The Elusive Key to Emotional Mastery, Part 5: Why do we cling to unhappiness?

Let’s begin this post with a twist – a few questions instead of a story. You might groan, but please bear with me – it will only take a minute or two, and will aid you greatly if you are having trouble letting go of your suffering.

So, grab a pen and paper, or open up a text editor. Now, don’t think about the answer and don’t censor yourself. Just write down whatever comes to mind. This ensures authenticity. Ready? Here goes!

What are you? Who are you? What are your major goals in life? What are your goals in these areas: Emotional Growth, Spiritual Growth, Relationships, Finances, Career, and Physical Health? Where are you with regard to those goals, and how do you feel about your chances of achieving them?

Did you really do the task? Please do it, it’s for your own good. If you read the rest and then come back, your answers will be less reliable.

Done? Now, what were your answers? What was the point of that little test? It was the only way I could think of to see if you were identified with any of your suffering.

Identification with your pain

One of the biggest troubles we can ever face in becoming free of unhappiness is our ego. Often, the ego has become attached to our suffering. We have made an identity out of the pain.

If you know anything about how the ego works, you will know that attachments become a part of it, as much as our arms are a part of us. The pain of removing an attachment is similar to the pain of cutting our arm off, then. And so it makes sense the ego resist with all its might.

Let’s take the first two questions. How did you answer them? Do you think of yourself as a depressed man, a woman struggling with low self-esteem, or something similar? How about your goals? Were your emotional goals to become happy, and yet you feel you would never get there? Was it your relationship goal to find a lover, and yet you feel you would never get one? Do you take a strange pleasure and pride in your suffering or your loneliness or your poverty or anything that you dislike? Do you talk or think about it all the time?

Calling yourself a depressed man doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve identified yourself with your condition. It might simply be recognition, a first step to overcoming it.

Seeing the attachment in yourself

Such attachments are often unconscious, requiring much awareness to recognise. Be as aware and as honest as you can. Search for attachments to your suffering.

The ego might come in and strongly deny its attachment. “Of course I don’t enjoy being depressed!” it might yell. And it seems convincing, for who would take pride in their suffering?

Maybe it would be easier if you started looking at the people around you first. The ego is easier to recognise in others. Take a good look, see how it works, and then try to see the same patterns in yourself.

I recently had dinner with a few friends that I haven’t seen in years. One of the guys began talking about an unrequited love; someone he had been pining over for the past two years. It made him miserable, and stopped him from finding a girlfriend. Soon all the others were chiming in with their own heartbreak stories.

Other egos at other tables were competing to see who had the bigger car or higher income. The egos at my table were competing to see who had the most shattered heart. It was amazing to watch. Maybe it was a search for sympathy or pity, but that is another form of attachment. And yet, what would happen if I had asked whether they took pride in their stories? Strong, fierce protests, I suspect.

My point? Such attachments are more common than you might think. Can you see it in yourself?

More attachment to suffering

Beyond this direct attachment to suffering and sympathy are more subtle forms. The first of these you might have heard of: We would rather be right than be happy.

We take a strange pleasure in reliving an argument in our head, in thinking of new ways to defend ourselves, to blame the other person, to blame God, to condemn our lives or jobs. Yes, it makes us unhappy to do so. Yes, it serves no practical purpose. But still we choose it over peace. Why? The ego loves it. Such activities make it feel great.

Going deeper: Wishes and fantasies

What are some other forms of attachment? Can you think of any? There might be more that I haven’t experienced. Try to see your own attachments now.

How about your wishes and fantasies, if you have any? When I have idle time, I find myself daydreaming about lording it over the people who hurt me before. I fantasise about extracting revenge on people I dislike or have humiliated me. I dream about looking cool in front of them. Childish, I know. Useless, I know. But some part of me enjoys it.

These are all subtle forms of egoic behaviour. You might think they are harmless, but they are just another form of clinging to your unhappiness. If you do find yourself indulging in such thoughts, simply recognise them for what they are – egoic behaviour. If you maintain this recognition, the thoughts will stop of their own accord.

