Transcending Difficult Emotions

feelingdownby Jim Tolles

There’s an unfortunate undercurrent to a lot of spiritual traditions that encourages us to repress or avoid difficult emotions. Spiritual transcendence is seen to mean that we no longer feel fear, anger or sadness, but this is grossly mistaken. Spiritual transcendence means that we are no longer controlled by fear, anger or sadness. If these emotions arise, we have learned to be with them and to let them go. We no longer find ourselves reactive and always trying to get away from the feelings that come from no other place but ourselves.

This may sound very advanced to many of you, but it’s not. All of you have the capacity to transcend the reactive and unconscious nature of emotions, but it starts by really going into them to understand where they come from and why you choose (even on a very unconscious level) to experience them. Let’s start with fear.

The Many Flavors of Fear

This is one buffet that most of us don’t want to eat at, and yet, because we ignore our fears, get lost in them, or try to run away from them, it is the buffet we all seem to get forced to stand in line for. Let me be clear that facing these emotions doesn’t mean wallowing in them. Fear tends to not be one that most of us want to stay in any longer than possible, but it’s always possible to get stuck cycling fearful thoughts in our minds and then reacting from that space. It may not seem easy to break this inner cycling, which may feel like someone running around screaming, Fire! all the time, but you created this inner mental loop. That also means you have the power to break it and change it.

There are many levels of fear, but I’ll speak to some core types. It’s important, however, that you do your work to understand the system of fear within you. While we can drop all unconsciousness at any time when we are truly ready, most of us need to do a little work to understand things and let them go. So here are some thoughts on common fears:

Fear of death. We might as well start with the big one. Much of people’s fears around money come from a fear of death, i.e. not having the means to survive. This is also why many people fear physical discomfort of any sort.

Fear of the unknown. This one probably also links back to fear of death in some ways. Fear of the unknown is also extremely common. It keeps people locked in familiar cycles even though they may be painful, miserable cycles in relationships, jobs, etc.

Fear of being alone. The fear of being alone is super common, especially on the spiritual path. But the ego creates this duality, and as we learn to feel our interconnectedness, this fear becomes an absurdity. In some ways, I also think it is linked to a fear of death because being alone means being separate from the community, which also can function as a survival support mechanism. Furthermore, this fear can be about lack of self-love and needing love from others.

The Heat of Anger

It can be helpful to view a lot of anger as stuck energy. It’s like you needed to move, say something, or understand something, and you got caught in resistance. Usually, this is where fear is blocking you, but you have enough moving energy to churn up some additional heat. This is more often than not an anger at oneself. The more we become deft in understanding our emotions, the more we can notice how they stem from being out of integrity with ourselves. Sure, there are certainly awful things that happen in the world around us and to us, but most days, we are the source of our greatest torment. That can seriously piss off people.

While I can’t overly generalize, anger can be met more effectively by getting a sense of what you need to do. For example, the man in a bad marriage who is getting increasingly angry may suddenly have to realize he’s scared of being alone, and that’s what’s keeping him there when he knows he needs to take action to get a divorce. Or perhaps it’s a fear of the unknown because he doesn’t know how this change will affect the children, and he presumes that his getting a divorce will result in a bad outcome. The ego has all kinds of head trips that it likes to play, and it usually assumes that it can predict the future. But no one can accurately do that all the time, and part of the big lesson in all of this is having faith in your inner knowing when it is time to take action.

Wallowing in Sadness

Sadness is the emotion that people tend to like to wallow in. Certain types of egos love to feed off this vibration. They just love the poor me game and the pity they can receive. It’s a putrid form of energy, but since this type of emotion generally doesn’t think you are worthy of love, this seems to be the best that it can get. It can also be a way of abdicating power and allowing inaction.

For all the stillness and quiet meditation that happens on the spiritual path, a lot of that will incite you to be very dynamic and active in the external world. The world needs people taking conscious action, and that always starts with you. It really is a wonderful spiritual workout to clear out difficult emotions. It is ground zero for really understanding yourself and clearing space for clarity about what you need to do in the other areas of your life and this world. If you don’t know you, you can’t really see others and the world around you. Your sight becomes skewed by these undealt with emotions and stories. Your limited vision is an impediment to helping others, which is why dealing with these types of inner emotions is also a service to the world.

But before I digress too much, sadness is met the same way as the other emotions; you look at it. You sit with it. You listen to its story. Using the metaphor of sitting with a sick child works well here. Your awareness is so strong that the child immediately starts to heal as you sit with it in a non-reactive space. This can be intensely uncomfortable, however. The child may be screaming, snotting, and puking, and this is where we all learn how messy the spiritual path can get. But it does pass, and as you develop the inner fortitude to be with these messy emotions, you are also building up a greater capacity of patience and tenacity to be with whatever the outer world sends your way.

Letting Go of Being Positive

My parting shot on dealing with difficult emotions is to let go of a paradigm that sees some emotions as positive and others as negative. They are simply emotions. They all come and go. No type of emotion is any better than the other. Repressing the bad ones doesn’t help you, and holding onto the good ones or chasing after them causes other problems. Transcending the ones we find most difficult simply means we create space to accept all emotions as they come and to let them go. Initially, there’s usually a backlog of unexperienced and unacknowledged upset emotions. This is okay. For most people, it should be expected. But it is not beyond your capacities to confront, and that backlog will not last. Ultimately, we all can come into a new conscious emotional equilibrium that allows us to live fully from our hearts and to acknowledge fear, sadness, anger, and other unsettling emotions as simply passing clouds in the overarching skyline of our lives.

The above article has been printed here with the author’s permission. Jim Tolles is a spiritual teacher, healer, and writer. He is the author of the ebook Everyday Spirituality: Cultivating an Awakening. He teaches students around the world via online video conversations, and he blogs regularly at He currently resides in the U.S. in Northern California.