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Transmutation – Working with Difficult Emotions

December 7, 2011

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-

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Sara permalink
    December 7, 2011 2:10 am

    I just wanted to tell you how much your work has really been empowering me! I stumbled upon your website and ever since I did, your writings seem to mirror exactly what I am going through! 🙂 Thank you so much for following your intuition and using it to serve us, it is much appreciated! Also, thanks for the great book recommendations, I am taking notes! haha! Love, Sara

  2. December 7, 2011 2:47 am

    Did you get a book deal and you’re just not telling us? This is powerful writing, Lisa, very ‘bookish’. I can imagine being in a workshop where someone is encouraging us and helping us to work through these three steps. Are you teaching this anywhere? And the peacocks! Do you live in a neighborhood or out in the open? Don’t you have homes in LA and Utah? Where are the peacocks? I can’t imagine peacocks roaming wild. I’ve only seen them attached to zoos and gardens.

    I’m sure I’m full of squashed emotions. Ignoring them is so much easier than exploring and engaging them. Something in me does not want to work very hard anymore. I just want life to be simple and easy. If I could figure out how to use Pinterest, I would pin this post there to share and save for future reference. Sometimes we need an effective way to calm down. You’re so good.

  3. December 7, 2011 4:38 am

    Sara, thanks so much for the positive feedback. I am glad you are finding it relevant! I think it tends to happen that way – we get drawn towards teachings and fellow seekers that are going through similar things. So for me this blog is a wonderful way to connect with like-minded individuals a well:-) I hope you will consider sharing some of your experiences or insights in comments here…

  4. December 7, 2011 4:55 am

    Brenda, thanks so much, I’m glad you find it helpful. No, I don’t have a book deal, but I haven’t tried that hard yet. I did put a proposal out on Women’s Energetics, and got some good feedback, but it needs some refinement, and the timing doesn’t feel quite right yet. It, and I, need to ‘mature’ a little more, and there is no rush (and you know, I need to pace myself with the age of my kids, etc.) But I did decide to write more here from my ‘teaching’ aspect – I do teach material such as this in my own classes and workshops, and so I am sharing more of that here.

    You know, you have never struck me as very ‘squashed’ at all. You have always struck me as very open, expressive and passionate. That’s why I have always loved your posts! But of course we all have things we tuck away. Until we are really ready to dive into the light, they aren’t an issue. But once we’re ready to really open to Source, we have to unpack them. If there’s anything in there, I’m sure you can handle it!

    And the peacocks are in the LA suburb. They are apparently quite hardy birds, as long as they are in warm weather. They wreak havoc on everyone’s gardens though:-)

  5. December 7, 2011 10:21 am

    Excellent as always.

    I have tended towards releasing, which I don’t think is incorrect as such. But there was a bit of a sticking point in my own work with Shadows, and that was that it wasn’t really about healing them or releasing them – because, unlike an unhelpful thought for example, Shadows/Demons are a part of us.
    I knew it in my gut but didn’t have the words for it, and people seemed to understand ‘healing’, But after reading that book, it clicked, it was like a final piece of a puzzle. And I did a very beneficial exercise of feeding an external demon.

    Repressing uncomfortable emotions is so wide-spread (and I blame in large part the new-age concept of positive-thinking) that posts like these are essential. Thanks Lisa!

  6. December 7, 2011 6:52 pm

    Thanks Mon. I actually thought of linking to your Shadow posts, but the post was getting too long and I didn’t want to try and explain the idea of Shadows (for anyone reading this, check them out here – – maybe you would consider a guest post here sometime??

    I also don’t think releasing is incorrect, with most things it is what I do. For example, despite working a lot on boundaries I still pick up a lot of energies from around me and so releasing that is the best thing to do, since it’s not mine. And I think releasing thoughts/patterns related to conditioned patterns, etc. works well. But then there are these other kinds of things that it doesn’t quite work that well with, as you know. I found it was difficult to describe when to use one vs. the other, it’s a very intuitive personal thing, I suppose.

