Yoga and Emotional Intelligence

Yoga and Emotional Intelligence

By Jonathan Riley

While intellect has gotten much of the attention since the scientific englightenment, psychology and related fields have begun to acknowledge that emotion is another equally important aspect of our beings. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is studied, taught, and discussed increasingly as we begin to recognize that we may have neglected something vital to our lives, in Western intellectual culture.

If you’re not a natural feeler and haven’t invested much time and energy into it, the idea of learning about emotions can seem daunting, as they’ve probably come round to bite you a time or two; I know mine have. It’s all swell as long as they’re kept in check, until they become unavoidable; then, you’re caught in a stormy sea without a clue of how to navigate the tumultuous waters.

As an intellectual Westerner by nature and circumstance, emotions have generally been a bit of a mystery to me. We live in a culture based on European, analytical philosophy that glorifies the ordinary problem-solving intellect, and regards all other aspects of consciousness with suspicion or indifference, at best. All the more if you identify as a particularly civilized, rational male.

This assumption that intellect is primary or more important is woven into our entire worldview; it’s practically essential to Western culture.

However, I subscribe to the Jungian idea of individuation, or that the path to a complete personhood is to develop all aspects of ourselves. This usually means spending the first half of your life identifying with and developing one set of aspects, only to turn around later in life, and explore their opposites. If you don’t, these unconscious sides of yourself will haunt you and influence your behaviors.

In my case, I spent plenty of time learning how to navigate thinking early-on, and then had to turn around and learn to navigate feeling. I regard it as par for the course, and I know that I’m part of an entire demographic of people who are in a similar situation, even if many don’t yet recognize the need to find balance through feeling. Our society is full of similarly hyper-rational, “nerdy,” and quite often male people, who don’t particularly understand our own emotions.

One of my greatest leaps in understanding of emotions came from what many might consider an unlikely source: Yoga, or Vedanta more generally. I speak here not of the physical exercises most people think of as Yoga, which are called Asanas and Hatha Yoga, but rather, the whole system of philosophy and spirituality that is Yoga, which is rooted in the Vedantic tradition of India.

So, how can Yoga help us to better understand our emotions?

Consciousness and the Human Heart

It’s commonly recognized that the primary center of emotional experience is the heart. Why the heart? No one is certain, although there are ideas; the Heartmath Institute has some interesting findings about the magnetic field of the heart changing based on different mind states. Some teachings about spiritual anatomy speak about the heart chakra. It’s also been found that we have a whole separate neural cluster like a miniature brain in our hearts, and some people who receive heart transplants inherit traits or preferences from the donor.

Whatever the reasons, we all know from direct experience that much of our emotional life is felt in our hearts. When we are in love, or overjoyed, or hurt or betrayed, this is primarily where we feel it. If we can let go of having to fit it into some conceptual framework, we can simply acknowledge that it is the case, subjectively, for all of us. Feeling dwells in the heart. Some even believe the heart has it’s own consciousness, or perhaps is the root of consciousness, the center of our most fundamental sense of presence.

Whatever the explanation, we all know the subjective feeling heart’s presence and significance, from the times we have experienced emotional peaks and valleys. We’ve all felt the surge of love or the vacuum of loss in our hearts, and everything in-between. Even if we are generally disconnected from it, we have felt it at some time or another.

The Yogic Conception of Consciousness

Consciousness is a hot topic these days, especially when it comes to debates around the “hard problem.” While the term “consciousness” is used vaguely in wider culture, in philosophy or psychology we’re referring to something very specific with that word, and that is the subjective “ground” of experience. It is something impossible to prove, but is probably the most powerful intuition we experience.

Another way of describing this is the witness behind all experiences, that mysterious something into which experience seems to be flowing, and without which, we would be simply machines, or zombies. We perceive that there is a spark of something which makes us more than merely a machine, and this something is what we call consciousness, the seer behind seeing, the hearer behind hearing, the feeler behind feeling, even the witness behind thoughts. This must also be what we most essentially are, since even thoughts are merely objects of this subjective awareness.

Yogic philosophy has a unique view of this consciousness, because Yogis come at consciousness from a very ancient tradition of introspective investigation, rather than outer measurements or examining the brain. For a long time, these Vedantic rishis and sages have explored the human mind and consciousness through various practices such as meditation, pranayama, asceticism, trance, and other methods. While consciousness remains a mystery to us in the West, these Yogis came to some solid and reproducible conclusions long ago, through inner inquiry.

