Emotion is powerful. It’s transformative. But all-too-often, it feels beyond our control. We observe something wanted or unwanted. We have a positive or negative interaction. The experience or interaction elicits an emotional response. Like leaves in the wind, we move along life’s path in a seemingly random emotional pattern, subject to unseen forces beyond our control. Whether it’s a gentle breeze, a random updraft, a howling gale or that maddening swirling cycle when we hit a wall, emotion feels like something that happens to us, not for us. In truth, we have far more control than we think. In fact, we have the ability to transform any emotion to our benefit. I call this process “emotional alchemy”.
The study of alchemy originated in ancient Egypt as a means of purifying, maturing, and perfecting certain materials. Medieval alchemists attempted to transmute seemingly worthless metals into gold. In a mysterious blending of astrology, philosophy and earth-science, these individuals dedicated their entire lives to the task of controlling physical elements in nature. Though ancient alchemists achieved limited success in their ultimate quest, their pursuits contributed to the branch of science now known as chemistry.
Like the physical study of alchemy, emotional alchemy deals with transformation. Emotional alchemy is the ability to conjure positive energy seemingly out of thin air. I say “seemingly” because the positive energy doesn’t magically appear. The energy was there all along, disguised as something negative. This is the primary law of emotional alchemy: “All emotion is actually love in disguise”.
Though I just recently became aware of this law, the seeds were planted nearly fifteen years ago by my dear friend, Bridget. Bridget is a physical therapist who spent years studying the healing arts. I had been having strange dreams and reached out to Bridget for help.
At the time, my three children were under five years old and I felt overwhelmed with the responsibility of keeping them safe. My husband travelled a lot, so I was often home alone with the kids for weeks at a time. I told Bridget about recurring dreams where animals seemed to threaten me or the children. A lion charged us, stopping just short of devouring us. A wolf pack ran along side of us as the kids and I ran through the dark in terror. Sharks circled in the ocean depths as the kids and I treaded water. In every dream, I was acting in the face of paralyzing fear, trying to save the children. Bridget listened attentively and told me these dreams were very powerful because each animal is considered a strong protector. She encouraged me to interrupt the next dream by asking the animal what it wanted.
First of all, I didn’t even know a person could “interrupt” their dreams. I always thought dreams were out of my control. But the very next night, I had the dream of sharks. As in nights past, the sharks began to circle and the children were crying out to me in fear. The familiar terror gripped me. But I managed to ask a shark, “What do you want?” To my amazement, the shark stood up on its tail like a dolphin. I realized the sharks were there to protect me and my family. They were there to do my bidding. My fear was holding them back. As soon as I accepted their help, the sharks swam up next to the kids, letting the children ride their backs. They were still sharks. But they were powerful allies, not enemies.
Then I realized that each of the animals in my dreams had been there to protect, not destroy. The charging lion had been running to my aid. It stopped just in front of me, waiting for instruction. The wolf pack had been running along side me, not circling. They were powerful advocates, there to support me in raising three young children.
I realized that in this human form, I would not always be there to protect my children. But the spiritual animal protectors would care for them when I couldn’t. Having grown up in a traditional Christian belief system, I was wary of the concept of spirit animals. But I realized that spirit animals embody the character traits of angels. They are simply angels in animal form.
This was one of my first experiences with emotional alchemy. Fear blocked my ability to perceive these amazing allies. Bridget handed me a powerful tool in the form of the question, “What do you want?” Here’s where it gets interesting. The fear didn’t just dissolve. Like all energy, it doesn’t just disappear. The fear was transformed into a feeling of relief, gratitude and love that was equal in intensity to the experience of fear.
Whether the initial experience of the emotion is positive or negative, ALL emotion is love in disguise. Each of us is born with the ability to transmute emotion to its original state of love. When we experience a negative emotion, we simply need to discern the nature of the disguise.
As a teenager, I felt a happy buzz during that space between sleep and waking. But the happy buzz was replaced with an heavy, hopeless, empty feeling as my brain came on line and I fully awoke. Interpreting the feeling as “depression”, I dreaded that ache in the pit of my stomach and tried to push it away. But the more I pushed, the worse it got until finally, my only option was to roll out of bed to escape the growing sadness.
A few years ago, my teenage daughter was struggling with a similar experience. More than anything in the world, I wanted to help her and prayed for guidance. I laid in bed one morning in that blissful, expansive, empty space between sleep and waking, free from the tether of mental chatter. In that brief moment, I felt connected to God / source / my higher self. But as soon as my mind came on line, the blissful feeling was gone, replaced by that old familiar pit in my stomach that I’d interpreted as depression.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. In the span of a moment, the bliss I was feeling had been transformed to depression. The ROOT of the depression, the ORIGIN of the depression was bliss. What a powerful discovery! But how could I transform the depression back to bliss?
As I laid in bed, I chose to harness the power of the depression. Rather than trying to push it away, I identified where the depression was living in my body. In this case, it was in my stomach. I gathered it in. In my mind’s eye, I drew in more and more of the experience of depression, turning it into a tight ball in the pit of my stomach. I challenged the world to send me more, drawing in as much negative energy as I could, pressing it into a tight ball.
Then I gently took the ball from my stomach, holding it in my hands, observing it with wonder. It was a ball of glowing light. I shaped the ball into the form of a baby. I still recognized it as my own depression. But I gently and lovingly cradled the child, kissing her soft cheek, forehead and nose. I breathed in the fresh innocent scent of her sweet head. I nuzzled the skin on her soft neck. I kissed her little fingers and toes. In my mind’s eye, I gave her a bath, marveling over the miracle of her tiny arms, legs and back. Then I dried her in the softest, fluffiest towel, cradling her in my arms. Gazing into her eyes, I saw all the love and wisdom and wonder of the universe. As I cuddled the tiny child, her eyes closed and her little chest rose and fell with her dreaming breath.
The depression was gone. Bliss and love were restored. In that moment, I realized there was no such thing as a negative emotion. There is only love disguised by the illusion of separation. At any time, you can strip away the disguise in three steps:
- Identify the location of the emotion. Is it taking shape in your head, your chest, your stomach?
- Identify the nature of the emotion. There are two parts to this. First, identify the emotion itself using at least one adjective or a descriptive phrase. Is it self-righteous anger? Fear of poverty or loss? Pessimism from being continually disappointed? Second, assign an image to the emotion. Is it a specific breed of dog? A bird? What shape will that emotion take? If you don’t know, ask “Who are you?”
- In your mind’s eye, shape the emotion into that image or animal, then ask it what it wants. Allow the negative emotion to teach you the lesson you most need to hear. Fear of loss may reveal the need to trust. Pessimism and disappointment may reveal the need to love yourself. In each case, the animal / emotion shows you exactly what you need to do to live a richer, fuller, more loving life.
The sad fact of the matter is that some people will read this and continue to cling to their negative emotion like a blanket. Even though it’s painful, the negative emotion feels safe and familiar, a strangling vine deeply entwined with self-identity. At some point, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish the negative thought pattern from one’s own sense of self. The “good” in a person shrinks. They feel small, so they feel the need to make others feel small as well.
It’s never too late to start weeding out pessimism, fear, anxiety, guilt, greed, anger, self-righteousness and a host of other negative emotions. It takes time and effort. But the time and effort are a small price to pay for a life well-lived and well-loved. Ultimately, a life well-lived and well-loved is the reward for discovering the transformative power of emotional alchemy.