Traditional psychotherapy and medicine have accepted the view that mental and physical health are merely the absence of mental and physical illness. However, following research conducted in the last couple of decades, this view is being overhauled as researchers have discovered that freeing a patient from anxiety leads them, not to being happy, but to just feeling empty.
Medical research is also discovering how large a role emotions play in maintaining good physical health. There is now a significant body of compelling evidence to demonstrate that good emotional health is strongly associated with cardiovascular health and protection from viruses.
Health is not just the absence of illness
Good psychological health is not just the absence of illness but also the presence of good feelings. These don’t just happen – they need to be trained just as you train your body for fitness and health.
I don’t like to use the terms positive and negative to describe emotions. While they are commonly used and there is even a discipline called positive psychology, to my mind, both physical and mental health exist on a spectrum and we all sit in different places within it. This often depends on our genes, interests and natural proclivities. Researchers have found, for example, that many personality traits and even debilitating emotional states are inherited.
I avoided playing sport at school but as I got older I took up exercise in a way that is fun and enjoyable. So on the spectrum for physical fitness I’m more in the middle, however, on the emotional health spectrum I’m thoroughly trained and in the higher end of the spectrum.
Emotional pain can be healthy
We don’t talk about being physically positive, we talk about being physically healthy. Similarly, I think it’s more helpful to talk about healthy emotions rather than positive ones. And in the same way that physical pain exists to warn you that you have stepped over a line or your system is getting out of balance, emotional pain exists for the same reason. Anger and sadness exist to protect you; they only become destructive when you become stuck.
The way we tend to treat emotional pain is the equivalent of falling over physically and then mulling over the pain instead of realising we have simply lost our balance. We understand that physical pain is the body’s way of letting us know this, and that we need to get up and regain our balance.
The same principle applies to emotional pain: when we lose our balance emotionally the solution is not to attempt to get rid of the emotion, but to regain our emotional balance, and then the pain will heal. When we learn how this works we become emotionally stronger and less afraid of painful emotions. So getting rid of painful emotions is not the solution for good emotional health, learning how to keep your emotional balance and strengthening healthy emotions is.
Where do emotions come from?
At the core of the meditation tradition is the understanding (which the psychologist Albert Ellis enunciated) that emotions don’t come from what happens to you (as we all assume) but from your thoughts about what has happened.
Just imagine if the building you are currently in caught fire. Some people would get out as quickly as possible, others would panic, others would call for help and yet others would begin helping everyone. Totally different responses to the same crisis.
Your mind is a sense organ
Becoming caught in thinking is what causes us to become stuck in an unhealthy emotional state. There’s a very good reason for this: you’ve got an amazing movie playing in your head all the time that forms your stream of consciousness. This is your mind. It has colour, light, sound, and you can smell, taste and feel, so all of your thoughts are sense experiences. This can be surprising until you realise that if you think of your closest friend you can see them clearly in your mind, hold conversations with them and feel warmth towards them.
And the incredible thing is that your body responds to this in exactly the same way as any other sensory experience. Your mind, then, is a sense organ, and your thoughts, and the emotions that arise from them, have a direct, physical effect on your body.
For your body, emotions are real physical experiences, so you can imagine the effect habitual emotional patterns have. The barrage of pain from the unhealthy emotions you become caught in can eventually wear down your body’s resistance. On the other hand, the pleasure and bliss that healthy emotions stimulate literally nourish your body.
This is exactly what meditation is for. It provides a versatile, proven, highly enjoyable tool kit which nourishes your body with healthy emotions. You can practise them in the same way you can practise physical exercises, until you can sustain them, no matter what life throws at you. And your body will thank you for providing it with such healthy and enjoyable emotional meals.