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Emotional Minimalism : The Zen Master’s Way

Dust the cobwebs of your past and make a fresh start. It's never too late! :)

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I remember when I was a teenager, I would experience extreme emotions in my daily life. Sometimes I’d be joyful while other times I’d be fuming with anger over a slightest argument. But today, this is different. What makes my current mindset different from my teenage self is the fact that I am much more calmer and balanced at life’s curveballs. I am still a work in progress when it comes to managing emotions, however each day brings a new perspective. My quest towards exploring human behaviour introduced me to diverse methodologies through travel, literally and figuratively. The route to emotional balance is always an arduous one. 

Several eastern and western philosophies suggest approaches to self-mastery. Each has their own scientific and abstract methodologies. The first step towards understanding philosophical methods of emotional self-mastery is to explore the multitude of emotions we experience on a daily basis. According to Buddhist principles, emotions are a fundamental part of our existence. It is the expression of our intellect and creative faculties. Buddhist philosophical beliefs emphasize in connecting deeply with our emotions so that we refrain from misconceptions or judgements about a person or a circumstance. These emotions when explored well opens our hearts and minds to insight and compassion. 

Ask yourself – How many times have I experienced strong emotions but haven’t been able to put a finger on it?

We all experience this quite often! Because how we feel is not solidified to a particular emotion, they remain suspended in our minds orbiting at a maddening pace. Taking some time to explore our vast inner space brings us closer to our emotions and helps label it appropriately. 

Buddhist scriptures tell us that our emotions occur generally when the object is “captivating” or “displeasing”. According to Buddhism, we become slaves to our emotions when it goes out of control. Therefore, all the negative emotions such as anger, envy, fear, regret, shame, sadness directly impact our actions. Similar to the way we embrace positive emotions such as love, joy, hope, empathy, happiness with an open mind, embracing negative emotions as part of ourselves equips us with matured insight.  

One of the ways we can relieve ourselves of the burden of these negative emotions is through “Emotional Minimalism”. This Buddhist philosophy crafts an interesting perspective on emotion management. Emotional minimalism is simply articulated as the process of simplifying your inner world. It is a process of decluttering your vast inner space, much like spring cleaning your wardrobe. This process requires four key elements to make a deep and long-lasting meaningful existence. These elements are commitment, dedication, courage and honesty. This can be honed with mindfulness meditation and meaningful practices. 

An important element that helps decluttering or at the very least mitigating the impact of negative emotions is the emphasis on positive ones. It is the very act of perceiving every curveball as life-lessons and doing what needs to be done in the very moment that accounts for a greater good, counterbalances the impact of the negative emotions.  

Let’s consider examples of intense emotions you’d experience in deeply painful situations like being furloughed, surviving a near-death experience, a strenuous divorce, loss of a partner or immediate family member or a life-threatening medical procedure. Events like these shake up our physiological and psychological resilience rendering us hopeless and directionless. We emerge from the aftermath of these circumstances either with a mindset of a survivor or the one resigned to fate. But what if there was a scope to create a middle ground between the two. This is where the practice of Emotional Minimalism comes into play.

What is emotional minimalism? 

The study of emotional minimalism places a large emphasis on “compassion” as the foundation of a larger dimension of affability and positive concern towards ourselves and the world around us. Developing a mindset to perceive every dimension with objectivity and compassion strengthens our resilience. 

But how much do we give? Where do we draw the line?

Minimalism is not just about living with less stuff. It crosses over to all areas of our existence. It is about getting rid of that which does not serve you well so that you create space for meaningful feelings and experiences. Minimalism is about making a conscious choice of what experiences you’d want to embrace and what is simply an energy drain. Minimalism is about balancing your physical and emotional energies well. It is about giving unconditionally but without depleting your inner reserves. It is also about retreating from a noisy world to reboot and recharge with fresh positive vibrations. 

How to practice emotional minimalism? 

