Emotional Self-Mastery, Part 4: Sublimation5 min read

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The final skill of emotional self-mastery is sublimation, which is the art of transforming or redirecting our emotions. Here, instead of undoing or releasing difficult emotions, we channel them into more positive expressions.

Our emotions contain, in themselves, a lot of energy. They naturally move us to action, and consume much of our attention. They catalyze our focus. So what if, instead of wanting to get rid of negative emotions, we are able to elevate them into something constructive? What if, instead of pacifying our wild horses, we learned to ride them?

Mindful Self-Discipline is about living life aligned with our values—and this includes the way we navigate our inner world. Sometimes the most aligned thing to do is to dissolve a certain emotional state, such as anger or fear. At other times, a better result is achieved by redirecting that emotion in a way that helps us take positive action.

The advantage of this latter approach is that we make use of the raw energy of the emotion, which otherwise would be wasted. The disadvantage is that it is often much more challenging than letting the emotion pass. You are playing with fire, and that requires some skill.

Approach #1: External Expression

Imagine that you are being consumed by anger, resentment, shame, or envy. One way to sublimate these energies is to redirect them into another channel.

  • Creative Channels. You could express your emotion of anger, for example, through painting, drawing, sculpting, music, poetry, dancing, or writing. Indeed, this is how many great works of art are born. It is a powerful shift, because now you are not being used by your emotion, but you are using it for something purposeful. Instead of just feeling frustrated, you dance your frustration or express it through your music—in a controlled and cathartic way.
  • Crafts and Making. The repetitive nature of activities such as carpentry, knitting, cooking, or gardening can be calming and therapeutic, while the creation of something tangible can be rewarding. It is a way to give yourself the space to process that emotion in the background, while you keep your monkey mind grounded in an external and non-cognitive task.
  • Intellectual Channels. You could use the available emotional energy to solve a particular challenge, or to figure out what needs to happen next in your life. Your negative emotion is telling you that there is something you need to look at—and it won’t rest until you do that. Maybe you need to take some action, arrive at some new insight, learn to let go, help somebody, or make some behavior changes. Your emotion, rightly channeled, can provide great fuel for change.
  • Physical Channels. You can use your emotion of anger, anxiety, fear, disgust, etc., as fuel for exercise and sports. Physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters that can combat stress and negative emotions. Depending on your personality and the nature of your emotion, you may prefer something softer like yoga, hiking, or tai-chi, or something more intense such as martial arts, rock climbing, weightlifting, or competitive sports.
  • Goal Pursuit. Sometimes your painful emotions are the motivation you need to pursue certain goals, or embrace a cause. They could be pointing the way of your aspirations. If, instead of following their lead, you learn how to dissipate those emotions or distract yourself away from them, much would be lost! Instead, let them move you to action toward meaningful goals.

These are all possible healthy outlets for your emotional energy. Experiment with different techniques and find what works best for you.

Approach #2: Inner Alchemy

This second approach is much subtler, and harder to explain. It comes from the spiritual traditions of the East, and involves approaching your emotion as a form of energy. Instead of getting rid of a negative emotion, you “purify” it. This will only make sense to those who are more “well versed” in navigating their inner world.

Suppose you want to sublimate anger. Perhaps you are angry at somebody who hurt you, or at something that is not fair, or maybe you are angry at yourself. In this approach, you need to first purify that emotion, then you redirect it or transcend it.

Purifying the emotion. Leave aside all the stories around the emotion—all the thoughts and the “context” for it. Forget about what it means, what triggered it, and what you want to do with it. Release any resistance to it, and also any impulsivity about acting it out. Get to a state where there is only the raw emotion, with no object and no meaning attached to it. It’s a bit like watching a movie in a language you don’t understand, and without subtitles; you can sense what’s happening, but there are no words attached to it.

Expanding the emotion. Once you have got to this point where the emotion is just pure “energy” or vibration, then invite it to expand. Allow or tease that emotion to grow into its most intense form—beyond what you thought was possible. As you do that, stay grounded in your body. Hold tight to the state of being the witness of the emotion, and keep it “object-less”.

Freeing the emotion. If you have arrived at this point, you are free from the grip of the emotion—even though it may still be there, and in a very intense form. Now you have two options:

  • Go inside the emotion and direct that energy to something useful for you
  • Look at the essential emptiness of that emotion, and rest as the unaffected witness

This is the process. It is, no doubt, is easier said then done. With regular training in meditation, though, it becomes possible. It requires both clarity and stability of awareness.

Once you learn how to do this, you can sublimate negative emotions into their highest expressions. What do the raw emotions sublimate into? Here are some findings from my study and subjective experience with this:

  • Anger → determination, motivation, purpose
  • Pain → passion, non-attachment, freedom
  • Anxiety → action, alertness, aliveness
  • Lust → bliss, creativity, connection
  • Envy → motivation
  • Sadness → contentment, gratitude
  • Fear → courage

This list is shared only to inspire you as to the possibilities. Your experience transforming each of these emotions will be uniquely yours.

To develop some of the awareness skills needed to go through this inner alchemy, you may benefit from my guided meditations on Zazen and Inner Silence, on the Mindful Self-Discipline app.

Closing

This concludes this four-part series on emotional self-mastery. You learned how to develop awareness around your emotions and other aspects of your inner world, how to regulate difficult emotions, how create positive states, and how sublimate negative emotions.

Emotional self-mastery is an important aspect of training your Higher Mind. The more you cultivate it, the easier it is to live your life aligned with your aspirations.

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