Emotional Chaos to Clarity
How to Live More Skillfully, Make Better Decisions, and Find Purpose in Life
“Emotional Chaos to Clarity is a masterwork. Be inspired by the possibilities it opens.” —Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., author of The Wise HeartDespite our best-laid plans, life is difficult, and we sometimes experience anger, anxiety, frustration, and doubt. This emotional chaos can negatively affect the way we live our lives. Yet, Phillip Moffitt shows us that by cultivating a responsive mind rather than a reactive one, we can achieve a state of emotional clarity that allows us to act with a calm mind and a loving heart.Drawing on both Western psychology and Buddhist philosophy, Moffitt’s step-by-step exercises help us to:· Know and act from our core values at all times· Gain wisdom from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences· Free ourselves from the past
· Achieve a peaceful inner life, even if our outer life is filled with challenges
If you are motivated to bring more clarity to the chaos of your mind, it is crucial that you have some kind of practice for staying present and aware during its moment-to-moment movement. Mindfulness meditation, the practice I teach, comes from the Theravada Buddhist tradition of vipassana, or “insight,” meditation. The practice of mindfulness meditation trains you to be present and aware in daily life. When you are being mindful, you are better able to clearly see what is happening in each moment of your life. As a result you gain new insights into your experience, which greatly enhances your ability to tolerate difficult situations and to make wiser decisions.
Mindfulness meditation is now widely taught in health-care institutions as a way to deal with chronic pain and incurable illnesses, and in schools to help children develop concentration skills and impulse control. It is also widely utilized by psychotherapists for helping people work through emotional challenges. Large corporations are starting to provide mindfulness meditation training to employees as a way of improving the work environment and encouraging creativity. Moreover, the U.S. Army is offering mindfulness training to soldiers to help them deal with the stress of overseas deployment.
In mindfulness practice you practice being an observer of your experience, in the moment, as you are having it. You begin by noticing how your body responds to whatever is happening. For instance, you develop the habit of noticing if stress is manifesting in your body in the form of raised shoulders, tight jaw or neck muscles, or stirrings in the belly. You start with awareness of the body because it is easy to know and brings you into the present moment. It also grounds your emotions and stops you from getting lost in your thoughts.
Once you have developed the ability to be present with what you are experiencing in your body, you start to pay attention to the other dimensions of your experience. You learn to notice whether what is happening in the body feels pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, and you observe how that feeling affects your thoughts and words. As you become skilled at being aware of bodily sensations, you then start to observe how every emotion and every mind state has a pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral quality, which helps you develop the habit of noticing your mind states and emotions in any given moment. For instance, you may repeatedly experience frustration, irritation, or anxiety by the end of your workday.
Through mindfulness, you begin to notice the early warning signs in your body of unpleasant emotions and mind states arising. And you discover that they are not you but rather the result of impersonal causes and conditions—work overload, a difficult boss or coworker, deadline pressures, etc.—exacerbated by your mind’s reaction to the unpleasantness and uncertainty. You then realize that you can choose not to fall into anxiety or irritation and can instead relax your body, interrupt the unskillful mind pattern, and reframe how you view your situation. Even though unpleasant moments still occur, your work life has gained a new ease and clarity. The difference is that you no longer identify with your emotions and mind states or allow them to determine the nature of your experience.
During the mindfulness process, you do not judge, compare, or try to fix your emotions or mind states. Instead you learn to be fully present to whatever you are experiencing, with a calm, nonjudgmental mind and an open heart. Gradually you become aware of when a mind state is being controlled by pleasant or unpleasant feelings and if they are causing thoughts, words, and actions that lead to suffering for you or others. At this stage you spontaneously start to realize that you do not have to be controlled by your mind’s reaction to pleasant or unpleasant circumstances and react unskillfully. By coming to know your thoughts and behavior and the underlying motivations for them, you develop more skillful behavior. You move from emotional chaos to clarity, from a reactive mind to a responsive mind.
There are many benefits to becoming more present in the moment. Many people report that they gain the ability to be more spontaneous or to know more fully what action or decision is called for in a situation. Others say that their lives are simply richer. Still others describe feeling truly alive for the first time or more authentic than they have felt since their youth. The feeling of authenticity is a marker of achieving maturity as a human being. Feeling real to yourself and being genuine with others are requirements for sustaining a sense of meaning in life.
Mindfulness can also make you a more effective person in the world. Since you are more present, you notice more about what is going on around you and you see more alternatives for achieving your goals. You also have better access to your intuition and can think more clearly.
