This weekend I learned something pretty profound…from my dog.
I took him to the dog park, because, lately he’s been getting really antsy around other dogs, so I wanted to let him run around and enjoy (we used to do this a lot and he loved it). I committed to doing some training with him right outside the dog park, to make sure he could listen to me, even though I knew he’d be distracted. So we got there, and before we were even near the park, he was whining, crying, and yelping. I told him his usual command “quiet”. Didn’t work. We parked, I pulled out some treats and repeated, “quiet”. It worked for about 4 seconds, before he was yelping again.
We did some commands a little ways away from the park. He did OK, but definitely was so uncontrollably excited that not much was working. At one point he let out a huge scream. I didn’t even know dogs could do that! We went into the park, and within 10 minutes, I was dragging him out by his harness. He started snarling, barking, and trying to bite a dog that intimidated him, and he quickly got out of control snarling at a bunch of dogs. I pulled him out, but it became immediately clear to me that his uncontrollable excitement, is the same as his uncontrollable aggression.
If they can’t control their excitement, they definitely can’t control their aggression.
So besides the training tactics that I need to make sure I apply to my pup, why am I sharing this with you?
Let’s repeat that discovery, for humans:
If you can’t control your excitement, you definitely can’t control your aggression/upset/anxiety/fear/etc.
So although excitement, and passion, lust, and drive might all be positive emotions and experiences to have, if we can’t control them (control meaning to not let it take over), then what hope to we have of controlling the negative emotions?
I don’t know about you, but when I was younger, I would hear a phrase like “control your emotions”, and think, no! I want to feel everything! I thought that controlling emotions meant not feeling them, or not getting to enjoy the goodness in life. And I certainly thought it meant having to try not to let the negative ones seep into everything, and damn near thought that was impossible. But the truth is, controlling your emotions is not about having no feelings, or not experiencing things, it’s about emotional intelligence. It’s about being able to experience feelings, without them taking over you, and ruling the rest of the day, or week, or month.
(I remember about 2 years ago a boyfriend broke up with me, and I kept expecting to be really sad. I was all prepared to wallow in my feelings, eat ice cream, and veg out….but that rush of sadness never came. Not because I didn’t love him, or didn’t feel sad about it, but because, I had been hard at work to increase my self-awarenes and gain emotional intelligence for a few years at that point. That moment was just a little victory for me; acknowledgement that I was getting stronger!)
So, how do you control your emotions? Or what does that process even look like?
Well, let’s go back to Dojo, my dog. In order for him to be able to socialize safely and appropriately, he has to be able to remain calm when he’s excited, and when he’s scared. So training, for him, looks like me taking him to distracting, exciting places, and keeping him calm, focused, and disciplined.
Now, we are, of course, more complex than dogs, but - that’s not a bad idea. And truly, this is yoga. (Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, or “to control the senses”, in one of its definitions). Yoga asks that you observe yourself, mind and body. You observe your thoughts and feelings, and physical sensations. Observing them comes with two parts: 1) increasing self-awareness and understanding, and 2) not attaching to the observation. Just like Dojo will need to be able to see a dog run by him, and not attach to the possibility of running with him, we need to see a fear drift by, and not attach to the possibility of it becoming real. These two parts together make up an aware person, who is non-judgmental or non-reactive to their feelings, or really any disturbance whatsoever.
Does this mean don’t ever get excited? No. Does it mean you will stop having fears? No. Just like Dojo will always be affected by the dogs that cross his path, you will always have feelings. However, by controlling them, you get the opportunity to choose how to play with them. Just as if Dojo stays calm while we walk up to a dog, he gets the treat of playing with them, so if you stay non-reactive while observing the thought or emotion, you get the treat of playing with that feeling however you’d like.
Start to notice when you get hooked on a thought, or emotion. Often, that’s the emotion trying to take over. Trying to get you to indulge in your excitement, or embarrassment, or worry, and take a leap out of your life, into that feeling. And see if you can back up and look at it instead. And if not, at least see if you can state to yourself that you’re hooked on an emotion, so as not to make any big life choices or anything, hah! It will get easier and easier to step out of it, and not have that one thing dictate your whole day.
Wherever you’re at in this process, keep going. I know I am!