Transmutation – Working with Difficult Emotions
If you want to shrink something,
You must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
You must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
You must first allow it to be given.
This is called the subtle perception
Of the way things are.
- Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell translation)
This quote captures perfectly for me the essence of transmutation work, something I’ve been trying to do a lot of moving into this Solstice and New Year season. Transmutation energy work is when we work with our problematic emotions, or any energies or personal patterns we may have, in an embracing way, seeking to transform them rather than release them (or repress them, which is what all too often happens when we don’t face them at all.)
I say ‘problematic’ emotions a little hesitantly, because part of the idea is to break through our self-imposed judgments about what in ourselves is good and bad. Instead of approaching ourselves from the perspective of self-improvement – what needs to be fixed, what needs to be changed – we assume all that is within us has its own power and love, and that if we befriend every part – every cell of our being – we will ourselves come to full embody that power and love.
I live in an area with many wild peacocks – they are a daily part of my life actually. It is a strange thing, because I am in a suburban neighborhood, but long ago there was a farm in this area, and the owner imported peacocks. They thrived, and when the farm was shut down, he let them all loose, and they’ve become a trademark. As it turns out, in some Tibetan writings the peacock is the metaphor for transmutation work, because the peacock is said to be immune to toxins that kill other birds, and in fact, processes those toxins in such a way that results in its beautiful feathers. In other words, the peacock’s very beauty is a transformation of what might be considered poisonous by others.
I will tell you from personal experience that peacocks are not sweet birds. The dogs in this area – even very large ones – quickly learn to stay away from them. And that is really a perfect metaphor for true transmutation work, because you do have to be brave. You have to be willing to face yourself, on all levels. It takes a ruthless level of self-honesty. It also takes a healthy does of self-love. You have to let go of conditioned beliefs that tell you that you, or at least some parts of you, are no good.
This judgment-based conditioning typically goes deep, and infuses so many aspects of schooling, religion, society, and even self-help thinking that it is sometimes hard to see. For many of us self-judgment and self-critique is actually easier than transmutation, and when we embark on a spiritual path, we unconsciously fall into old patterns of self-berating (“Yes, sure, we are all Light, we are all Source…except for this one tiny little part of me that I will keep hidden from everyone including myself so that no one finds out I’m fake.”)
In transmutation work, we open up that little box inside of us that we want to keep hidden and invite whatever is in there to come out to play. Rage, fear, unworthiness, self-hatred, contempt, despair, hopelessness – whatever it is you usually seek to keep at bay, you sit down with the intent to engage with it. Not release it, or indulge in it, but engage with it. As you engage, you seek to truly understand this part of you, what it needs, why it is with you, and then to find that within it which actually serves you – that within it that is powerful and loving and actually part of Source, rather than being a block to it.
For example, if we are working with anger, we will sit with that anger, seek to let go of the ‘story’ of that anger – how it came to be, how it is justified, what we should do about it – but at the same time keep and own the incredible force behind the anger- the strength that is there. Anger has passion and intensity to it, and those are things we need. We don’t want to push our anger away entirely, because we may end up repressing all our passion and intensity. What we want to do is own our strength, and develop a relationship with our anger that allows us to express it in constructive ways, rather than repress it or act out on it in destructive ways.
Fear is another great example (and for those of you that did the Healing Subtle Body Wounds of Sexual Trauma E-book, the Transforming Anger and Fear exercise on Day 4 is a variation on this work.) If we engage with our fear, we often discover a great empathy at the root of our fear – an acute sensitivity to pain that actually feeds our fear, but can also feed our compassion if we open to it. Engaging with fear allows an opening to vulnerability, and vulnerability is at the heart of compassion, and of love.
In these examples I’ve mapped anger to strength and fear to compassion. But there are many different mappings of what ‘positive’ energies might lie underneath our ‘negative’ ones – what gems we might find in our own rough (and of course I put positive and negative in quotes because we are trying to work beyond all that judgement, right?) I don’t want to put one of those lists here though, because then it’s too easy to mimic the process – to try and skip the actual engagement part and jump straight to owning whatever positive trait you’ve been told you are supposed to find. We are each 100% unique, and what we will discover hidden within ourselves is too. Let it unfold.
There are a lot of different models for this kind of work, coming from various traditions – spiritual, energy healing, occult, and psychological. I think 3 basic steps that can serve as the foundation for anyone to begin to work this way are selection, exploration, and engagement:
- Select a memory that represents the pattern or emotion you would like to work with – this is usually a situation that triggered it. Remember just enough to trigger the feeling without going into the ‘story’ of it – without getting involved in rewriting it or hashing it over and over in your mind. Try and sit with the feeling itself, without moving away from it. Sit in the energy.
- Now explore it. A good place to start with this is to explore where you feel it in your body – can you locate it? Then think about how you might describe it – what does it look like? Does it have color and shape? Is it more abstract and if so, how would you describe it? Does it remind you of anything? Go into it – does it have layers? What do you feel underneath it? Sometimes fear is under anger, anger is under despair and so on.
- Now engage with it. What does it want from you? Where did it come from? How do you need it – how are you attached to it? How does it feel when you push it away? Now how does it feel if you invite it fully to be a part of you? Can you befriend it? Are there parts of it you can see that you want to own more fully? Can you work with it, rather than hiding it?
You might do this in a sitting, or more piecemeal over days, weeks or months. If you let go of the idea that something definitive is going to happen, often what occurs is that at some point you realize your relationship with this energy has shifted. A transmutation has occurred. Sometimes this happens in an epiphany fashion, but often it doesn’t. Often it is a quiet shift. But once it has occurred, there is a newfound freedom, and a newfound power, because you don’t have to put so much energy into hiding a part of yourself. And often you have found a new power underneath the difficulty – as in the anger and fear examples above – to draw upon.
This kind of work is really endless. We are never ‘done’. We each have inside us all the shadows of the world, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. It is the human journey. But it’s also important not to only do this kind of work, because we can become trapped in it, not wanting to move back into the light. It’s also not the kind of work you want to do when you are in the midst of a crises or trauma, when you need to simply let yourself feel whatever it is you feel. It is really perfect for transitional phases of your life – phases like many of us are experiencing now, as we move into a New Year.
Although I wanted to keep this post general, one book I highly recommend that explores transmutation in an accessible but fully empowered Tibetan-based practice is Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict by Lama Tsultrim Allione. Some call this work Buddhist, come call it Jungian, but whatever you call it in essence you actually seek to befriend your demons, and transform them into allies.
I’d love to hear your experiences with practices such as this, or any other thoughts, questions, or comments. Namaste-