Stage 1: Perform an emotional survey

This is similar to spring cleaning I mentioned earlier. Imagine your inner reserves as a wardrobe that you clean occasionally. Go through each closet, drawer or secret section. Pick one section of your inner wardrobe at a time. Ask yourself what you truly need and what you don’t. Assess your mind and heart about what memories and impressions are deeply rooted. Which ones bring you joy and happiness and which ones are you clinging onto that bring aches and pains, regrets, disappointments and envy. Observe the emotions you are holding onto despite the events passing away. You may find some situations in your inner space have built a castle with high walls that seem impossible to break down. These situations could have its roots in your early childhood experiences like loss of a parent, being bullied at school, physical or emotional abuse, a dysfunctional household where emotions are repressed, teenage experiences of drug or substance abuse, divorced parents that struggle to offer attention. This could also be adulthood experiences like continuous struggle with multiple career switches without the right guidance, being passed over for a promotion, workplace harassment that you feared to voice, a public humiliation, heartbreaks or a painful divorce. Awareness of the existence of these events will help you take the appropriate steps to cleanse it out of your system. 

Stage 2: Unpack your negative emotions

Getting rid of emotions is different than getting rid of physical stuff. You can’t just put them in a box and give it to charity. Can you? This stage is a step towards letting go and hence it is essential to unpack these emotions. Remember, when you unpack your emotional baggage, you will feel the pain of the past. But it is all a part of the healing process. Trust yourself to get through this. Imagine yourself visiting a doctor where he cleanses the wound before medicating it. In this stage, write your feelings down. Maintain a journal. Putting your feelings down on paper is a form of unpacking. Writing is therapeutic. Don’t worry about language, grammar or punctuation. Write in the language you are most comfortable with. This process allows you to get them out into the open so you can see your psychic junk. This way you will be able to see which ones are cluttering up your existence.   

Stage 3: The process of release

Now that you have unpacked your emotions, you need to give them away for good. When you live with all the negative emotions, they get stuck inside and infect your environment. Open your doors and windows just as you were spring cleaning your house. Let the negative energies go away and allow sunlight and fresh energies to occupy your space. Just like you’d give away your stuff to charity, you’d need to take your excess baggage somewhere. Travel to wide open spaces where your mind can wander in silence. I suggest going to an ocean, park, desert or a mountain peak. Let your emotions go at its pace. Take a walk, hike in the woods, inhale fresh air and exhale your baggage. Give them away to the wind. Allow them to be blown away.  

Stage 4: Replace with the right energy

This stage requires mindfulness. Negative emotions will creep and crawl back in if you don’t substitute it with meaningful ones. People who successfully overcome addictions know that they must replace a bad habit with a healthy one. This requires conscious engagement and continuous practice. For example, if you smoke and drink, you can replace that with exercise and writing. Once you’ve let that negative emotional baggage go, replace the empty space with a positive one. This could be a cherished personal goal like waking up early, more time with family, eating well, community service, mastering a skill and the list goes on. The purpose of this stage is to find something positive to replace the negative. 

Humans are emotional creatures. We all have feelings. We love. We hate. We envy. We get sad. That is perfectly normal. Excessive negative feelings are not normal. It is how we deal with these negative feelings matters the most. The idea is to cleanse or channelise. 

Final Thought

It makes no difference whether you are letting go of material things or negative emotions. We go through the same process of evaluating, cleansing and replacing. The Buddhist practice of emotional minimalism carries centuries-old secrets and wisdom of meaningful existence. Emotional minimalism is a practice I follow to feel light, centered and more healthy in thought, word and deed. 

The year 2020 put us into forced isolation that may have simmered all your emotions to the surface. We listen attentively to our inner voices in silence especially when we choose to disconnect from the crowd. If you have experienced some painful realities of your inner world in the last few months or are carrying unnecessary baggage, I urge you to practice this Zen method for a balanced well-being and more meaningful days. 

Dust the cobwebs of your past and make a fresh start. It’s never too late! 🙂

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