Emotions are complex and varied, utterly subjective. They appear when least expected, hide themselves, and confound us with their range and power. We use words like an emotional ‘roller coaster’, an emotional ‘journey’, the emotional ‘landscape’. We sometimes feel ‘lost’ in emotions, and many people can’t even describe them – how can you put words to something so enormous and consuming, or so constant and nagging? Sometimes there is great learning to be found in just experiencing our feelings, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. And there are times we just don’t know how we feel.
I think Australians who come from an Anglo background, men, in particular, suffer enormously from the carry-over effects of the British ‘stiff upper lip’, where emotions are seen as somehow weak and un-useful, something to hide or be ashamed of. Many people choose not to think too much about how they feel, and perhaps have never really understood how to express and describe their emotions to anyone. This can be problematic when harder emotions like anger, fury or panic are felt. These emotions can affect others, and learning how to identify these feelings and express these experiences are opportunities for connection and growth.
For something so vast and varied as emotions, it would be handy to have an emotional map or a compass… so how about an atlas? The Eckman’s Atlas of Emotion is a colour-coded diagram, a moving chart of the human felt experience. Commissioned by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL), it is “an interactive tool that builds your vocabulary of emotions and illuminates your emotional world” (Ekman, P., Ekman, E. 2014).
HHDL sees emotions as the main barrier to a calm mind, and believes that a calm mind is the basis of peace, both inner and outer.
“Our emotions unfold on a timeline…with a trigger that initiates an emotional experience, and ultimately results in a response” (Ekman, P., Ekman, E. 2014). This simple and clear definition becomes the basis for exploring and learning about those experiences and what may be behind them. Five foundational feelings (enjoyment, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger) are broken down into sub-feelings graded by intensity. Scrolling over them, typical reactions are shown which are labelled as constructive, ambiguous, or destructive.
It’s an extraordinarily delicate, thoughtful, and engaging piece of research. Having the ability to identify and describe how you are feeling and why is the first step toward emotional awareness.
Emotional awareness builds resilience, helping us cope with all manner of difficult situations. It is a bedrock of self, an ability to see the part you play in your emotions and what can be done to smooth the road, the journey. The goal of the Atlas is to educate and enable people ‘to gain control over what triggers your emotions and how you respond.’ Strategies are provided, emotional antidotes designed to create the calm mind that we all seek.
In session with my clients, and in my day-to-day life, I often see how emotional reactions cloud the present moment and can be disempowering, creating a sense of being unable to act. But as the Atlas teaches us, it is not the emotion itself, but the reaction it triggers in us that is problematic. Those actions/responses/reactions can change – in fact, our actions are one of the few things that we actually do control.
I’d really encourage you to check out Eckman’s work – it’s liberating to realise that the feelings you feel don’t have to be scary or debilitating, but rather, are simply a part of the rich tapestry of experiencing a human life. Also, please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you feel this article resonates with you in light of your situation.