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Radical Happiness Blog

Can Negative Emotions Be Helpful Guides in One's Life?

Someone wrote me recently and asked some very good questions about negative emotions, so I'm sharing my answer in this blogpost.
Question: I have some confusion about the role of negative emotions. On the one hand, it seems that negative emotions aren't good guides in life, and it is preferable to move through life from an inner wisdom, from what we could call Heart wisdom. On the other hand, so-called negative emotions seem to play an important part in my interacting with others.
The other day I was driving my car, and I got to a bend and suddenly felt a surge of fear, as I clearly was going a bit too fast. I listened to the fear and slowed down. I believe it was good to experience the negative emotion, as it contributed to warning me and helped with the survival of this body and character.
Another example is that I viewed a property to rent and left feeling uncomfortable after talking to the landlord, but I rented it anyway. Three months later, I discovered that the landlord had opened my mail, entered the property when I was absent, and was hostile. It became so distressing that I had to move. Once again, it would have been useful if I had listened to that negative emotion initially.
On another occasion, I didn't listen to anger when people took advantage of me. I saw anger as a negative emotion and not a good guide. Those people continued to take advantage of me. One day I allowed the anger to express itself, and I stated firmly and confidently to those people that their actions were unacceptable. Afterwards, their behaviors stopped. I expressed my needs, and the angry energy gave me strength. Of course, I had to direct the energy constructively. But the “negative emotion” was actually helpful to me.
I'm confused. How do I decide which negative emotion is actually helpful and which isn't? It seems to me that a negative emotion that serves me is more like a positive emotion.

Why Slow Is Better

With so much interest these days in mindfulness and being present, I want to put in a good word for moving slowly, for not hurrying though life. Being present is nearly impossible when we are in a hurry. Furthermore, we find that when we are present, we rarely choose to be in a hurry. Hurrying is generally motivated by the ego, by the thoughts that run through our mind. That voice pushes us to get things done asap—no matter what. The “no matter what” is the problem, because if we make life about getting things done, we are going to miss out on a lot of life.

As we hurry through our day, it’s easy to forget that being is just as important as doing, as being needs to inform our doing or life will begin to feel dry, lifeless, and joyless. If we listen solely to the egoic mind (the voice in our head), we will begin to feel like an automaton, and we will find ourselves consumed with doing things that don’t bring us joy, but only more things, more money, more power—more of what the ego wants but less of what is truly meaningful.

Slowing down our pace and just being for moments throughout our day gives us access to our true nature and its innate wisdom. Hurrying, on the other hand, keeps us tied to the ego, which barks its commands, pushes us harder, and shames us. The ego views life from a lens of fear and scarcity. It doesn’t trust life because it isn’t in touch with the truth about life. It copes with its fears and insecurities by pushing us to constantly be doing. When we are caught in the ego’s world, we can never rest and just be, and we lose touch with the deep sense that all is well.

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Noticing as a Spiritual Practice

Noticing is a profound spiritual practice in itself because it gets us in touch with what is noticing and experiencing life, with Consciousness, our true self. Consciousness notices; it is what witnesses and experiences life. It is who we are. Whenever we do what our being naturally does, we align with it. For instance, if we say something compassionate to ourselves or to someone else, we align with our true nature because our true nature is compassionate. Or if we accept ourselves or someone else, we align with our true nature because our true nature is accepting. Or if we notice our experience and fully experience it, we align with our true nature because our true nature is what is aware and experiencing life.
Buddhists call this practice of noticing, mindfulness. Being mindful means being aware of our present moment experience, including our thoughts, feelings, intuitions, internal experiences, bodily sensations, sounds, sights, and other sensory input. In any moment, a lot is going on, and it’s all in flux. So there’s always plenty to notice in our present moment experience. The present moment is alive with activity and experience.
What notices and discerns is the true self. The true self is the consciousness that makes it possible to experience life. This Consciousness is a great mystery because it can only be described by how it is experienced, since it isn’t a thing apart from everything else. The wisdom traditions say that this Consciousness is all-pervading and behind and within all creation, although it isn’t important that you believe that.

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