A few words of warning: It is easy for your ego to get swept away with its newfound sense of empowerment and lead you to act even more unskillfully, thus defeating the purpose of learning mindfulness. Therefore it is essential that you also develop generosity and ethical standards as you gain personal power. Initially there is also a downside to being more mindful in the moment: it becomes much harder for you to fool yourself. You are stuck with seeing when you are not being who you wish to be. The good news is that by repeatedly observing the N suffering you cause by not being your authentic self your behavior starts to change. You reach a point where you cannot stand to see yourself act in such a manner one more time!
At first there may seem to be another downside to mindfulness. As you learn to be more present from moment to moment, you become aware of unpleasant moments that you may have suppressed or ignored in the past. Amazingly, after the initial period of learning to be present, you will discover that mindfulness actually makes unpleasant experiences more bearable because it provides distance from, and understanding of, what’s difficult. I often tell students that the clarity of mindfulness is a win-win situation. It gives you a fuller, richer experience of what is pleasant and happy-making in your life while also bringing relief to the difficult and unpleasant. Who can afford to pass up such a gain?
In addition to mindfulness, there is a second life skill that is essential to develop if you are going to move from emotional chaos to clarity: intention. Intention is the capacity to stay in touch with what is of prime importance to you, from moment to moment, in your daily life. By “what is of prime importance” I mean those core values that you wish to live from as you pursue your life’s goals and engage with other people throughout the day. Knowing your intentions allows you to remain authentic and have clarity in meetings at work; in interactions with your significant other, family, and friends; and in making decisions about your time, money, and activities.
The fruit of cultivating intention is wisdom. Staying grounded in your intention dramatically shifts how your mind and heart respond to circumstances. It allows your deeper values and your sense of purpose to become the foundation for all your experience. It literally changes what you perceive in a situation and how your mind interprets what you perceive, and it enhances how you understand what you perceive and how you act on what you perceive. For instance, let’s say a coworker acts in a manner that is unfair to you. You might perceive this as an act of aggression or a personal attack, which you interpret as a reflection of your unworthiness or your helplessness, and it might even prompt you to become aggressive. You might react by either collapsing or lashing out at the other person in an unskillful manner that only makes the situation worse. If you are established in your intentions, however, you may still feel the heat of indignation, but you know you have a choice. You can respond in a wise manner—choose to be firm or even aggressive, to ignore it, or to deal with it in some other way. Moreover, because you know your intention and what you are about, you can stay genuine in the situation, despite pressure, uncertainty, and vulnerability. Best of all, the episode does not ruin your day. You are in touch with your intention to not let your mind be tugged back and forth by every single pleasant or unpleasant event; you are clear that your inner experience is what matters to you, not the words of someone reacting like a jerk.
You can begin to see that intention requires mindfulness. It is the ability to be awake in the moment that allows you to stay in touch with your core values and pause before lapsing into a reactive mind state. And when you add intention to mindfulness in your daily activity, the result is a sense of genuineness and authenticity. You know who you are, what you are about, and what matters. During conflicts you act from your inner feelings rather than feelings elicited by the behavior of others. You are comfortable with yourself, and this adds to the feeling of being authentic. Can you see why your wisdom would flourish under such circumstances and why your life would have far greater clarity?
The following is the story of one Life Balance client that I hope will give you a sense of how mindfulness and intention can work together to bring about a transformation in your life. For several years I worked with Richard as he struggled to find balance. Bright and hard- working, he was successful and well-known in his field. He came to see me with several complaints: he often felt betrayed by his colleagues, whom he believed did not support or credit his work; and he had never had what he felt was a successful intimate relationship, despite having been married when he was in his twenties. He had always had difficulty being alone, and this often led to unskillful behavior, including drinking too much alcohol.
In our first session it quickly became apparent to me why Richard encountered hostility from his peers—he tended to be self-referencing and pushy. He lacked listening skills and failed to empathize with others unless he was specifically focused on getting them to do what he wanted. Ironically, Richard was quite generous when it came to helping people in financial need or who were experiencing some kind of difficulty. His self-centeredness wasn’t rooted in selfishness but rather in his inability to overcome, in ordinary situations, the chaos of his own emotional needs. His inner experience was so chaotic that he was desperate to ensure that his needs were going to be met from moment to moment. From this perspective Richard may seem like a sympathetic figure, but in day-to-day life people were far too overwhelmed by his pushiness to feel sympathy for him.
Although Richard was a romantic guy who genuinely wanted to be in love, remarry, and have children, he interacted with women in an indiscriminately seductive manner, which turned off many of those he was interested in. The same poor listening skills, his habit of self-referencing, and his constant assertiveness made intimacy extremely challenging.
Richard was a perfect example of the cost of emotional chaos, even in a highly functioning person. In both his professional and personal lives, he simply crashed whenever he felt a difficult emotion arise. This would sometimes happen in our sessions. He would obsess about a past mistake and repeat the story of it over and over. He brooded about slights he believed he had received, and he took every disagreement with his peers as a sign of disrespect.
