When I was young – until well into my 20s – I was an emotional basket case.
No, I did not engage in everyday drama or constantly look for validation from people. But I was very frequently pushed off kilter by whatever trivial events in my life. Sometimes I even got depressed, but that was just one aspect of it. In general, I simply had no good handle on my emotions.
One reason I was very fearful as a child was that these emotional bursts were so exhausting that I was unconsciously averse to doing things because of the potential emotional fallout. It wasn’t necessarily something frequent, but it was extremely intense. For example, there was a period in my life as a kid when I was afraid of going to sleep because of the night terrors I was having. I was perfectly aware that nothing in my dreams could really harm me, but the experience itself was insufferable. The emotional load packed into just a few minutes of horrifying dreams was too much.
Around the same time I also realized that people don’t make decisions on the basis of evidence and self-interest. People are slaves of their emotions. (That’s usually the better option. Many sleepwalkers are so tethered to their weak egos that they have very little emotional Awareness.) Which was only more reason to study the emotional content of the human psyche.
Control your emotions, control the emotions of others, and you have gained Power.
The reasons are innumerable, but one is almost universal. Most people are so weak emotionally that you come out ahead in most situations simply by being on top of your own emotions. You win already simply by not being a basket case.
But there is more.
You can be emotionally antifragile.
These days, I’m not just emotionally unaffected. Emotions entertainme. I draw energy from the emotions of other people, even if they are negative. All it takes is a bit of Awareness on my part.
The word “emotion” comes from Latin, meaning literally to “move out”. What do you move out of? The origin point. Emotion is semantically encoded as the source, the driver that takes you off that neutral gear into whatever it is that you do.
I have told you before, and it cannot be repeated enough. Everything of Mind is of movement. It’s been programmed in language itself.
How do we learn emotional control?
Like all things, you learn it by doing. Emotional control is about physical and mental practice. But a lot of that you can do outside of the situations where you will most need to exercise emotional control. A strong physical foundation is the easiest part absolutely anyone can build.
There are two distinct aspects of physical foundations you need to understand in order to get the most benefit. Your physical practice creates a good physical foundation, but the physical practice in itselfis also a foundation to build emotional integrity and Awareness. Your good physical shape advances your emotional control, but you can also use your physical practice as emotional practice deliberately to get the greater benefit. It’s one thing to work out, it’s altogether different when you turn it into a mental and neurobiological practice.
I. Physical foundations
The mind-body is one. Chronic physical distress creates emotional toxicity. If your body is toxic, your mind is toxic. It’s not rocket surgery on an exploded Tesla.
The three common causes of chronic stress:
- Inflammation, usually due to poor diet (sugar, refined carbs, grains, artificial dyes, sweeteners, pesticides etc.)
- Physical dysregulation: chronic lack of movement (no walking, no exercise) and chronic physical stress (from sitting at a desk, for example, and lurching over your moronphone).
- Lack of good restorative sleep, which is itself easily caused by inflammation and physical dysregulation.
Inflammation is your immune system’s automatic response to toxins and noxious agents. It’s your mind-body attempting to counteract your stupid choices or, more frequently, your stupid choice not to make any choices at all. The problem is that chronic inflammation causes tissue damage and exhausts your immune system. Your body’s ability to maintain homeostasis – its goldilocks range of ideal conditions – is compromised. Chronic inflammation is the most likely cause of the modern epidemic of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Chronic lack of movement is a stressor in itself. Lock yourself inside the house for a couple of weeks and good luck not getting moody and depressed. Your mind-body needs movement like it needs breathing. If you don’t do it right and you don’t do it regularly, you get sick and die. What is the “wrong” movement? Sitting at a desk or a car wheel all day, lurching over your dumbphone, lounging about on the couch and watching video.
Pro tip: If you’re feeling a little down or moody, get out and take a fracking walk. WITHOUT lurching over your dumbphone the entire time. Can you even walk without earphones? Don’t think.
Lack of good sleep was a huge issue for me for much of my life. When you’re not properly rested, you stress out and lash out more easily, have trouble focusing, and on and on and on. One thing I discovered by personal experience is that you can use sleep restriction as a trigger for a depressive episode. It’s no accident that sleep restriction is a widely used method of torture. But guess what. As soon as I started working out regularly, I also started sleeping like a baby. Without any restrictive schedule. I slept when I wanted, however long I wanted. I could wake up at the right time without an alarm. Most people are sleep-distressed and don’t even realize it because they’ve been like that their entire lives. And they’re lo-awarenes.