    And you know I agree with you on the problems with over-emphasizing positive thinking – the kind of repression it can lead to. I had a paragraph venting a bit on this, but decided to take it out, was getting too long…xoxo

  7. Melissa permalink
    December 9, 2011 3:28 pm

    Hi Lisa, I’m glad you wrote about this because that step in the ebook process was the hardest for me to connect with. I feel like I have a lot of anger to work through but when I bring it up I don’t feel like I am releasing it or transforming it. It just feels like I am dredging it up and kind of stuck in it, and I act out on it at times during the day. I’m not really sure what to do with it at this point. Any suggestions? Thank you – Melissa

  8. December 9, 2011 5:07 pm

    Hi Melissa, I have had this experience also, and my first answer is to say some things take time to release and/or transmute (and really there is a bit of both going on in this process, although I talked about release and transmuting here as if they are distinct approaches…the difference is more in the intent…) But you do want to be sure that you are actually bringing anger to the surface that has been repressed, not simply forcing yourself into an angry state of mind in a kind of simulation. I find it’s easy to lapse into the latter because we live in a world where there is a lot of angry energy around. So depending on your life circumstances, especially if you are around a lot of irritation in your daily life (tension at work or home, frustrating commute, anything like that) you want to make sure you aren’t simply picking up a lot of anger from people around you. I say this because when we do that it does have this feeling of not being able to work with it because it’s not our anger. That kind of energy/anger from the outside you do want to release through whatever means work for you (exercise, time in nature, time in/by water – just some examples.)

    Assuming you feel you are definitely dealing with your own anger which you have brought to the surface, then give it a bit of time. If it has been with you for a long time and pushed down in some way, you may not be quite ready to let go of it and/or work with it. Look at your response to the anger itself, and try to work from a place of acceptance at first (i.e. don’t skip the first couple of steps here.) See what unfolds, especially over the solstice/new years transit. Not feeling you have to rush it may allow for a quiet shift to occur. Also don’t feel you have to exclusively focus on transmuting this anger. Do other spiritual practices or energy work. You can still connect with joy and peace, even while connecting with this anger. Let it all co-exist, so that you don’t feel you have to hold yourself in anger in order to work through it energetically.

    I know that is very abstract, not sure if it helped or not. You can check out the book I mentioned or I can suggest some others also, if you don’t already have a more in-depth method you are working with. Feel free to email me also…Thanks for writing. Namaste- Lisa

  9. December 10, 2011 12:52 pm

    “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.” Yes, yes, yes! I have definitely done this in my life.

    Yes, yes, yes! I feel that it’s important to be able to be and acknowledge those difficult emotions. I find that when these feelings are acknowledged, when we can really BE with them, they can shift easily and effortlessly, and we can discover the gifts that are underneath these emotions. When these emotions are suppressed and hidden, they are there anyway, and wanting our attention (and often wrecking havoc with our lives in the process). I sometimes use this process in my yoga classes and often in my healing work, and of course, with myself.

    To be able to be with whatever is. And it changes from moment to moment if we allow these feelings to move through us.

  10. December 11, 2011 12:36 am

    Thank you Janice, beautifully said!

  11. December 19, 2011 8:15 am

    This is really quite something Lisa. Such a good post. I have worked with uncomfortable emotions in terms of letting them arise, sitting with them – feeling not suppressing them – the concept of non-attachment. But this idea of transmutation takes that further. The idea of exploring and engaging with these emotions, rather than just seeking to release them is really profound to me. It actually puts me in mind of certain nightmares I’ve had, (bear with me…hehe), where I’ve been pursued by frightening, enraged creatures, but whenever I have turned to face them and ask them what they are/what they want, they have been transformed yet not diminished…iykwim? I know it’s a clunky analogy, but certainly one that puts me in mind of the peace of mind liberation from fear that can be experienced as a result of working with these darker, more troubled or troubling aspects of ourselves and our emotions. A deeper acceptance perhaps?

    Oh! And I had NO idea about peacocks! That’s completely fascinating! And yes – a perfect symbol for transmutation in the light of those facts.

  12. December 19, 2011 7:04 pm

    Antoinette, that is some cool dreaming! That is EXACTLY like what happens in the Feeding Your Demons process, based on the Tibetan Chod practice. You literally visualize a particular energy etc. as a demon (or invite/allow it to prevent itself that way) and engage with it, feed it even from your own body, and in the process it is transformed…perhaps you have a deep connection to that lineage somehow…and yes, I am now very into peacocks, we need a new mailbox and I have decided on a peacock mosaic desgin! xo – Lisa


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