Richard’s mind was so complex, and his emotions so conflicted, that he was like a Shakespearean character—a modern- day Hamlet or King Lear. He would dally in ambivalence, be swayed by insincere flattery, be crushed by his defeats. Because he was so smart, it was hard for him to benefit from psychotherapy—he always had a good argument to counter anything he didn’t want to hear. He had gone through two therapists and was meeting with a third at the time we worked together. It seemed to me that the therapists were doing a fine job and that Richard simply lacked the tools to take advantage of their techniques—he was anything but mindful and, more often than not, out of touch with his deeper intentions.
Richard and I spent many hours together examining his life skills. I had him write down his goals and then evaluate how important they were to his happiness. I also had him complete some of the same self-assessment evaluations that appear in this book. We role- played various situations in his professional life that had gone badly; he would relive the scene, only now acting in a manner that was more skillful. I had him choose one particular life skill and focus on it for a month and then helped him identify appropriate real-life situations where he could practice that skill. We also examined every aspect of his relationships with women—his motivations and what he thought he was communicating with his words and actions versus how women seemed to interpret them.
Richard began making progress when I had him focus on his emotional crashes and how devastating they were to him. With my N encouragement, he learned how to be sufficiently mindful of his life experiences such that he could see how close he came to being dysfunctional whenever he was caught in a difficult emotion. I suggested that when he felt emotional turmoil arising, he ask himself two questions: “Is it possible to respond more skillfully in this moment?” and “Do I have any choice regarding this specific difficult emotion?” I instructed him not to start thinking about his complex regarding difficult emotions or to revisit his story about how he had developed this problem but instead to focus on the particular difficult emotion he was experiencing— to name it, feel the unpleasantness of it, be aware of how it was affecting his thoughts, and notice what it was prompting him to say or do. Did he have to listen to those promptings? Did he have to identify with those thoughts and feelings? I asked him to reflect on whether getting caught in a difficult emotion isn’t like being caught in a rainstorm. Sure you get wet, but you don’t think you are the rain! Difficult emotions are indeed just like a storm: they arise due to causes and conditions, they may soak you and make you feel miserable, but they are not you. When you see their impersonal nature, you can learn to cope with them skillfully. This is what Richard discovered for himself.
Richard’s breakthrough finally came when he realized that he was not a yo-yo on the end of an emotional string! He discovered that what he paid attention to when he was having a difficult emotion, how he perceived and interpreted his thoughts and feelings, and what values he responded from determined what happened next. He realized that his own choices, and not the circumstances, were of foremost importance. Once he understood there were alternatives to being overwhelmed by difficult emotions, he committed to systematically developing more skillful means of responding to his internal conditions and to others. The strength of his mind, which had previously been something of a hindrance, became his ally and he started to change.
It took many months, but Richard gradually began to get a feel for skillful living. First he improved his relationships with his friends. Then he started a romantic relationship that has led to living together and considering marriage. He still struggles with his professional peer group, but he has fewer conflicts and is better at stopping them before they become full-fledged storms. Best of all is how Richard now handles being alone. Once he realized that being alone is a life skill that can be acquired like any other, he began exploring how to be alone in a manner that is peaceful and satisfying. It is still his least favorite situation, but he reports that he no longer gets lost, restless, or dissatisfied when he is alone.
To his great satisfaction, Richard now frequently finds himself teaching others how to live more skillfully in situations that are not work related. The energy he once put into self-referencing is beginning to benefit others. Even in his professional life, Richard’s behavior is now more characterized by caring and generosity than by self-centeredness.
Learning to live more skillfully through mindfulness and wise intention is part science and part art, part psychology and part spirituality, part common sense and part envisioning. It is a science in that you objectively identify and develop the skills needed and an art because learning how to focus your attention in the various moments of your life involves subjectivity and intuition. It is part psychology because you are developing a much healthier ego and understanding the subtleties of your mind and part spirituality because your core values are based on what you feel gives life meaning. It is common sense because you apply your mindfulness judiciously, not getting lost in overinterpreting what is occurring in the mind, and envisioning because you have to see the possibility that there is a genuine opportunity to change your life.
You, just as you are, not some new-and-improved version of yourself, have the opportunity to function at a new level. But it requires your attention, your willingness to reflect and investigate, and, most of all, it requires that you open your heart to its innate yearning to live more skillfully. Skillfulness in living does not come just because you wish you had it or regret that you don’t. It is active engagement that brings about change. Skillful living through mindfulness and intention ultimately allows wisdom to blossom. All your mistakes and unskillful moments become fertilizer for your wisdom to grow. You cannot practice wisdom, but you can practice being more skillful!
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