I was 17 years old when I had to watch my father turn into ashes. He was long-suffering from different ailments, but none of us were prepared for his demise. On the morning of 3rd November 2014, we had him home after six months from the hospital. All the operations were a success, and he was recovering. But by evening, the tides of our lives had changed. We found our house swamped up with friends and relatives. They told us the rituals we needed to perform and the appropriate way for my mom to dress in preparation. Nobody understood what we were feeling. My dog, who did not leave me alone for a minute, felt more empathetic than all the well-wishers in the room. She just stood by and let me cry out my feelings.
While the advice uttered by every mouth in that room to my mother- “You need to be strong now. Don’t let your feelings take over; there is a daughter and house for you to take care of.” And I never saw my mom shed a single tear after that evening. I, too, wanted to be strong. So by the time all rituals were over, I had primed myself to keep the feelings of grief locked away.
We were facing our most challenging time. And following what we have been taught forever- we rid ourselves of feelings, buried them deep into the abyss, and never talked about the ordeal we experienced.
For the next two years, we went about our daily routine. Work. Study. Eat. Sleep. Meet friends. Watch movies. Shop. But we hardly spoke to each other apart from necessities. There was no warmth. We had become robots.
I was in my dream college, studying my passion, but I could not feel any happiness from my work, nor could I make any genuine connections. Everything was numb and superficial. We were so caught up trying to live life normally that we know when our life had become far from normal. Even when my health took a worse hit, we did not think of the root cause, even with frequent trips to the doctor.
Later after the third death anniversary, I was transported back to the evening of 3 November as my friend faced the same ordeal. I could not feel any emotions, and through her tears, my friend asked me, “When was the last time you cried?”. This became my moment of enlightenment.
The Emotional Codes of Society
As a child, we are told not to cry. We are told anger is not good. We are always told to smile and hide our emotions. As adults, we take emotions to be a weakness. At work, rational individuals are celebrated, and emotional people are asked to change. ‘A strong individual does not show emotions.’
These are our societies’ emotional codes. And like many of society’s other codes, they do more damage than good. There is a constant fear around expressing emotions, especially emotions that are seen as unfavorable. Emotions like sadness and anger. Yet, as a society, we all chase the feeling of happiness and love. But emotions are not just happy and sad. They are complex. And in the pursuit of avoiding one, we disturb our inner workings and cannot feel any emotions. If we cannot feel sadness and cannot show anger, how can we feel happiness and love?
The System of Emotions
Society fails to understand that feelings are fleeting. They will arise and pass. You just need to accept them for what they are. Real suffering happens when we crave feelings of happiness or wish for feelings or grief to go away. It puts our systems into a tizzy, and we end up feeling tension, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. We also start controlling our emotions more, and the struggle disturbs our natural systems. It is like micromanaging in a team. The employee cannot perform at best due to constant interferences and, at last, shuts down.
The Biochemistry of Emotions
Emotions are controlled by a group of brain structures called the limbic system. The system releases a chemical in response to an event, and the type of emotion we feel depends on which chemicals are released. The chemicals affect not only our mental states but also our bodily functions. That is why when people experience stage fright, the heart rate goes up, and they start sweating. But the opposite is also true: By controlling our heart rate and breathing deeply, we can calm ourselves.
If we allow our mind and body to go through with the emotion and accept them as an impermanent thing, we do not suffer, and the feeling will soon go away after running its course.
“All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are.”Gautam Buddha, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
There is no ‘right’ way to feel
The situation my mother and I were in was because we bottled our emotions. Our emotional systems were damaged. Humans are emotional beings, and not feeling is the worst thing we can do to ourselves. While most of us are aware of this in some sense, we still fall prey to societal structures.
After the realization, the long and arduous journey started. I started by talking about my days with my mother, explicitly stating the emotions behind activities. I could not feel them, but just speaking was making me more aware of them. This triggered her sharing with me as well. I started to meditate, take walks with my mother, share my story with my new friends, and most importantly, show them my vulnerability. With time, I also started to talk about my father and his memories with my mother. It’s sometimes hard to explain how we feel with just words, but when you need to say something, it’s important to say it.
It was far more difficult for my mother, but my efforts coaxed her as well. I would discuss psychological theories behind emotions, help her meditate, and help her reconnect with old friends. She found her passion in cooking and started her own business. Our communication improved. We had days when we completely broke in front of each other, leading to days of utter happiness. My mother and I are still working on it, but we have made progress and are happy to embrace our emotions.
Humans are all emotional beings. And it is important to express, accept, and embrace our emotions. The idea of embracing emotions is not new or unique, we all understand it at some level. But yet it gets difficult to break out from the codes of society. But remember, the feelings you feel are a part of you, so don’t be ashamed of your anger or loneliness but accept them and cherish them.
Be yourself, don’t be afraid to cry if you need to, be as happy as you feel like being, or just be angry. It doesn’t matter what emotion it is expressing. Let yourself feel it. Don’t bottle your feelings. It’s perfectly natural to feel frustrated, excited, or even sad sometimes.
You are human; embrace your emotions!