Ananda: The Hidden Jewel

Of their findings, what’s most pertinent to our exploration of emotions are the three primary qualities of this subjective ground of awareness we call consciousness. In Sanskrit, these qualities are called Sat-Chit-Ananda, most often translated as absolute Existence(sat) — Awareness(chit) — Bliss(ananda).

The first two are straightforward enough, we can see plainly from our own experience that consciousness has the qualities of existence and awareness. If I’m conscious at all, and not dead or under anaesthesia, then it means that I exist, and I know this because I am aware. This is easily understood.

Ananda, however, might be a bit more surprising.

Bliss? Our subjective bedrock of awareness is…blissful?

If you’re not already privy to this teaching, you might be thinking, “That’s news to me. I’m aware all the time, and it doesn’t usually seem all that blissful to me.” This is an understandable, and genuine reaction; it’s true, most normal people don’t go about their daily lives feeling blissful, so on what basis should we accept that bliss is intrinsic to our consciousness?

To make a long story short, millions of Yogis, Buddhists, and other meditators have discovered this truth again and again, passing it down through the contemplative traditions of the East for thousands of years, not just as a belief, but a reality which each person can experience for themselves, with some practice and self-discovery.

The only belief that’s really necessary is to take these teachings on their word, to whatever extent is necessary to motivate us to do the practices, to find this hidden jewel of blissfulness beneath our own busy minds; this is much like how we would believe a knowledgeable doctor, to find an appropriate treatment. We believe him/her enough to implement it.

Emotion Simplified

One of the most daunting things about emotions, for those of us who aren’t EQ “naturals,” is their complexity. Why does a person feel a certain way, when they experience a certain thing, and another person something else? It can seem like an endless guessing game which continually defies all logic. However, when we understand the nature of Ananda and the heart, it all becomes much simpler and clearer.

Essentially, all emotions are a single spectrum, overlaid with myriad thought patterns. That spectrum, which we can think of as similar to brightness, is a measure of how much Sat-Chit-Ananda is being allowed to “shine through” our mental prism. This also corresponds to a similar spectrum in our heart, which we experience as the heart being more open, or more closed. The two seem to be intertwined; when the heart is open, the Ananda is shining.

We can’t scientifically define what an “open” heart is objectively, but we all experience it, when we are joyful, or in love. Those are also the times when Ananda is illuminating our minds most clearly, or in other words, when our core self is least obscured by our compulsive thinking. Another of the most fundamental teachings of Yoga is that this pure essence of consciousness is obscured by “thought waves.” In other words, like choppy waters in a lake, our compulsive thinking obscures and distorts the pure reflection of the “sun” of consciousness itself.

In our lives, we experience joy, love, bliss, or peace subjectively as a brightening of our consciousness, we “light up,” or have a special “glow” about us in certain circumstances where we feel we’ve found some happiness. This is some measure of the Sat-Chit-Ananda, our intrinsically blissful awareness, shining through the clouds of mind. As someone who has experienced it very directly at certain times, I can tell you that this Sat-Chit-Ananda is very much experienced as a kind of brightness, which some have come to refer to as Inner Light.

The Emotional Spectrum and the Mental Prism

All of what we commonly refer to as “positive emotion” is some form of our heart being open, and the intrinsic Ananda being allowed to shine out from our core to some degree, like a dimmer switch that becomes brighter, or darker. When we are happy or sad, or anything in-between, it’s really just our dimmer switch going up or down, with different experiences and thought patterns overlaid on top of it. The thought patterns make it seem complicated, but really, it’s just degrees of Inner Light.

In normal daily life, this is usually because of some circumstance. If it happens because we are with another person, we call it “love,” if it happens because of aesthetic pleasure, we call it “beauty,” when it happens because of an experience of carefree engagement with some activity, we might call it “joy.” If it happens because of knowledge, we call it “inspiration or insight.” If we have built around ourself mostly things and experiences that raise our dimmer switch, then we say we have “built a good life for ourselves.”

These are all merely contexts and mental colorings or overlays, but that which is illuminating them all is the one Inner Light of open-hearted Sat-Chit-Ananda.

We speak of love, peace, or joy as we might speak of red, blue, or green, without realizing they are simply shadings of a singular light.

Likewise, fear, jealousy, shame, betrayal, or any other negative emotion is simply the darkening of Ananda and closing of the heart, in different contexts, and for different reasons. Not only blissful Ananda, but also the Sat and Chit are dimmed in those moments; we are less aware and our existence more obscured in these low emotional states. The qualities of Sat, Chit, and Ananda are not separate, but a combined description of one blissful Light of conscious existence; dwhen our minds obscure it and our hearts are closed, that is what we experience as inner darkness and ignorance.

