We tend to think I'm feeling this emotion, therefore I must act this way or say this thing, but that's not what the role of the emotion is. You're experiencing the emotion because the causes and conditions of that emotion arose. So there's a message there that emotion is trying to convey, perhaps a need. Fear, for example, conveys information that the circumstances that you're in might be dangerous. So experiencing anger doesn't mean you have to immediately punch the wall, but experiencing anger, if we look at it like this, it could be a clue, a clue that's trying to tell you something. You can ask what is this emotion really trying to say? And by recognizing the messages within the emotions that we experience, we can gain insight and we can make more informed and deliberate decisions.
I know for me personally there was a period in my life when I felt intense anger and resentment towards someone dear to me and instead of reacting or suppressing the emotion, I eventually learned to turn inward. And I will say that was after a significant period of time, because at first my instinct with anger was to do everything I could to get rid of it. I didn't want to feel angry. I had been brought up to think that I'm not supposed to be angry, you're supposed to forgive, you're supposed to let things go or turn the other cheek. And I didn't realize that in the process of trying to eliminate this very natural, normal emotion, I was only putting fuel to the fire and it was increasing the intensity of the emotion that I didn't want to be feeling.
So once I learned to turn inward, through this concept of looking at emotions as messengers and as welcome guests, through deep reflection I started to realize that the anger was very much a surface emotion. Beneath it there were a whole bunch of other feelings, like pain, a sense of shame, a sense of betrayal, and these underlying emotions were the ones that needed attention. It wasn't anger that needed the attention, that was the messenger, but it was these hidden emotions that I didn't immediately recognize because I wasn't willing to sit and spend time with anger long enough to see these other emotions. And this realization had a profound impact on my life. It enabled me not only to heal from that whole process, but to grow and to be stronger, embracing that concept of anti-fragility that I talked about in the last podcast episode, and by recognizing the true emotional landscape that I was dealing with, I was able to interact with circumstances in a more effective and constructive manner.
And that's what we're trying to do with this notion of navigating, with agility, the emotions that we might be experiencing. So, for you, consider the last time you experienced a strong emotion, how did you respond? With the understanding of this concept of emotional agility, you could ask yourself what could I have done differently? Could I have handled it in a more skillful way? Or you could ask yourself if you're currently grappling with a strong emotion, how can emotional agility empower you to navigate this experience more effectively? So that's the goal of this overall concept If we visualize our emotions in the same way that we visualize weather and the sky.
In this episode, we've talked about the concept of emotional agility and embracing the wisdom that you are the sky and everything else it's just the weather.
We talked about the parable of the two arrows, understanding that while the first arrow of life's changes may be inevitable, it's that second arrow, our emotional response. That is something that we can work with and we can temper the pain of that second arrow through mindfulness. And we talked about these three powerful tips of how to deal with emotions where, first, we practice cultivating selective attention so we can pay attention to know what it is that we're dealing with. Second, embracing the power of that pause, where the pause allows us to look at things a little bit closer, to be more introspective and to view emotions as informative messengers rather than commanding directors.
So, with all this, we can remember that this notion of learning to master our mind, it's an ongoing journey, it's a process, but with these tools of mindfulness and introspection, we can at least start to navigate that journey a little bit more skillfully. I invite you to a challenge Next time you're feeling overwhelmed by a strong emotion, give yourself the gift of a pause. Say to yourself I let them come and I let them go, whatever those emotional experiences are that you're having, and then lean into the emotion without resisting it, and gently ask it what are you really trying to tell me? I hope you'll do this and that you'll experience the transformative power of seeing emotions through this new lens.
Transcribed by https://podium.page
A DOSE OF WISDOM IN YOUR INBOX
Subscribe to the monthly newsletter to receive time-honored teachings and insights from Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. This content is aimed at helping you cultivate a greater sense of inner peace. You’ll also be the first to receive updates on podcasts, events, retreats, and workshops, and gain exclusive access to content available only to subscribers.