Emotions have historically been a weak point for me. My intellect is agile and (thanks to years of rigorous training at both IMSA and Olin) I'm no longer afraid of tackling complex problems; I know my mind is agile enough to deal with whatever comes up, so I can dive in and be confident that I'll always be able to roll with whatever punches may come up. Not so with emotions - or with physicality. I'd compare my emotional ability to my dancing ability when I first really started trying to learn swing and blues maybe 4 or 5 years ago. It was scary and unknown to me - I didn't know my body very well, I didn't know how it might respond to pushes and pulls from a lead, so I compensated by applying intellect. A dance therefore looked something like this:

  1. Sensors scanning! What is partner doing?
  2. Oh. I see he's moving his hand forward. Okay, what does that mean?
  3. Calculating...
  4. Calculating...
  5. Ah, yes. I'll step backwards now. Stepping!
  6. Wait, now he's doing something else. What? But... but... gah! Okay, back to step 1.

The problem was that cognitive processing - the time it took for me to step back, calculate and analyze a "safe" reaction, then do it - took too long. By the time I reacted, I was reacting (1) late and (2) to some sort of generically abstracted version of what I thought my lead was doing, not the actual subtleness of the physical motion he'd initiated. Dancing felt disconnected, jerky, stiff... like my body was a robot decoupled from any sort of living, reactive control center. Responding spontaneously scared me, because I didn't know what would happen, whether I could handle it, how to develop that control... it was like showing up for your first driving lesson and being told to get from one end of Manhattan to the other during rush hour with a car that accelerated 0 to 100 in 30 seconds. You alternate between timidly inching forward and just sitting motionless and petrified behind the steering wheel.

Anyway. Intellect was my strong point, so I solved the dancing problem using it; I learned about dynamics, read about force-based ("I feel a push, that's probably the table, let me stop pressing down") rather than position-based ("I was told the table was at this position, so I will move the- gaaah my arm won't move more, table's higher than I thought, mmgnnghh!") control systems, watched videos of bipedal walking robots (it helped that my college advisor was doing research with a number of my close friends on series elastic actuators and their use in walking robots), and had my engineering friends who were also dancers give me feedback such as "raise the spring constant of your right elbow."

The intellect alone didn't solve the problem. I had to dance. A lot. Awkwardly. Painfully. With many mistakes. What the intellectual side of things did was to reassure me - in a way I could prove for myself, and thus believe - that letting go of certain physical boundaries was okay. That nothing, really, could happen. That the strength of the average 20-year-old's joints, the speed at which I could react, etc. would keep me safe. And then I started pushing boundaries, knowing that I could always back out, stop, scale down... that I was safe.

I've been working on a similar thing with emotions, but had a hard time finding appropriate readings - all the books I came across were either clinical and dry and didn't bridge intellect into emotion, or came from fuzzy unicorn rainbow hand-wavy places that talked about "just feeling things" I couldn't feel. So I was psyched when I discovered a book at my local library titled Emotional Awareness - co-authored by the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman. The Dalai Lama is pretty self-explanatory; Ekman is a master psychology professor and researcher whose rock-solid, hard-science research on emotions - he deals with measurable factors, like muscle response, heart rate, reaction time - I've long admired.

Some notes, below.

The relationship between emotions and moods. Emotions are transient, fleeting things in response to immediate events. They're high-frequency signals. Moods are low-frequency; they're mental states that persist, and the mood you're in makes it easier for some emotions than others to be triggered - it's almost like they "tilt" the playing field. Emotions can cause moods, too - if you experience the same emotion quite intensely multiple times in rapid succession, it's likely going to put you in a certain mood. And tiredness has interesting effects on both...

Ekman: On the issue of sleep deprivation... whatever emotion is aroused sets the mood when a person has been sleep-deprived. When people get off an airplane, they ought to hear beautiful music and people telling jokes to put them in a wonderful mood, rather than have them become frustrated that their luggage has not come. You do not want to frustrate people, you want to delight them when they haven't had much sleep.

Based on this, I'll try to put happy things in my way when I know I'm going to be tired on a certain day, so that will set my mood - and when I have to wake a tired person, I'll try to do it in a happy way, because the effect of moods persist and color the rest of one's day.

