WHAT ARE EMOTIONS?
There are two ways of understanding things: information, and values. Information is the data we collect about things. Values are the feelings we have about things. Information alone is not enough. We can know how much money we have in the bank. But for that information to mean something, we need to have a feeling about it, a sense of its value.
Welcome to the world of emotions. Emotions add the colour to life. They paint things good and bad, attractive and repulsive, exciting and boring. Without emotions, we would have no sense of personal values, no sense of what is good or bad, what to seek and what to avoid.
Since early life on earth, emotions have been our quick short cut to survival. You could say that our emotions have been our alarm system. In basic form, our nervous system brings us a natural, pre-programmed network of attractions and aversions. We attach to our carers. We run from spiders. Love and fear are thus, to an extent, already resident in us when we are born.
Watch animals and plants react to their environment, and you will see that they can quickly and instinctively move towards food, and away from danger, without much intellectual effort. We are not so different.
A NEGATIVE BIAS
Unfortunately, our emotional systems are not foolproof. They rely on the past for their development, but the past is not a suitable guide to the present.
For instance, if we have suffered a trauma in the past, our emotions may become primed to avoid similar situations. We run away from things that are not likely to hurt us in the same way as they did before. Our emotional responses can hinder us rather than help us.
Even our natural emotions have an evolved bias towards avoidance of loss. In a dangerous world, cautious beings tend to live to tell the tale. We have slightly more anxiety than we need for modern life. We are too watchful, too paranoid, too avoidant, too combative.
Emotions are based on pleasure and pain. Attraction is based on pleasure, and aversion is based on pain. Warm-heartedness, for example, is based on pleasure. Anxiety, being an aversive emotion, is based on pain. Given our natural bias towards anxiety, many go through life feeling more anxious than strictly necessary, and experience this as persistent suffering.
THE FEEDBACK LOOP
Our anxiety is part of a feedback loop with the world around us.
- We detect or suspect danger.
- We react with fight or flight.
- Our environment reflects our behaviour, and reacts with more fight or flight.
This is an appropriate feedback loop in a dangerous world, full of predators and prey. But it is not so appropriate in a safer, social world, full of potential cooperation.
In order to participate more cooperatively and wisely, we need to gain control over our anxious responses, and modify them.
LIFE WITHOUT AWARENESS
Without the skill to fly like a bird over ourselves, and to recognise and manage our emotions, we are, in a sense, blind. We can’t see the other dimension that a bird can see from above, the subtle, invisible flows of emotions running like rivers within and between people.
When we are in a river of our own anxious emotion, we fear drowning. We become self-obsessed and clumsy. Our perspective becomes narrow, and we flail around, grabbing on to other people to save ourselves.
In response, other people, fearing for their own lives, swim away. Many relationships end. Because we lack the bird’s eye view, we are mystified as to why we have been rejected. Don’t other people know they are supposed to help us?
We insist that life happens to us, that we have no choice. In a sense, this is true. Without awareness, we have no perspective, and are stuck just reacting to our own anxious emotions.
LIFE WITH AWARENESS
How can we begin to get this natural, blind, evolved anxiety under control, so that we can be happy?
Fortunately, beyond reactive emotion, we have another level of mind activity called awareness, or mindfulness. We don’t just do things: we also reflect on them. We not only cry: we also look at ourselves, and say to ourselves ‘look, I’m crying’. When this happens, our ‘I’ becomes awareness, looking at our behaviour.
Awareness is a very special thing: it can change our bodily response to emotion, and adapt our behaviour. When we develop our awareness, we become like a bird watching over our own lives, choosing when to fly with a wider perspective, and when to stop and linger on a detail. We become free.
Emotional intelligence is our ability to use our emotions well (intelligence means practical understanding). Most of this higher-level intelligence is achieved via awareness.
With awareness, instead of being the victim of our own and others’ emotions, we can fly above them like a bird. We can learn to navigate emotional territory without becoming over-anxious, or making others over-anxious.
We can also use awareness to break the anxious cycle mentioned earlier. Instead:
- We listen to anxiety, and give it space, instead of reacting
- We respond with warm-heartedness, focus, and compassion
- Our environment reflects back a more positive focus
This doesn’t happen overnight. A couple who argue may take a long time to achieve warm-hearted, calm and focused emotional presence with each other. It feels much easier to explode with rage, say things are irretrievable, and then run away. Negotiation feels futile.
But, slowly, good patterns of listening, giving space and responding can be put in place. Eventually, life together starts to feel more positive, less urgent, more manageable.
- Emotions tell us what is worth attracting, and what is worth avoiding.
- Unfortunately, we have evolved a natural bias towards anxious avoidance.
- This means that our relationships often descend into fight or flight.
- Fortunately, we have awareness, the ability to fly above our own lives and watch ourselves.
- We can use awareness to break the anxious cycle, replacing it with warm-heartedness and compassion.
- Emotional intelligence is our ability to demonstrate that we are aware of our own feelings, and of others’ feelings. It is our ability despite anxiety, to respond with warmth, focus and compassion.
- Through emotional intelligence, we create good feedback loops, listening and responding in a warm-hearted, calm and focused manner.
SOME LINKS TO FURTHER INFORMATION
- To read a brief introduction, see this link: Improving Emotional Intelligence on helpguide.org
- See this link for a 5 minute video by Daniel Goleman, who has popularised Emotional Intelligence
- To read an article linking compassion and emotional intelligence, see this link: What the Dalai Lama taught Daniel Goleman about emotional intelligence