"The emotions are of quite extraordinary importance in the total economy of living organisms and do not all deserve being put into opposition with 'intelligence.' They are, it seems, themselves a high order of intelligence." - O. Hobart Mowrer
As most things in life, it can often be easy to simplify our emotions into two categories: good and bad. When we feel down, we try to change it. When we feel good, we cling to it. When we feel anything at all, we rationalize it because we’ve been told not to make decisions with our hearts, but rather with our heads.
One of the most powerful things you may learn in life is that you are not your emotions. Through mindfulness and meditation we can insert a brief gap between feelings like grief, anxiety and frustration as they arise in the mind, and - like a still blue sky allowing clouds to pass through - observe them from a place “outside” their often all-consuming grasp.
But emotions also serve as powerful indicators; they offer forms of communication often failed by language and logic alone; and they give way to some of the most beautiful and worthwhile experiences of being a human in the brief time we have on this little blue earth. Learning to understand and intelligently collaborate with all the complexities of our emotions - experiencing them fully, listening to their subtle messages, and engaging in a two-way dialogue without getting caught up in the storm - can bring us meaning, experiences and insights unavailable in logic alone.
Exploring Emotional Intelligence
Researchers John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey and David R. Caruso identified 4 branches of emotional intelligence:
Below I’ll highlight several key ideas or areas I find most interesting within each.
Have you ever had a yoga teacher ask you to be still and just “notice” the sensations in the body, without judgment, sometimes more than once throughout class? This is actually a beautiful practice in getting in tune with how your emotions physically manifest in the body (see last week’s post on how emotions work for a deeper explanation of the physiological aspects of emotions). While it can be easy to recognize a feeling once you’ve finally reached the point of tears, an outburst or a full-blown panic attack, practicing checking in with your body can help you to start to recognize the subtler sensations connected to your emotions - a slight tightness in the chest, shallow breath, a clenched jaw - before they escalate. Think of it as sharpening your perceptual radar for the moments when the same sensations start to bubble up at the office, in traffic, or even in your relationship.
Perceiving emotions is also related to picking up on cues in others, and effectively expressing our own. So much of our communication is nonverbal, projected from our emotional states. We all know that a smile typically communicates positive emotion, but we can also detect the difference between one that’s real and one that’s fake, and even identify someone’s emotional state from their eyes alone. We express our emotions to others to communicate needs, and while we don’t want to be reckless or unprofessional with our emotions, it would be a huge loss to suppress or try to remove them from any particular scenario all together. We are emotional animals - learning how to detect and express our feelings artfully allows us a more powerful way to connect and communicate than language alone.
Salovey, Mayer and Caruso then actually describe using emotions not in terms of communication with others, but in the context of facilitating our own cognition, specifically when it comes to judgment, problem solving, and creativity. For example, the prominence of certain emotions often compels us to re-prioritize our thinking or re-focus our attention to attend to something more immediate. We can make better decisions when we understand how our emotions might be coloring our views. Or, precisely because we think about things differently in different emotional states, we can use this understanding to see situations from a variety of points of view.
However, I would even extend this one as far as our sense of intuition. While there are a million ways people describe and attribute mystical influences to intuition today, for the purposes of this post let’s keep to that simple “gut feeling.” In this case, intuition is not necessarily always right - in fact, I would go as far as to pose that it’s where many of our stereotypes, biases, and overly-simplified thinking can stem from. But it doesn’t mean it can’t also be incredibly useful. I like to think of intuition a little bit like a food processor: you continue to put new information, experiences and data points in over time, and - at least in my own experience - your brain stirs it all up and spits out an answer in the form of this quiet and seemingly inexplicable “feeling” that something is either right or wrong. Once again, if we can become discerning enough to recognize the difference between gut feelings that rely on limited or low-quality information, and following our hearts because the mind is hard at work under the surface and the right emotions tug us toward what we love, then emotional intelligence and intuition can sometimes carry on where the limits of our rationale end.