On the importance of having a rich vocabulary to express subtle things. One repeated theme that came up was the inadequacy of the English language in describing emotions - the Dalai Lama was constantly explaining how an English word (for instance, "anger") actually translated into multiple Tibetian words, each with a different shade of meaning... and I do feel like when I try to verbally describe emotions in English, I'm coloring with a box of crayons that only has primary colors. I need to stipple those colors together in complicated ways to get any sort of real meaning out there, otherwise it comes out cartoonish. Need more vocabulary! One of my favorite examples was the breakdown of the English word "pride" - which can mean many things, positive and negative - for instance, pride as in "pride goeth before a fall," which is clearly negative... but on the other hand, pride in the sense of the Yiddish word naches, which is the feeling that a parent or teacher has when their child or student accomplishes something - it's a very different sort of pride, a noncompetitive and non-self-centered one. I'm not sure where to find more of these feeling-words, but I'll be looking for them.

On awareness and pre-warnings. Ekman described the way he and his wife prepared for difficult discussions.

Ekman: We have the practice of saying to the other person, "I have something controversial I want to discuss with you." Then the other person can first do a mental scan and might say "Now is not a good time. Let's do that tomorrow" - but we rarely do that. Instead, if she says that to me, I then "set" myself: I focus on mny mental state, both to calm myself and to try to be certain that I will not respond impulsively. I have been warned; I know that what she is going to tell me about is something she thinks is going to be very difficult for me to deal with... by being warned ahead of time, I am able to focus all my consciousness on responding constructively... if you anticipate "i am going into a difficult situation," even if you are not someone who is self-monitoring all the time, you can use what capability you have in those moments."

Dalai Lama: ...the emotion no longer stays at the level of spontaneous experience; but additionally, there is the dimension of intelligence, memory, and thought processes... in differentiating the actual sequence of experience. When you are warned ahead, you prepare.

Ekman: You can use all of your intelligence.

Basically, accept that maybe you won't be able to be aware of everything all the time, but also know that you can choose where to use your awareness - if it's limited, you can choose where to deploy those resources - and that you might want to consider deploying them at the most difficult times, when you need them. I used to be sadly inconsistent about sleeping well and eating breakfast - I knew it was good for me, I just didn't do it all the time - but I made sure that on days when I had a difficult exam coming up, or a major presentation, or something of the sort, that I slept well and ate breakfast on that day. Focused application is better than nothing.

On dealing with difficult things. The Dalai Lama explained the Buddhist thinking about dealing with "afflictions," things you know have a tendency to trigger you into states you'd rather avoid. There are multiple levels or stages in dealing with these things, and it's okay - even expected - to not jump into the last perfect one right away. For instance, if I know that being in messy environments makes me stressed and prone to outbursts of frustration, I have a couple choices, each in ascending difficulty of how much awareness I must have - and how much energy I'm likely to have to expend, at least at first.

  1. Avoid it. Don't put yourself in a situation where you'll be exposed to the trigger. The former video game addict who never enters an arcade again, the recovered alcoholic who won't go to a bar or party, my refusal to step into a messy room. It works, but sometimes this ends up limiting your life somewhat - will I refuse to visit my brother because he rarely cleans his apartment? (He's gotten better at this, for the record, but... still.)
  2. Don't avoid the triggers, but don't respond to them at all. Walk into a messy room, concentrate on breathing, don't bring up the memory of past emotional experiences. Go to a party, but don't drink and don't be emotionally affected by the pitcher of beer passing around the table. These are rough sketches and pretty bad examples compared to the subtlety Ekman and the Dalai Lama sketched out in the full book, but you get the idea. I often get stuck here - I move freely through much of life, but like a heavily armored soldier, everything - both good and bad - bouncing off my shell, showing nothing beyond excitement.
  3. Respond to the triggers in a positive manner. Now you're not avoiding the situation, you're stopping the negative thoughts, and you're starting up positive ones. This is hard.

On practice and emotional gymnasiums. Both men agreed that the key to improvement was deliberate practice - why not have emotional gymnasiums, the same way we have mental gymnasiums (schools) for the intellect and physical gymnasiums for the body? Design exercises (biofeedback, etc) to improve awareness of your environment and your internal state as measured by bodily conditions such as heart rate and respiration. Put yourself in challenging situations and plan out a good emotional response, then execute it, practice it again and again. We can think about deliberately increasing our emotional awareness in the same way we think about other sorts of training, and we should.

It's hard. But it does get a little easier with practice, I'm finding. And it's starting to be noticeable - when my mom visited, she commented that I'd become much less of a robot in the past year - my dad made a similar remark at Christmas - so I think that means it's showing. I'm not sure if this will ever be measurable in the same way, say, muscular strength will be, or mental computation time, but I'd like to continue finding concrete things to improve in the emotional domain, because it seems to make me feel more like a person, more like a Mel rather than a robot.

Mm, life - it's fascinating stuff, this "being alive" business. I like it.