Emotional Awareness begins with physical Awareness. To be Aware of your emotional conditioning, you must keep an eye on these three most common physical sources of distress.
And while you’re at it, also get a refresh on all the Foundations of Awareness.
II. Foundations in physical practice
In physical exertion, you can get emotional clarification.
Anyone who has done a nontrivial amount of deliberate physical exercise must have realized this at some point. But getting out of a bad mood is just the tip of the mindberg.
The value of physical practice in building emotional antifragility is much greater when deliberate. There is one level of benefit when you exercise haphazardly or mostly with a focus on physical performance. You get orders-of-magnitude greater benefits when you put in the neuropsychological implements.
Those come together in three groups:
- Awareness of sensations of the mind-body: muscles, joints and internal organs
- Awareness in the mind-body dynamics: breathing, heart rate, digestion
- Awareness of your mental dynamics as you push through the limits of exertion
Most people exercise poorly because they do so distracted or with aversion. They don’t want to be exercising or they are thimking about something else.
The first group of mental practices is about NOT doing any of that. You focus on the immediate sensations of your mind-body instead of avoiding them.
- How does your foot feel when it hits the ground?
- How do your knees feel when you deadlift?
- How does your liver feel after 10k, 20k? Your kidneys?
- What’s the temperature of your skin? Are you sweating enough? Too much? Too little?
These are NOT questions you should be answering conceptually, but sensations you should be looking for as you are doing it. Simply sense what is going on. Be Aware of your mind-body.
We can add to this list until the cows come home. And the goats. And the turkeys. The point is the same – focus on experiencing your physical sensations as SPECIFICALLY and CLEARLY as possible, without judgement. No attachment, no aversion – pure experience. It’s OK if you enjoy it (you WILL utlimately), but at the outset it’s better to keep sensing with as little other mental content as possible.
Why do this while working out? Because it makes it easier. There is a lot you can focus on and you’re less likely to get bored and quit.
Why do it at all? It’s a great way to build basic Awareness. Without Awareness, good luck with emotional control. You will also discover something else – the Power of Awareness itself. As you build this physical Awareness, you will discover High Awareness. You will find that when you are Aware, you can literally direct energy to one body part or another. You have access to a lot more somatic control of your body than you’re told to believe. In layman’s terms, you can tell your knees to stop hurting, you can direct energy to the muscles you need to use, you can make your stomach not feel sick. It takes practice.
Similarly, you can then focus on your mind-body dynamics as it works together towards your workout. This dynamic Awareness is in a way on a higher level. It’s not about the sensation in this organ or that, but about its functioning – alone or in concert with other systems.
Your heart rate is a great example of this, not least because it’s also closely associated with many emotions. If you run, you can regulate your heart rate by changing your pace or your breathing (which are also potential objects of your dynamic Awareness). What the mainstream won’t tell you is that you can regulate your heart rate directly. If your heart is going too fast, you can make it slow down without changing your breathing or pacing, simply through your directed attention. (You don’t need to go that far to get most of the benefits. Practicing Awareness is sufficient.)
Thirdly, you should be Aware of your mental dynamics as you exercise. This type of training is commonplace in traditional coaching in any sport. Are you sick of working out? Are you bored? Do you want to quit? Why do you want to quit? No, why do you really want to quit? How would you feel if you quat now? Would you feel like a loser? Would you feel your quitting was justified? Even without a nagging coach, absolutely EVERYONE who’s pushed one’s physical limits has been forced to do this sort of self-analysis.
There are two big benefits from it.
The more obvious one is that you become more Aware of how you feel and why you feel that way. The less obvious one – which you get if you do this long enough and past your assumed limits – is that you have more direct control over how you feel than you may be led to believe from mundane life experience, just as with your heart rate.
Here’s a concrete example from running. Sometimes when I run, I genuinely feel like I have reached a physical limit and it would be harmful to keep pushing. I’m not bored or distracted, I’m genuinely exhausted and not performing well. But I decide that I will run more and that option suddenly becomes available. As if by a magic wand, exhaustion turns into enthusiastic energy. And the physical experience confirms that I’m not “just imagining it” because I enjoy the rest of the run and don’t get any contusions. I may not be performing at my top level, but it’s a constructive experience.
If you work out regularly and you don’t use your workouts for deliberate mental practice, you’re missing out bigly. And if you don’t work out regularly, WHAT THE FRACK ARE YOU WAITING FOR????
This missive has got pretty long already.
I will leave the rest of this content for later and jump straight to the punchline.
You can decide your emotions.