Becoming An Emotional Ninja

This evening I was sitting outside a Starbucks at sunset reading my favorite Thich Nhat Hanh book, The Miracle of Mindfulness.  Randomly, I opened the book to a section on the concept of interdependence:

“The suffering of others is our own suffering, and the happiness of others is our own happiness,” he writes.

Just as I read this, I became aware of the resounding cry of toddler outside a nearby restaurant. Actually, ‘cry’ is an understatement – this child was wailing. I looked up to see a little girl sobbing uncontrollably, with her arms crossed steadfastly over her chest. Her mom was standing four or five feet away, and it was clear from the child’s body language that she didn’t want anyone to get near her. For nearly 25 minutes, this whole scenario played out, with the toddler sobbing and saying the word “no” everytime her mother approached her. My heart went out to the mother, who, by the way, had the patience of a saint! But even more so, my compassion went towards the child…

Observing her, I was overwhelmed with compassion for how turbulent the emotional body can be. I sensed my interconnectedness with her, recalling the countless times I’ve felt overwhelmed by tidal waves of emotion. How challenging is it in those distressing moments, I thought, to remember that all emotions are impermanent and ever-changing? One moment there’s fear. The next moment there’s anger. Then anger fades, and there is peace. Peace morphs into compassion, and so on.

What this child has not yet learned and what I am still learning at 28 (after years of psychotherapy, I might add), is the practice of emotional agility.  It’s more than the ability to start or stop an emotion or feeling at will. Emotional agility, as I experience it, also denotes my ability to navigate my emotional realm with consciousness (choice & awareness) verses unconsciousness (habit and/or lack of awareness).

There is a brilliant quote shared in the Nia Blue Belt that comes from the creator of Aikido. When asked by his most dedicated students what skills he possessed that they did not yet possess, he responded, “The only difference between you and I is that I come back to center faster.”

Welcome to emotional agility – the practice of coming back to center faster and faster, and faster again.

I recently had an opportunity to “research” emotional agility when retaking the Nia Brown Belt with Trainer Ann Christiansen and Nia Co-Creator Debbie Rosas. Ann asked us to do a practice that explored three emotions. The practice was one of taking yourself into an emotion, then bringing yourself back out, conditioning your emotional agility.

First, we were asked to activate the overall emotion we feel about our life. Immediately, I received the feeling of peace and interconnectedness. We were asked to sustain this emotion, feel it, then let it go. Second, we were asked to feel the emotion of a situation in our life that was challenging for us, something emotionally “derailing”. I immediately brought such a situation into my awareness, activating the emotions of sadness and fear. Now this is where the magic happened. Guiding us carefully, Ann asked us to feel the derailing emotion, yet not get swept away by it – notice it, feel it, but maintain our center. We call this “activating your witness,” in Nia. Forty-five seconds later, she asked us to return to emotion #1, the overall feeling we experience about our life. Like lightening, I directed my attention back to the feelings of peace and interconnectedness. Within ten seconds, I had returned fully to emotion #1.

“Wow!” I thought, “That was like emotional jumping jacks at level 3!” Astounded by how beneficial this practice was, I knew I’d found a new ally and  tool for becoming a “ninja” of my emotions.

Watching my friends who have children, I see how they have cultivated the skill of becoming emotional ninjas, as the demands of parenting often necessitate the ability to put one’s own emotions aside (and re-address later) in order to tend to their children’s needs first.

Returning to the story of the crying toddler, I watched as the mother at the restaurant put aside her own need to eat dinner to stand by while her little girl “processed”. Finally, after 20 minutes and with a sense of peacefulness, the mother found an opening. She knelt to the ground and took several steps towards her crying daughter. As she opened her arms, I saw the little girl’s posture soften. Slowly, the toddler looked up, took two steps forward, then melted into her mother’s arms, relaxing completely into what looked like the emotions of trust, relief and peace.

What a gift to witness such a raw, beautiful process, and what a fantastic reminder of the impermanence of emotion. Whether we’re 2 years old, 28 years old or beyond, we all have access to this incredible well of energy.

Becoming an emotional ninja, as it turns out, is not about being tae kwon do with our emotional realm. Rather, it’s about bringing self-love, compassion, and trust to this incredibly sentient source of feeling and expression.