Emotions tend to rise up and wash over us like a wave in the ocean, taking us temporarily out of control. If you know how to swim or float around in the ocean, we can maintain our composure when a wave hits, knowing it will soon subside, leaving us again in calm water. And if we see a wave coming, we can duck down so we don’t get knocked over.
But the first time I swam in the ocean, as a teenager, I didn’t know about waves. The only swimming I had done was in lakes, small ones, with no waves. So I was happily bobbing about when the next thing I knew I was zooming face first toward the ankles of someone standing near the shore, discovering by direct experience the physics of ocean swimming (or not swimming).
Emotions are similar in that they can hit suddenly and without warning, sweeping our thoughts and feelings in an entirely different direction than they had been heading a moment before. But, as with ocean swimming, we can learn to navigate this temporary hijacking of our mind, anchoring safely in deeper water until the storm is over.
By this I mean to stop our thinking. We must stop our thinking like we stop our swimming, because to struggle against the riptide will not end well. Thinking, as well as speaking or acting, while in the grip of anger or fear, will only create more difficulty.
A wave of negative emotion is a neurochemical event that distorts perception and impairs reason. As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Affective (emotional) system overrides the Cognitive system. Our brain prioritizes fear and anger because they have protective value, they are more important for our survival than thinking.
If we can learn not to think or act until the wave of negative emotion passes we will spare ourselves and those closest to us much suffering, because what arises from fear and anger is never kind or just or helpful. Like the view from under a wave, we cannot see anything clearly.