Comic character on knees yelling "why"

What To Do About Emotional Overload

Sometimes our emotions create so much grief for us that we long to escape. As Rinpoche explains in the following excerpts from his Emotional Rescue workshop, there are simple yet powerful ways we can work with our emotional reactions to free ourselves from pain.

Emotions––anger, jealousy, fear and so on––cause so much trouble for us. But there’s nothing bad about emotions in themselves. Freed from their anxieties, fears and labels, emotions are actually the energetic expression of your vast human potential for happiness, creativity and compassion. All of that positive energy has been right there all along. There’s nothing missing.

Emotions can be a great fertilizer for us to grow the seed of compassion, loving kindness, and awakened heart, or enlightenment. When we look at emotions from this perspective, we can appreciate them as a very interesting part of our mind.

The Positive Side of Emotions

We use our emotions all the time. They even protect us. Take fear, for example. Because of fear, we don’t put our hand into the fire. So there’s a positive quality there. Fear helps us refrain from certain dangerous actions. In some sense all of our emotions–– even fear––have a positive quality.

Of course we can always talk about compassion, love, kindness, compassion and so on––there’s no problem with those feelings. But when we look closely at the emotions we consider to be undesirable, such as fear, we can see that they, too, possess great potential.

So where do we begin to unlock that potential?

The Power of Determination

When you look at the stories of great meditation masters, you discover that they were the ones who are the most decisive about pursuing their goal. They accomplish it one bit at a time, but they’re very decisive.

Being decisive doesn’t mean you have to decide every issue in your whole life right now. You can just decide to work with one emotion that’s bothering you, for example. But you’ve got to be decisive! You’ve got to come to a decision and say, “I’m going to work with my emotions.” This is very important.

We need to decide we’re going to change our own life, we’re going to transform our experience of pain. You think, “I can transform it, I can change it, and I’m going to do it. I am in charge.” If you feel you are in charge, then you can make the decision. If you feel somebody else is in charge of you, then of course you cannot decide––you have to ask that person.

If you say, “Yes, I’m going to work with my emotions,” then you don’t have to worry about losing your emotions at all. You won’t become like a zombie or something. Emotions will always be there. They are a basic part of the fabric of life.

Relaxing In the State of Nowness

Once you’ve decided to work with your emotions, one of the key elements of the practice is to have a little sense of relaxation.

Relaxation is very important. It’s not only about awareness or the experience in this moment––nowness, so to speak. It’s also about being able to relax in that moment.

The great meditator from Tibet, the yogi Milarepa, echoed this element, which has also been pointed out by all of the great masters of meditation. He said those who can relax the most, can have the best meditation. Those who can relax in a middling way, can have a middling kind of meditation. And those who can relax the least, forget about it. No, just kidding. He didn’t say that. He said those who can relax the least can have the least meditation.

So relaxation plays an important role here. When you’re having a sense of overwhelming emotion, you need to remember to relax in this experience of nowness.

Relaxing Within the Emotion

 So when you have a strong emotion coming up, you try to relax within that feeling. This gives you a bit of space, and greater awareness of what’s going on.

We relax when we smell our favorite delicious food, don’t we? Maybe you are smelling chocolate chip cookies, someone is baking cookies and the smell is coming from the kitchen. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Connecting with that sense experience of body, our sense of smell. When we want to relax, we usually do it by connecting with our bodily or sensory experience.

When you go on vacation you’re usually connecting with your senses, right? You lie down in the sand, on a beach. You feel that bodily connection to the ground, the physical sensation of the earth. Your eyes are gazing up into the sky, and you’re listening to the sound of the ocean waves. That’s how you find relaxation, right?

So when you’re having a strong emotional experience, try to relax. Take a moment to reconnect with your physical senses . . . and then relax.

Emotional Experience: A Closer Look

Once you are able to relax a bit, you can try to gain more perspective on this emotional experience. At this point, it helps to investigate or analyze it. We try to do this analysis without too much thought.

1.     Contemplative analysis

Contemplative analysis involves some thoughts, but they are disciplined thoughts. You start by analyzing the cause or what set off the emotion, and also the conditions––where you were, what you were doing when this strong feeling came up, and how that emotion is arising. You stick to the basic information.

Then when you see your mind going beyond that––when it starts to go into some kind of story line about the past or something––you must stop there. We just try to find the basic information: “When he says this, then it triggers my irritation. Or “When this person does this, I think of that,” and so forth. You examine just this one point of your emotional experience, and stop there for now.

When you work with a strong emotion in this way, you can see the whole situation much more clearly. That moment of clarity can be your mindfulness reminder for the next time a similar feeling, such as anger or irritation, arises. It can help you avoid reacting and making things worse. That’s one method.

2.     Analytical meditation

The other method we use is analytical meditation. With this method you sit in basic calmness for a while. And within that, you investigate one trigger point or one emotion for a few minutes. Then when you see your mind getting too involved in grasping, or developing a lot of commentary as opposed to simply investigating this moment of your experience, you return to your breathing.

Letting Go of Emotions

Once we have some perspective on our emotional patterns, we want to let go of our painful emotions so we can be free of them. But what is letting go, actually? To find that out, you have to do it. It’s not a theory, it’s a practice. Letting go is essentially a practice of releasing our stressful physical and emotional energy. We do this by working with physical and mental exercises––primarily through relaxation and awareness.


Excerpted from Emotional Rescue Workshops created by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

Want to learn the full 3 Step Plan for rescuing your emotional energy? It’s all in the book Emotional Rescue: How to Transform Your Hurt & Confusion into Energy that Empowers You by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.