Can emotions lead to enlightenment?
I was always a sensitive child. I felt my emotions intensely and this was frowned upon by family, friends, and lovers alike. Over time, I learned to adapt and cope in helpful and unhelpful ways. I shunned and shamed my own emotional experience and either under- or over-expressed emotional experience. Emotional balance was elusive.
Once I engaged on a spiritual path in my late twenties, it was easy to seek meditation experiences that allowed me to escape suffering and identify only with the transcendent. But dissociation is not the same as meditation as prescribed by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Simply ignoring or suppressing my emotional nature led me to engage in what psychologist John Welwood termed “spiritual bypassing.”
And it didn’t work. Emotions can be powerful in either positive or negative ways. When we try to avoid emotional experience, emotions morph into more complex bundles of beliefs, sensations and even behaviors that are increasingly difficult to untangle. Each emotion has a specific function and deserves individual attention.
My curiosity led me to become a therapist and learn various models of understanding and working with emotions, but I hadn’t felt quite satisfied in weaving the emotional work with the path of yoga. Imagine how delighted I was to discover tantric hatha yoga, an embodied path to experience, contain and redirect the lifeforce (prana shakti) to achieve fulfillment and liberation— both spiritually and in the world. And I was even more surprised and excited to learn that tantra offers a spiritual practice to transform and dissolve emotions into the state of unsurpassed peace known as Shanta.
Swami Rama of the Himalayas said, in the book Creative Use of Emotion: “All your actions are controlled by your thoughts, and all your thoughts are controlled by your emotions. By comparison with your emotions, thought has little power; if you can use your emotional power constructively, you can channel it. Then your emotional power can be utilized in a creative way and lead you to a height that will give you real happiness.”
In the practice of Rasa Sadhana, emotions are considered the spice of life. The word rasa means “the essence of emotion” as well as “taste.” Peter Marchand, author of The Yoga of the 9 Emotions: The Tantric Practice of Rasa Sadhana, further states that rasa is a is “a kind of energy that is partly physical and partly mental. It is an important link between body and mind that affects our thoughts and emotions.” Rasa sadhana, translated as emotional discipline, therefore is a practice designed to explore and transform the emotions through self-study and specific techniques that involve the body. With practice, we can learn to master the emotions and experience the capacity to choose how they influence our thoughts and behaviors.
In Ayurveda, rasa also signifies taste. Each emotion has an associated taste (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent), as well as associated doshas (constitutions/temperaments) and gunas (qualities of energy). Understanding the tastes, as well as our natural constitution, we can adjust our diet to reduce the presence of certain emotions and increase others—the goal is to bring emotions into balance and to be able to access the 9th emotion that is without opposite: Shanta.
The 6th Step Process, according to master teacher Indu Arora, is as follows:
1. Awareness, or Drishta – take a step back and observe your emotions as a neutral witness.
2. Recognition, or Chetna – become conscious of the emotional experience, recognize it and reflect upon it. Break it down into sensations.
3. Analyze, or Atma Vichara – is the emotion helpful or unhelpful? Does it strengthen or weaken me? Is it constructive or destructive?
4. Discern, or Hetu – where is the emotion coming from? Is it caused by my diet, lack of sleep, sensory indulgence, genetic makeup, past trauma?
5. Change, or Upaya – what is the solution? Are there specific practices that I can undertake? Do I need to change my lifestyle?
6. Rasa Sadhana – merge the experience into Shanta, ultimate peace.
Here are some additional tips:
· Observe your emotion. Stand back.
· Don't judge your emotion. It's not good or bad.
· Don't push away your emotion. Accept it.
· Experience your emotion as a wave, coming and going.
· Don't willfully hang on to your emotion. Let it pass.
· Try not to intensify your emotion. Let it be how it is.
· Remember that you are not your emotion. You are the witness.
· Remember that you don't necessarily have to act on your emotion.
Avoid the pitfalls of “spiritual bypassing” and instead learn to use this dimension of your human experience as wood for the fire of spiritual transformation. The goal is to achieve balance, and to learn whether to move toward emotions for mindful processing and problem solving, or to move away and distract from them until you have increased capacity to deal with them. Make this emotional discipline your tapas, studying your emotional experience as part of svadyaya, and surrendering their energy to divinity as part of ishvara pranidhana—all worthy endeavors on the “royal path” of yoga.