This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
The Game of Emotions
I had an experience not too long ago with a good friend of mine who has been struggling a lot with mental health issues and who has spent a good portion of the year just battling depression. He has been taking a lot of medication and he was very numb for quite a long time. As he slowly emerged out of this, in recent months, he told me that he was suddenly upset about something, but that he was also experiencing a lot of gratitude in that moment because he realised that, "I'm actually feeling something. I'm so excited that I'm mad because I've been numb for so long that it just felt good to feel something, even if that feeling was an emotion like anger."
This made me think about the relationship that we have with our emotions and how we cling to some of them and shoo some away. But my friend was suddenly very grateful that he was experiencing an emotion that normally he probably wouldn't have wanted to feel because it had been absent for so long. It made me think: what if our goal was to just experience; to take in every possible experience of what it means to feel alive. What if it was a game that I was playing? What if the point of it was to experience all the emotions that one could experience? I would want to experience all of them.
And then, just to make the game more fun, let's say that I wanted to experience those a certain amount of times per week. What would happen when I experienced anger or sadness? Sure, it would still be an unpleasant emotion, but there would almost be an aspect of gratitude that co-arises with it.
Think about it. What it does, from my perspective, is help me remember that there are multiple layers of experience that are unfolding when we experience a thought or a feeling or an emotion. I recently saw an image where, on the left, there's a little cartoon that has the thought bubble that says, "I'm not good enough", and his face looks sad. Then, on the right, there's the same thought bubble but there are three layers of thought. In the outer one, it says, "I notice that" and in the next one it says, "I'm having a thought” and then in the inner most one it says, "That I'm not good enough." Mindfulness means that I notice that I'm having the thought that I'm not good enough. The noticing of the thought is neutral and there's no sadness in it.
If I am trying to take in the full experience of being alive, then that encompasses the broad range of every experience of being alive. That means that, when I experience having a flat tyre or the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job, or the joy of watching a sunset or whatever, I get to have another experience. I do catalogue mine from time to time. And when I have a new experience I tick it off, like it's on a little bucket list. OK, I think, I got that experience out of the way. Now I know what that feels like. And, again, that sense of gratitude, almost, co-arises with whatever other emotion I'm having.
I think this is fascinating because, again, it really plays on this notion that the experience of having an emotion is one thing, but the relationship you have to the emotion in many ways will influence whether you cling to it or feel aversion to it or you don't. A lot of times, I think, we are caught up in the underlying belief that we should feel this and we shouldn't feel that. I should feel more of this, and I should do whatever it takes to feel it and I should do whatever it takes to avoid feeling more of the other thing. We put the emotions in two columns, right? The ones that we want and the ones that we don't want. But what if the underlying belief that some feelings are good and some are bad is what's causing an unskilful relationship with our emotions? What if you believed that they were all good and that you're supposed to feel all of them at some point? That, until you do, you haven't fully lived? It's worth a thought.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.