While visiting some friends a while ago, I got a chance to observe how they related to their kids and it impressed me.
On the day I am thinking of, the dad happened to be in a bit of a mood and was trying to get the kids to clean up or something. I can’t quite remember what the content of their interaction was, but I remember that he seemed to be talking to them from a sort of emotional place of frustration and vexation and they were responding to him from a similar place: it was pretty unsatisfactory all around.
Later, the two kids were interacting with their mom and were trying to wangle out of something they didn’t want to do. The mom listened from what appeared to be a grounded place and, basically told them “no”. She said it in a way that seemed to satisfy them and get what needed to be done, done without getting all entangled in the emotional argument being presented.
I should say that when I am visiting others, I try my best to stay out of what is going on, insofar as I can, and I really try my best to not evaluate anyone (really, anyone, ever); if I notice something, I mostly just try to let it go. Sometimes though, what people do can be teaching for all around them and in this case, the thing that caught my attention, that made it stick, is that these interactions reminded me of dealing with my own mind.
There are many ways that we can manipulate our own feelings and emotions, sometimes with the best of intentions, and it is useful to work on coming to be aware of how we do this. There is an emotional component to much of how we interact with ourselves: “I’ve been working so hard in miserable conditions and I really deserve this extra helping of chocolate cake,” or, “if I exaggerate this little thing about myself, then so and so will like or respect me more,” etc. Often, the thing we do with our emotions is to stir them up, making it hard to see clearly what is actually going on: we sort of make an emotional cloud.
Actually, we spend a lot of time in a cloud or fog of emotion and spinning thoughts, sort of going from one thing to another in an unsatisfactory way. There isn’t ever really a satisfying answer to be found in that cloud, but we can learn to sink beneath the fog and act from something deeper.
One of my common snags is that I don’t like suffering very much and really don’t like to see other people in distress; this is mostly good and the emotional response it generates can be helpful in moving me to action. But sometimes those very same emotions can distort things and keep me from seeing that sometimes there really isn’t anything I can or should do to change things; of course I can still sit still, offer merit and be willing to help clean things up.
It is not that we need to get into a fight with our emotions or try to get rid of them; it is more that we can, in a sense, diffuse them by sitting still in them and understanding how they work. We can cease to take for granted that our emotions are always communicating something true or wise. For example we can understand and let go of why we care whether others like or respect us; we can learn to see how having others like or respect us compares to the value of liking or respecting ourselves (which is eroded by those mild half-truths we tell ourselves and others). Or, by sitting still in our emotions, we can learn to see them clearly and accept the limitations of satisfaction from getting what we want.
This goes back to the thing about kids trying to manipulate their parents’ emotions: the tantrum or argument is saying, “I am so distressed and you can make it go away by giving me what I want,” or, “if you will only let me do what I like, then I will really like you,” or something more subtle. If we are attached to wanting to relieve our own or others suffering in a short term way, or having someone like us, then we can misunderstand the emotional situation and make errors which create more suffering.
So, one of the skills we are developing with meditation practice is to see through the manipulation of feelings and emotions so that we can make wiser decisions about what we do in our lives.