One Light, One Desire, One Yearning

One of the fundamental realizations of Yoga and Vedanta is that “Everything we are looking for is within us.” This has become a sort of Eastern aphorism that anyone interested in spirituality has probably heard, but what does it actually mean? Simply put, the things we desire outside ourselves are merely triggers which allow us to experience the illuminated core of what we are, to some relative degree.

So, we may think we want a big house, nice car, perfect relationship, recognition, artistic expression, or any number of things, but all that we actually want in life is the bliss that is intrinsic to our very own consciousness, which we think we need those things to unlock. We think we need those external things, people, and experiences to access our blissful core, but we are mistaken.

This can actually be difficult to hear, at first; the implications challenge some of our most deeply cherished sentimental notions. What this really means is that the love of every embrace, the joy of every family meal, the peace of every still moment in nature, the sacredness of every hymn, are all simply forms or situations where a sort of experiential prop allowed us to temporarily reveal and relish in our intrinsic nature, the nature we all share. There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact it is the engine of all life; the desire for this illumination drives us to do all that we do, to create, to reproduce, to help one another, to worship, to speak the truth.

One of the greatest realizations along the spiritual path is that you do not, in fact, need any of those things to feel the Inner Light that you are, although they can help. Once you become familiar enough with this true nature, through meditation or similar practices, you can tap into it any time. The more you do this, the more permeated by happiness and joy your life becomes, regardless of your circumstances.

Of course, good circumstances and tools still make it easier, and there’s nothing wrong with pursuing them to some extent; the point is that since it’s actually what you are, nothing external is technically required. Knowing this makes life much easier.

A New Lens for Every Emotional State and Behavior

Once you see that the only thing anyone is ever really doing is trying to open their heart and feel the Inner Light of their natural Sat-Chit-Ananda by navigating external situations, all behaviors and emotional states both in yourself and others become much clearer.

Whatever a person’s seemingly irrational negative emotion might be, with a bit of thoughtful reflection, you can almost always see how it’s simply their heart closing, and how their reaction is an intuitive pivot to steer them back towards an open heart. Even the most analytical individuals who devalue and deny emotions are actually profoundly emotionally motivated.

The desire to be right, for instance, to know what you are talking about, to sound smart, is all motivated by an emotional payoff of feeling slightly more illumined in your sense of competence. This explains much of the rigidity, aggressive debate, and derisive skepticism of academics who believe themselves to be purely motivated by rationality. In reality, they are very much puppets of their emotional desire for the feeling of being knowledgeable and right, which is their own distorted way of accessing their Inner Light.

The same goes for those who constantly seek power, luxury, wealth, sensual pleasure, adrenaline rushes, drug highs, comfort, security, orderliness, beauty, pity, kindness, and a million other things. All are the myriad imperfect methods of seeking outer props to open inner doors to our deepest core.

We’re chasing a million keysTo the treasure chest in our heartWithout realizing we could simplyTake the lock apart

The Key to Universal Compassion

When you see this, it becomes much easier to have compassion for all people, regardless of circumstance. Let’s say you encounter someone in a dark state, someone who is angry at you for no good reason, perhaps in traffic.

If you take a moment to reflect, you can see that they are blindly trying to road rage their way back to a state where they can feel their Inner Light, a mostly futile attempt to exert angry effort to change their outer circumstance into one where they can feel Ananda again, to “power their way” into a situation where they aren’t frustrated by traffic anymore, in this case.

On some level, they must know that yelling in traffic won’t actually get them anywhere, but it is all they know how to do. The feeling of power and action behind anger is slightly brighter than the sad resignation if they simply gave up in dark despair. So, they are making the best choice they know how to make to feel their Inner Light, even if it’s still not a very effective way.

The same exact principle goes for essentially all people in all situations. Even those engaged in the most dastardly deeds are ultimately trying to wind their way through their own self-constructed labyrinth of experiential triggers they think they need to “feel good,” which just means to set free some measure of the natural divine joy that lives within them, in whatever distorted way they can. They do this because they are lost, and don’t understand their own true nature. If we all could see the reality of this Inner Light and how to release whatever obscures it, this world would be a very different place.

This Little Light of Mine

By understanding this one Light behind all emotion, and this one motivation behind all behaviors, it’s possible to better understand ourselves and others. Even more importantly, by realizing that we don’t need externalities to set our intrinsic joyful consciousness free, we can learn to shine more and more brightly, regardless of circumstances. We can shine for others like beacons of Inner Light, to remind them of what they are, and as one of my favorite teachers Ram Dass says, we can walk each other Home.


This article was first published on Medium.com