Negative Emotions: Repress, Express, or Release?

posted Aug 5, 2012, 9:53 AM by Interfaith WS

Life changed for Allison on her fifteenth wedding anniversary when her husband walked out and never came back. Bitter anger drove her from one psychotherapist to another. The more she talked about what happened, the angrier she got. Soon, her inner anger colored her thoughts throughout the day. When her latest laboratory test showed malignant tissue, her doctor advised her to quit psychotherapy and focus on positive thoughts instead. Allison did not know how.

"For eight years, I heard that expression was healthy," she said. "Express everything you feel, my therapists told me. So I did. I'd go home, shut the window, and scream. Then I'd take Jack's clothes and fling them against the wall with every four-letter word in the book. Whatever I found that belonged to him I'd rip, break, tear, or smear. After those sessions I felt spent, used up. I had no idea how much damage that did to my body until my sickness came to light. Expression got me into this mess, but repression is even worse. Now I don't know what to do."

Darshani. Literature is replete with the effects on body, mind, and spirit of expressing and repressing negative emotions. Books such as Hans Selye's The Stress of Life and Norman Cousins's Anatomy of an lllness present lucid explanations of how negative emotions damage body processes. Ayurveda, an ancient science of healing indigenous to India, teaches that repressed anger alters the flora of the small intestine and the gall bladder. In Ayurveda, The Science of Self-Healing: A Practical Guide, Dr. Vasant Lad writes that anger causes inflamed patches on the mucous membranes of the stomach.

Spiritual teachers from ail traditions, past and present, know the dangers of expressed and repressed anger. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that expressing anger brings a rush of blood, tensing of muscles, and acceleration of the heartbeat. “Such physical disturbances impede our power of reason.” The Philokalia, a compilation of writings of the early Desert Fathers, states that an angry man, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. Sage Swami Sivananda said, “Through anger, a man loses all spiritual merit in an instant.” “Rascal sage” Gurdjieff made a similar remark: “The expression of anger can at once explode all the substances prepared in the spiritual laboratory and leave a man inwardly empty for a long time.” The Buddhist scripture, the Dhammapada, says that anger is like a chariot careening wildly and that only he who curbs it is a true charioteer.

Allison. But if I just think of positive thoughts like my doctor told me, what am I suppose to do with my negative emotions?

Darshani. The mature, healthy way to handle negative emotions is neither expression nor repression but release. Gurdjieff said that the process of release frees us immediately of negativity, and it brings into play a faculty that thrusts us forward on the spiritual path.

Allison. How do I do it?

Darshani. Let’s say that the thought of Jack arises in your mind. Instantly you feel bitter. Instead of pursuing the thought and surrendering to bitterness, shift your inner posture. Stop focusing on Jack. Focus instead on the bitterness that arose in your mind. Let only the bitterness remain as the object of your inner attention. As you observe it, you will become aware that the bitterness is not you; it is separate from you. It comes from outside yourself. When you stand back from it, observing it and refusing to identify with it, you will see it subside as suddenly as it arose. In the beginning of your practice, the bitterness may surface frequently. But the more often you refuse to identify with it, the less often it will occur.

Allison. When the anger dissolves, am I back to the mental state I was in before it came up?

Darshani. You are further ahead. You are more conscious because you have separated yourself from your emotions. Sri Aurobindo offers a discipline that follows the process of standing back and observing anger. He suggests that as soon as you observe what is going on in your lower nature and separate yourself from it, call for the descent of divine light and peace into that part of yourself to transform it. Eventually that Force will replace all mechanical and negative movements with its own light.

The practice of not identifying with negative emotions, and opening inwardly to the descent of the divine Force will transform your entire nature, improve your health, and turn your life around.