The Impermanence of Emotion

It is only the artificial ego that suffers. The man who has transcended his false 'me' no longer identifies with his suffering. - Fingers Pointing Towards the Moon by Wei Wu Wei

Change is a central feature of life. It can be exhilarating, frightening, exhausting, or relieving. It can spark sadness or happiness, resistance or grasping. - Gil Fronsdal

Insight into change is central to dealing with our emotions. Becoming equanimous during change and emotional storms is one of the keys to growing spiritually and personally.This means we need to learn to observe our emotional responses, to step back from them, not to identify with them and become them. This is a means to freedom. The Buddha’s last words were: “All conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence.”

No emotion lasts forever. Usually our emotions arise from conditioned responses. Something happens and we have an emotional reaction to it. These are old thought patterns that we've learned throughout our life. Our ego wants to protect us from pain and bring us pleasure, it's scared and grasping. Think of it like a loyal watch dog, he may often be misguided but he is only trying to protect his owner. Our ego has learned emotional responses designed originally to protect us from pain and bring us pleasure. These emotional responses are just extra strong thought patterns, that are deeply ingrained and seem to arise automatically and involuntarily. Steve Pavlina has an excellent article where he uses the metaphor of video game avatars for our ego.

We can learn to view these emotions from a different perspective. Not as though we are the emotions and they are us (from the ego view) but from a more detached state. When we learn this we learn to reduce suffering and pain. Suffering arises when we cling to these emotions, as though we are the emotions, when we are deeply identified with them as inherent parts of our selves and personalities. We can reduce suffering, even in a world of change and impermanence. We can learn to let go, not to cling and find sublime happiness in our world. We can do this by seeing the impermanent nature of what we cling to and by observing what we are grasping onto and clinging to.

As Steve puts it:

Although your emotions arise within your consciousness, they are not your consciousness, and you are free to stop, breathe, and rise above them. This will not eliminate the emotions — they’ll still be present — but you’ll begin to see them from a third-person perspective instead of identifying with them...I’m not suggesting you can control the [emotional] storm or that you even need to. The storm just is. When you observe it, it has already arisen. But by shifting your perspective, you do not have to identify with your emotional storm. You can simply observe it.

When you experience this perspective shift, you’ll begin to notice a change. Learning to depend not on the ego, and instead on the higher self brings wonderful states of peace and joy. This isn't some easy accomplishment because the ego, that watch dog, holds fiercely to old beliefs, patterns and habits.

Steve gives this metaphor for the experience:

Imagine playing a scary computer game or watching a scary movie. In the moment you may be feeling tense, anxious, or nervous. But behind that is a more subtle sensation you might call fun, enjoyment, or pleasure. You’re enjoying the larger experience of the game or movie, but this enjoyment is on a different level than your low-level experience of the current on-screen situation. Similarly, when you feel sad, angry, or frustrated, you may stop and notice a different sensation behind that emotion. To observe this sensation, you must step outside of the temporary storm and simply witness it for a while. I tend to think of this sensation as joy, but you may label it something else entirely. It is a pleasurable and expansive yet soothing sensation. Some people might call it ecstasy, God consciousness, or a feeling of oneness. Again, I hesitate to call it an emotion, since it isn’t felt on that level. It’s more like a state of consciousness.