Pleasure in suffering

Eckhart Tolle, in his book The Power of Now, goes a step further. He uses a metaphor: your negative emotions are a form of psychic parasite. Imagine a hookworm – it lives in your stomach and feeds off your body to make itself stronger. It doesn’t care that it’s hurting you in the process.

Your negative emotions are the same. They feed off your negative thoughts, finding ways to trigger them so they can get fat. Have you ever started an argument over practically nothing? Do you know someone who has? The parasite inside is at fault. It wants to feed.

There are other ways this parasite tries to trigger negative thoughts. I remember a traffic jam, when I was just coming out of extreme unhappiness. My thoughts were initially slightly negative – they revolved around the appointment I would be late for. But a few minutes later everything came rushing in. Old hurts, arguments, memories, insults… the parasite has leapt into the opening and was causing me more unhappiness so it can feed.

Sounds scary? Don’t. It’s just a metaphor, a way to explain how your emotions work. If you begin demonising it or hating it, tada! That’s more suffering to feed your parasite.

We think being unhappy works!

Here’s another form of attachment to our suffering: we somehow think that being unhappy will get you what you want. That someone God perhaps – will take notice and come rescue us and make everything okay.

I have a theory. Do you remember when you were a little child? Maybe you wanted an ice-cream, and your parents said no. So you pouted; you kicked up a fuss; you sulked. Did your parents then give you what you wanted? That was when you learnt that unhappiness got you attention and care. As you grew up, you realised your parents were not almighty, and yet you continued this senseless pattern. You don’t realise that you are the only one who can stop your suffering; not a lover you have, not a lover you are waiting for, not your parents.

Hating or rejecting your emotions

We have already discussed how dangerous repressing or hating your emotions are. What about hating it? What about wishing they were gone? They are the same thing.

Here’s a little trick you might have come across before. Don’t think of a red polka dotted giraffe. Don’t think of a red polka dotted giraffe!

What did you think of? Unless you’ve come across this before, you probably thought of the giraffe. It is the same with your emotions. Hating it, rejecting it, trying not to think of it: It all holds the emotions there in your awareness.

Another trap

The final obstacle I want to discuss is the possible overload of information. The principles of the original emotional mastery post are simple. I had gone into detail so there are no misunderstandings (I hope). But you can sum up the whole process in one sentence: Turn off your mind, consciously accept, and embrace.

I fell into this trap a couple of weeks ago. I had cleared out the last of my major unhappiness, but then older hurts began rising to the top.

All the information that I had began coming to my head. Was I repressing it? Is such pain different? Do I deal with it in a different way? Was this Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? (I came across OCD info while researching the Anxiety post, and I thought I had it)

Wasn’t this what I warned against – I have to listen to my own advice sometimes. I wasn’t turning off my mind; I was stimulating and feeding it. I was over-complicating matters. Back to basics!

So, what can we do?

What do you do with all this information? Why this long post? Didn’t I just warn against the overload of information?

So what do we do? Back to basics. Back to basics. Back to basics!

All this information was hopefully to help you recognise these patterns in yourself should they arise. And when they do, back to basics. Observe the emotions, the patterns, the attachments for what they are. Knowing what they are makes them easier to break. You are observing yourself, but in a slightly deeper level.

Treat them the way you treat your emotions and thoughts. Don’t energise them by thinking. Just watch them slowly die out.

The death rattle

Sometimes, just sometimes, even if you did everything properly, the emotions still come back in force. Rejoice! Like a wounded animal, the negative emotions begin fighting back with extra viciousness.

Don’t panic. Double check that you didn’t do anything wrong. If you didn’t, you’re on the right track! It is a sign that it’s the beginning of the end.

What’s next?

There’s one more part to emotional mastery that I cut out of the original post, because it was too hard to incorporate. I’ll discuss it in the next post. Hopefully, with all the practice you’ve had, it’ll be workable. Stay tuned for it!