Our unconscious reactions can be pretty predictable.
by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
You would certainly recognize your signature
on a piece of paper, but do you know your own emotional signature? We all have one. It's our predictable way of
reacting to situations. Your friends probably recognize your emotional signature better than you do. When you get into a fight
with your partner, for example, they can predict just how it will go. They know if you're likely to slam a door, storm out
of the house, or call your mother. They know if you'll be processing the argument for days or immediately shut down and clam
How do they know so much? They
know because they've seen it all before. Our behavior may seem spontaneous to us, but to those who know us, we're not too
Why don't we pay more attention to understanding our own patterns? We may have a solid
financial plan worked out that will buy us a house, pay for our kids' college and our retirement, but we don't give much thought
to getting the most benefit out of one of the most precious resources for happiness -- our emotions. Often, we just
leave it to chance.
We may not like to admit it, but
we're creatures of habit. We have our daily routines all worked out. It's how we keep our busy lives simple and
convenient. We don't have to decide every day whether we'll walk to work, take the bus, or drive. We even fall in love
and handle our relationships in predictable ways. Just as we have our daily routines, we have habits of thought and
feeling that keep our emotional life simple. We don't have to guess who's going to pay the bills and who's going to
spend most of the money (although we may talk about it a lot). We have our own special ways of telling our partner,
"I'm annoyed with you, don't talk to me," or "I'm bored, so I'm not really hearing anything you're saying."
When we're hurt, scared, furious, or jealous, we don't
have to figure out how to show it. Our emotional triggers are set: they go off in the same ways again and again, carrying
us to the same places every time. If we have a habit of blaming, we accuse. If we have a habit of withdrawing,
we disappear. If we have a habit of controlling, we threaten. Everyone else we know may be able to predict how our patterns
will play out, but we're often blind to the process. Even when we can predict how we'll react, it usually doesn't change the
outcome. There's a popular saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different
results. We resist the idea that this anger or thisjealousy isn't justified. We may
not like it, but we don't see how to avoid pulling the trigger.
In spite of all the challenges they pose,
there's nothing wrong with having emotions. Emotions are a fundamental part of who you are --- an expression of your
basic intelligence and creative energy. When you can explore and get to know them without reacting immediately to their energy,
they can be a source of wisdom and compassion. They can open your mind and your heart. They can lead you beyond your
habitual patterns into new emotional territory. They can teach you generosity, patience, and courage. It's only when you don't
allow yourself to feel your emotions or when you distort their energy that you can get into trouble with them.
we operate primarily on the basis of our habitual patterns, we run into problems. At the first flush of emotion, we move so
quickly into our habitual ways that we completely miss that first moment. It was so authentic -- it could have told
us so much. But we never even saw it or felt it. We've already lost touch with the fresh, creative energy at the core
of our being and skipped to our usual way of expressing our anger or jealousy. The regrettable words have been said, the door
has been slammed.
also very judgmental of our emotions. If we think they're too raw, if we think they're impolite, we try to dress them up with
positive thoughts and make them more respectable. When we manipulate our feelings this way, consciously or unconsciously,
we're trying to get them to match up with our familiar emotional signature. But that's just another way to lose our connection
to their vitality and wisdom.
The Message of our Emotions
If our partner hurts our feelings, offends us or shocks us,
we can't even name the intense emotions we feel at first. The feelings haven't yet formed into anger or any other solid
emotion. For a moment, we're suspended in a space of pure openness, where anything is possible. If we can just
stop and remain in that space for a moment -- without any answers or judgments -- we have a chance to connect with the wakeful
qualities of our emotions and hear their message. Especially in crises of the heart, our emotions are the first responders,
but if we jump to conclusions too soon, it's like we're ignoring their instructions. They're trying to tell us which
pathways are clear, and where the emergency exits are (this way to insight, that way to humor -- and if all else fails, leave
before you do something you'll regret). If we don't pause and listen to our emotions, we might just end up running back
and forth in a burning building.
If we're going to
understand ourselves, much less another person, we have to look beneath our patterns and face our emotions in their natural,
undisguised state. When we're stuck at the level of our habitual dramas, it's like going through the day half-awake,
barely conscious of the world's brilliance. Some part of us may like this half-asleep state, where nothing is too bright,
too energetic, or too unknown. But another part of us can hardly wait to be free, to take a chance, to see what's on
the other side of the mountain.
How do we get unstuck
from these patterns so we can respond to our experiences spontaneously?
We don't have to change everything about who we are and what we do. We just have to bring awareness to our
thoughts and emotional reactions. We can take one small step at a time towards waking up in the present moment. That's
where we hear a note of music and feel its life force. It's where we enjoy a laugh, soothe our aches and pains, and
feel our heart opening.
Everyone's emotional signature
is different, but we all share the experience of being alive. We all know the joys and sorrows of love and hate, hope
and fear, altruism and self-centeredness. And we all instinctively know that life, despite all its challenges, is precious.
So, it just makes sense to look into the life we have and find ways to make it as meaningful and happy as possible.
After all, we don't throw money away or put artwork in the trash with our junk mail! We take great care of our
personal assets, and one of our most valuable and misunderstood resources is our emotions. To become free of the unhappiness
they can cause in our relationships, we only have to respect and accept our emotions, moment by moment, and be willing to
work with them.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
is a widely-celebrated teacher and author of "Mind Beyond Death" and the ultra-relevant "Rebel Buddha."
Books by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche