We are tuning forks; constantly responding to the lightest touch of an emotion from within or coming at us from someone else. How can we better attune to our vibrations and those around us, so that we don’t hit the sour notes?
Tuning our emotional intelligence is a tricky business. To start with, what does it even mean to be emotionally intelligent? There’s no metric that measures whether we’re there yet, though some have proposed them. What would there look like? You as a Zen monk on a mountaintop, except you are actually on your last nerve in the middle of a high energy urban environment, measuring in at 10 out of 10 on some EI scale?
I exaggerate. There are certainly signposts that indicate we’re on the right road toward a more robust emotional intelligence. As we develop the capacity to interact with our emotions in a more harmonious manner, this frees our energy, so we can live more purposefully—with intent, in alignment with our own core values and secure that our life has meaning.
Emotional intelligence is not about how well we manage or control our emotions or, worse, how well we use our intelligence to attempt to manage or control others’ emotions. The true value of emotional intelligence is not that we can deploy our intelligence to manipulate others or get what we want from them. We refine this aspect of our intelligence to develop resilience and compassion.
I prefer the words monitor and respond. Our emotions are like the weather. We can monitor them, just as we do the weather. But we can’t manage them, just as we can’t manage the weather. We can develop the skills to respond productively though. Instead of reacting to our emotions (Why, oh why is it raining inside me? Who did this to me?), as we deepen our understanding and relationship with our emotions, we can find the pause between our experience of an emotion and what we do with the emotion. The pause is where our response is built. It’s where we remember to grab our umbrella. Without it, there is only a snapback reaction, like letting go of a rubber band stretched to its limit. As we develop our skills and learn to identify what we need in any moment, given our emotional state, the pause between feeling and acting may become almost undetectably short. We don’t even remember grabbing the umbrella.
The act of pausing, no matter how brief, is what the mindfulness community calls presence. The pause is how we are present with our emotions—being aware of what is and being present with how we feel in the instant. When we are present with our feelings, Buddhists call this Moksha, which translates as liberation or emotional freedom. Emotional agility also captures the nuance.
So, how do we refine our skills?
There are myriad excellent mindfulness practices to nourish our emotional intelligence. But here’s the challenge: we cannot approach emotional intelligence using only our intellect. Nor is sitting in lotus, or however you sit for meditation, enough. Not even if you’re doing a body scan.
We have to include embodied mindfulness practices, too. We have to get into our bodies and really, truly practice the experience of feeling our emotions.
How do we do that? By practicing our Emotional Scales. We can’t improve our emotional intelligence until we practice feeling our feelings. And we can’t improve our empathy, without feeling our own feelings first.
Emotional Scales are a theater-based technique that we’ve adapted and expanded for non-actors at ImagiNation Playshops. Our scales are unique to us and combine a richly embodied guided portion, followed by a sharing and journaling process that supports the integration of what we’ve discovered with our body. While we can each run through our scales solo (and I’ll provide a roadmap for that below), the full depth and nuance is best experienced with facilitation.
Embodied Emotional Scales
- Choose a balanced array of emotions, split equally between positive and negative. The classic choices and order we recommend are: laughter, sadness, anger and joy.
- Find somewhere private, where you can make some noise.
- This practice works best on your feet, but is absolutely fine to do lying down or sitting down, in which I case I recommend doing it with eyes closed.
- Warm up with a brief body scan meditation and, if you’re doing the practice on your feet, some stretching, hopping, dancing, stamping—whatever vitalizes the flow of energy in your body.
- Begin with laughter. We start with this emotion because it cleanses our stress and anxiety and prepares us for more challenging work to come by opening our senses and relaxing our guard. Start at level 1 of laughter and over the course of a 5-10 minutes, move up the scale laughter to level 10. Level 1 might be an inner chuckle, a joke that only you know. Level 2 might be the brief expulsion of air as your eyes meet someone else’s and you share a silent joke. Level 3 expands the circle of the laughter. By level 10 your stomach hurts from laughing and tears are streaming. Be sure to pass through each level. Notice the nuance. Notice where laughter resides in your body at each level. Use your body to express the emotion and to keep the emotional energy flowing. For me laughter starts behind my cheekbones with a smile that’s not quite manifest, but by level 10 my whole body vibrates and I’m running around the room with arms and legs flailing.
- Once you’ve allowed yourself the full expression of level 10, let go of the effort to find the emotion in your body and let it flow. Let laughter rinse through you. Don’t try to push it away or repress it. Walk around a little or jump up and down. If you’re sitting or lying down, take deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Let the emotion move, but stop trying to laugh.
- Move on to sadness. Again, start at level 1 and over the course of 5-10 minutes, move up the scale of sadness to level 10. Level 1 might be as small as a wisp of nostalgia for something lost. Level 2 might be a sigh of regret; level 3, a longing. By level 10 you may well be sobbing, as you peer into the abyss of grief. As before, be sure to pass through each level. Notice the nuance. Notice where sadness resides in your body at each level. Again, use your body to express the emotion and to keep the emotional energy flowing.
- If, as you are doing the scales you don’t feel the emotion, imagine you are someone else experiencing the feelings and pretend. As you go through the motions, you will most likely discover the genuine feelings inside yourself. In either case, your brain learns from imagining something almost as well as it learns from doing, so you will still benefit from the scales.
- Once you’ve allowed yourself the full expression of level 10 sadness, again, let go of the effort to find the emotion in your body and let it flow. Let sadness rinse through you. Don’t try to push it away or repress it. Let the emotion move, but stop trying to cry.
- You will feel the presence of laughter alongside the sadness. Let them be together. Notice which one is stickier. Notice how they may leak into one another. Sadness may tip into laughter. A laugh can teeter into tears. Our emotions are unruly siblings with no boundaries, they tumble over one another.
- Move on to anger. Follow each of the steps above again. From the hint of frustration at level 1 to the white-hot rage of level 10, and everything in between. Notice the nuance. Notice where the emotion resides in your body. Then let it flow.
- Lastly, move on to joy. Following the same steps, move from the first prickling of a secret happiness through the jubilation and inner radiance of absolutely joy.
- As you finish, all the emotions will be swirling around you. For me, joy often tips into tears, as I remember impermanence. Allow the swirl, slosh around in the waters of your emotions. Let them rinse through you.
Integrating Emotional Scales
- After each practice, write a list of words describing each of levels 1-10 of every emotion. If you don’t have time to do it for all four emotions (completely understandable), pick one for the day. Maybe it’s the emotion that was hardest, or maybe the one that was easiest. As you practice, notice how the words change or increase in precision.
- Why do we do this? Because the process enables us to integrate our embodied experience, increases our emotional granularity (the breadth of nuance we understand about our emotional range, which is key to our intelligence) and refines our emotional intelligence. As neuroscientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett, writes in her Nautilus piece, “Emotional Intelligence Needs a Rewrite”: “The idea that you can increase your emotional intelligence by broadening your emotion vocabulary is solid neuroscience.”
- Here’s an example of my joy scale:
- Total peace and ease/inner radiance
- Journal about anything else that might be bubbling to the surface for you as a result of the work. As you deepen this practice, you may also want to note the ways in which you are integrating your new intelligence into your daily life.
The scales are most effective when someone is leading us through them live (and that’s the best way to learn them when we’re starting out), but we can do them on our own. Like scales on a musical instrument, or the fundamental positions and warm up for dance—they are one of the foundations upon which we build our emotional intelligence skills and they are the practice, which keeps us limber and accessible. Are the Emotional Scales easy? Nope. They demand our presence and participation. But they’re also fun and invigorating. Julia, my partner in ImagiNation Playshops, and I both feel like we learn something new each time we play with our scales. As much as we find them useful, we’ve been happily surprised by how much they resonate with others. Participants in our playshops say they feel integrated, calm, clean, energized, exquisite and tingly when they’ve finished their emotional scales.
According to Daniel Goleman, a leading thinker in the field of emotional intelligence, refining our emotional intelligence increases our self-awareness, self-motivation, empathy and relationships.
The Emotional Scales and other techniques to expand emotional intelligence are not a one and done effort. Emotional intelligence is a lifetime practice. Like eating healthy, staying physically active and cultivating intellectual curiosity; refining our emotional intelligence is way of life.
Incorporating these practices into our life is a choice to live an intentional, aligned and meaningful life.