The Dalai Lama has been in the news this week regarding his new project ‘The Atlas of Emotions’ (Read the article I read about this here). He’s paying a psychologist to help him make a ‘map’ of human emotions, with the goal of helping people to better understand their emotions and as a result, find more inner peace.
So, how does that work? How does knowing more about our emotions lead to inner peace? The idea is something that has been taught in Buddhist philosophy for centuries, and these same ideas are also echoed in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – which is a completely secular, psychological and science driven approach to mental health.
Would you like to know what these ideas are? How to put them into practise in your life so you too can have inner peace? Pretty hard to say no to that!
Here’s how it works
First up, the theory. The idea that knowing your emotions leads to inner peace works like this –if you don’t know what you’re feeling, you’re completely at the mercy of your feelings. If you feel scared but don’t know it, you can’t rationally ‘look at’ that emotion and decide whether or not it’s valid, and whether or not you want to give into that feeling. You will feel things, and you will take action based on those feelings, regardless of whether or not those actions help you and your life’s purpose in the long run.
If you can label your feelings, then you have a chance to create a bit of ‘space’ between yourself and the feeling. Labelling something means you are aware of it, and to a degree, that you are separate from it. (It’s like saying ‘I am feeling fear’ rather than ‘I am fear’ which is essentially what happens when you’re afraid and don’t acknowledge/recognise it).
Once you have that ‘space’, then you are able to make choices and act, rather than just react. Once you can choose your actions, then you can choose to do things which will increase your sense of inner peace (which is in itself a feeling that can be recognised and labelled) and you can choose to limit your emotion-based reactions – which often take us away from inner peace and away from what we value.
If it all sounds a bit confusing and weird, well, this is the theory part! Let’s go through it now, practically, step-by step.
How to Move Towards More Inner Peace
One: Learn About Emotions in General
If you don’t have labels for your feelings, you can’t hope to recognise them. In the Dalai Lama’s project, there are five basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, sadness and enjoyment.
Many, many people disagree with this – including plenty of psychologists (and most interestingly, earlier work of the psychologist who’s actually running this project for the Dalai Lama!). Other popular additions are ‘contempt’, ‘surprise’ and ‘love’ or substituting ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’ for enjoyment).
Out of the basics, there is then a huge array of other emotions. Under the basic emotion fear, you can run from mild apprehension to outright terror, through all the anxiety invoking states in between.
It’s not necessary to know lots of words for emotions. What you need is a basic idea of what your common emotions are, and labels for them that make sense to you. My version of what counts as ‘scared’ will be different from yours.
Exercise: Make a list of what you think are your basic emotions. Start with the original five (anger, fear, disgust, sadness and enjoyment) and add extra/ change names as feel is appropriate for you.
Two: Recognise them
Once you have your list of basic emotions, you’ll need to get better at noticing when you’re feeling these different emotions. Most people tend to ignore their emotions, particularly their negative ones, until they are sooo big and feel sooo overwhelming that it’s very difficult to choose not act on them. This is at the core of what the Dalai Lama is saying is the reason inner peace escapes us. If you can check in and recognise emotions earlier, you can do something about them earlier - before they are so big and overwhelming.
It’s natural to be afraid of this process. As we tend to only pay attention to our feelings once they’re large, we assume that feelings are always large and unwieldy. If you can engage in the exercise below however, you’ll realise that this is not true. Emotions usually start small and can be processed most easily and safely then – but only if you pay attention to them!
Exercise: Carry around your list of basic emotions (on paper or in your notes function on your phone). Set an alarm so that you check in with yourself regularly throughout the day and when you do, make a check mark next to the emotion you’re most feeling. No ‘nothing’ responses are allowed! You must determine which emotion best represents how you’re feeling at that time. This trains you to notice which emotions are more common for you, and also to become more aware and sensitive towards your emotions when they’re smaller.
Three: Explain Them
This is an optional step but if you’re a reason based person, it’s very useful. It’s not recommended by either Buddhist or ACT approaches, as they state that looking for explanations for our emotions puts more attention on emotions than is required and can slow down the process of only acting, not reacting. It is however part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and in my work I’ve found it often helps people to let go of their emotions if they can take a guess at why they may be feeling that way.
Having said that, there’s not always a ‘why’ (or an obvious one anyway) for how we’re feeling and spending too long looking for one can get you stuck in overthinking.
If you’d like to give this approach a try, then what you need to do is look for the reason you might be feeling, for example, a little scared right now. It could be obvious to you (you have a performance review this afternoon) or less obvious (your boss glared at you this morning). Many people find that acknowledging the potential ‘why’ of how they’re feeling is enough to reduce some of that feeling. It’s like once the cause of the feeling has become known, the feeling stops needing to make you aware of its presence and backs off!
Exercise: Keep doing exercise two, but add on another step. Whenever you note down your emotion, look for a reason why you might be feeling that way. Observe whether or not knowing the ‘why’ makes the emotion more or less intense. If it’s less, keep doing this. If it makes the emotion more intense (e.g. now I know it’s to do with work I feel even more afraid!) then stop.
Four: Embrace Them
This is the ultimate goal of the Dalia Lama, as well as both ACT or CBT. Embracing your emotions means you are aware of your emotions, but you don’t act on your emotions unless it’s helpful to your goals and values. Starting with the Buddhist explanation, the idea is that trying to get more of some things or less of others (including emotions) is a form of desire, and all desires lead to suffering. The less you ‘desire’ (in this context your desire is to get rid of your emotions by acting on them) the less suffering you’ll have, and the more inner peace.
From an ACT perspective, the explanation is that acting based on our emotions often takes us away from acting on our values. If you act on your fear of public speaking and so avoid it, then you can’t use public speaking to act on your value of helping others – and public speaking might be the best vehicle for you to use to help others at present. If you act on your fear that other people don’t like you, you won’t be able to talk to other people, which will take you further away from your goal of connecting more with others.
Exercise: When you check in with yourself and notice you’re feeling a particular way, look at what that feeling is ‘asking’ you to do. For example, if you’re feeling afraid, is your fear asking you not to talk to someone? If it is, then you need to evaluate that with regards to your values. Will talking to that person help you act on your values (if you’re following the Buddhist line, your values would be the Buddhist values such as compassion for all beings and lack of attachment to material things)? Talking to that person might help you connect with others, or become healthier, or contribute to your creativity. Or not! But if there is a way to live your values more by talking to that person, then you act on the values, not the fear.
Acting on your values, regardless of the emotional consequences, will, long term, lead to greater feelings of satisfaction and inner peace. As you learn that you don’t need to give in to your emotions, you become less afraid of them, and so you don’t give in to them that often (the negative ones that is, you’ll likely continue to follow your positive emotions and they’ll keep appearing. Which is good – unless you’re a Buddhist, in which case positive or negative, you’re aiming to stay unattached).
And that’s what the Dalai Lama (and me too!) wants to teach you about emotions.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.