Our ability to understand our emotions does not end at our ability to label them as “happy” or “sad,” or even understand “how they make us feel.” In describing the ability to understand emotions, Salovey, Mayer and Caruso identify the more complex facets of emotions such as the various relationships among them, contradictory feelings, and even the transitions between them.
Here are just a few thought starters to understand about your own:
You can have emotions about your emotions. That’s right, we call these secondary emotions. They’re experiences like feeling ashamed about feeling sad, or angry at yourself for getting frustrated. They are learned judgments, can add to a spiral of negativity (or positivity), and now not only are you dealing with the consequences of the original emotion, but the added complexity of two or more at the same time. More often than not we fail to recognize the fact that we’re experiencing an added layer on top of our primary emotions, or are unable to separate out each individual emotion from our overall positive or negative experience. The previously-mentioned idea of noticing without judgment in a yoga class is a great example of a practice in which we learn to experience our primary emotions without getting swept up in secondary feelings about them - good or bad.
Emotions are fluid. Yoga or meditation are also great places to experience this first-hand. Over the course of an hour you might feel tense, reflective, frustrated, connected, angry, grateful, or pure bliss. You might sigh, laugh, cry, feel strong, feel energetic, feel weak, feel off-balance, lose your breath, find your breath, or all of the above. You might transition in and out of each of these feelings and emotions, yet still notice an overarching mood that lingers from the beginning to the end of your practice. So goes the course of a typical day, month or year of emotions in everyday life. While grief can often not see beyond grief, or when we are riding a high we can’t imagine how we ever allowed ourselves to get low, it is essential to recognize the impermanence of our feelings, to accept that we will ebb and we will flow. Riding and experiencing these waves both without attachment and without getting lost in them can make life all the more full.
Emotions come in countless colors, shades, and combinations. We only have so many words in the English (or other) language to describe the ways in which we feel. Instead, you might think of the range of emotions like the vast palette of colors you can make by mixing, muting and intensifying a bunch of paint on a paper plate. In one respect, this helps us recognize that throughout our lives we will experience a variety of emotions that we just won’t have the words for. It doesn’t make them any more or less valid. But seeking and expanding the vocabulary we use to describe some of the more subtle or complex ways we feel can also be an incredibly valuable way to understand and communicate our feelings. Take a look at the color wheel below. Far from exhaustive, see if it helps you more finely explore emotions you may have previously generalized as simply “good” or “bad.”
All’s said, while you can read about emotions all you want, the only way to fully understand them is to continuously experience them first-hand.
This is the moment we take all of the above information, and intelligently apply judgment and practice to the situation at hand. Is this an emotion we want to allow, experience, engage in, or even elongate? Or is it one we should step back from, observe, and allow to pass quietly? Is an emotion creating an urge or an impulse that is destructive, such as yelling or shutting down? Or is it encouraging us to explore, open up, or more effectively communicate with those around us? With added context we realize that anger is not always a bad thing if it motivates us to action as in cases such as political protest or leaving an unhealthy relationship. Managing, working with, and even leveraging your emotions as assets takes a high level of both awareness and tact, but can account for some of the most subtle yet profound differences among success, relationships, and how we simply experience life.
“The best and most beautiful things in life cannot be seen or even touched, but must be felt with the heart.” - Helen Keller
My final and absolute favorite piece of food for thought from this week’s lecture was the idea that emotions ultimately have a “ripple effect” throughout your environment. While we may use words like “energy” and “vibrations” to talk about the ways in which our emotional states give off signals and affect those around us, there is no denying that, as our professor Stephanie Peabody put it: “What I’m experiencing affects you, and what you’re experiencing affects me.”
Whether we like it or not, we are all part of a shared experience, at least to some extent. What would happen if we stopped being so clinical and truly embraced and deeply shared our emotions with those around us? What if we used our emotions to intentionally approach more things from a place of love? What intelligence would we gain from asking, listening to, and truly feeling from the heart - if only just a little bit more?