Emotions, Karma, and Freewill

by Alan McAllister, CCHt PhD-phys published in Shakti Yogi Journal

Meadow Sunset

Choices in the Afternoon

Bright summer afternoon sun filtered onto the expansive wooden porch, shaded by the dense green of large maples. The humid east coast air was heavy with the drone of cicadas. As my brother and I argued, old anger bubbled up in me, feeling fresh. We had been told to stay here until my parents were ready to leave, denied entry into the house so as not to disturb my grandmother with our noise. He retreated into the windowed vestibule and I, having had enough, thrust out my hand to slam the door and walk away. Heavy glass shattered as my open hand punched through the already closed door. Instinctively I pulled my hand back and clamped it to my thigh. As hot dampness seeped through my jeans, I knew that my burst of anger had done more than shatter the glass.

To this day I bare the scar. A small portion of my right thumb was cut off, necessitating a skin graft later that afternoon. At some level I choose not to strike at my brother. It was not a conscious decision, rather the result of previous training. Past life experience, present life upbringing, and perhaps some amount of conscious childhood thought had led to a general reluctance to use physical violence. The impulse to slam the door was equally rooted in my unconscious emotional being. My action was an attempt to release or express anger that had arisen for reasons that I have long since forgotten, and may not have consciously recognized even then. I am glad that I didn’t hit my brother and yet the choice to slam that door had its own consequences. In the heat of the afternoon neither decision was rational or conscious.

My scar has served to remind me of the power of hands to heal, over their potential for destruction. The healing hands that performed a delicate surgery, or my own hands which now serve to channel healing energies for family and clients. Through my life I have consciously cultivated this choice, to be able to pause when anger arises, to release old programming to strike either persons or things. Eventually I am learning to catch the anger as it arises and sit with it so that it can simply release and transform. Releasing the old emotional energies in a safe way, I become spacious for my Self and able to move healing energies through me instead.

Karma and Freewill

As we learn to recognize our emotions, to be able to sit with them before acting we cultivate the freewill to choose our actions and our story first.1 Then we can align the power of our emotions behind those choices. In this way we become free of the karmic wheel of action and reaction. This is how we live from the passion of our soul rather than the fires of old wounds and personal desires. Change and transformation are only accessible to the extent that we know how to be present in the moment free of the dictates of the past, able to stand in the unknown.

As social beings it is important to reflect on the way our internal emotional programming can be affected by what is going on around us. As long as we have embedded emotions and old stories, they not only hinder our personal freewill, but are accessible to others who want to control us. A process which happens individually and also collectively. This election season it will be helpful to remember this. What is at stake is not just our ability to choose free from our past conditioning, but to be unaffected by external stimuli that are meant to engage our remaining emotional patterns. When our fear or anger is stirred our ability to think or choose consciously is diminished.

The Brain, Emotions and Freewill

Recent advances in technology have allowed increasingly detailed studies of the how the brain works.2 The brain is the physical embodiment of the mind, at least large portions of it. That the mind is something more than a product of the brain, is shown by the brain’s plasticity.3 When one section is damaged often other sections can transform to take over the missing functions. People unconscious under anesthesia, from head trauma, or illness, can remember what happened around them at times when brain function was minimal, also implying that the mind is more than the brain. The brain, however, is what researchers can image, and their research is increasingly corroborating the meditative experience of yogis throughout the millennia.

Researchers have shown that decisions to act are initiated unconsciously before surfacing into consciousness.4 In dire emergencies the brain is even capable of rerouting its usual pathways, acting before any conscious thought has had time to take place. None of this would be possible without prior experience. So while there is still much disagreement about what the term “freewill” means in the context of the human brain, it is clear that much of what we do day to day is based on old patterns laid down by prior experience. These patterns can change and evolve, we do learn; but mostly after the fact, rather than in the moment. In the moment, especially when the patterning is old or emotionally charged we actually have little chance to pause and freely decide what we are going to do. Mostly we react.

The bio-chemistry of thought is essentially the same as that of emotions. All thoughts have an emotional charge or weight to them.5 This is how we make most of our decisions, how the brain sorts through various options. This is how we know what to pay attention to, what is important to us for basic needs. The brain mechanisms that handle all this can also be distorted by trauma, when the accompanying emotional charge overloads the system. We can become fixated on highly charged events, or dissociate from them, locking them in an unseen corner of the subconscious. Either way there are distortions in the psyche which can surface from the unconscious to disrupt our lives and lead them in unintended directions.

One of the things that fear, or other strong emotions do, is to overwhelm the higher levels of the brain. Emotions can overwhelm our thoughts and pull our awareness down into the lower levels of the brain, the old emotional/instinctual levels. As long as we are operating from these levels we have only pre-existing options to draw on, and the selection itself happens unconsciously, depending on past experience. To exercise free will, to be able to give ourselves new, current-time, options, to consciously choose, we must be able to surface from the sea of old mind and its associative emotional memory. As long as we are remembering we are maintaining the old neural connections, retelling an old story. Repetition and/or high emotional charge enhance the stability of these existing neural pathways.

Even the portions of the brain that make conscious choices are mostly working with existing options, things learned and done before. This is why to master a sport or art one must train brain, nervous system, and body. Only then can the necessary skills be accessed in the moment, in response to a dynamically changing situation. Reasoning is well applied to sorting through options that are already known, but is not so effective when life takes a turn into the truly unknown. To be able to create something really new, or navigate in the unknown (including most of the Spiritual realm, and our own spiritual Self) we have to be able to put aside the older levels of mind.6 To write a new story in your life, you must be able to make new neural connections. Only small, recently evolved, specialized areas of the frontal cortex are able to make free choices without criterion, to choose new or creative options.

Life Stories and Karma

We are designed to learn a story and then to maintain that story. This story tells us about the world around us, what it is, how it works, and who we are in relationship to it. This used to be called mythology, now it is called science. Once this story has been formed based on experience and belief, memory re-enforces it, new perceptions and information are filtered in terms of it. Existing stories become hard wired in the neurons, in the emotional settings of cell wall receptors.7 Endorphins, which define what we like, have existed from yeast up the evolutionary ladder. Our stories are supported externally by personal relationships, agreements, contracts, and behavioral habits. Mostly we live out these existing stories, embellishing and amending them. To exercise free will, to live in the present rather than out of the past, we must be able to step out of all this, to cultivate the ability, in Castaneda’s words, to “stop the world”.8

We can cultivate the ability to be present and make conscious choices. This is one of the goals of spiritual practice and training. It is not easy because we are designed by evolution to do things the old way. The paradigm that the brain, once formed is fairly static, is itself evolving rapidly now. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of encoded neural patterns to be consciously shifted and re-patterned. The yogis have talked about burning karma for millennia, now researchers are understanding the physical levels of how we can reprogram our brains.

This is what is meant by burning karma. It is not a process of payback or settling old debts, but a clearing of the emotional/energetic imprints that tie us to old patterns and stories, not only in this life but in all lives. Only by learning to let the emotional passions arise and evolve without reacting to them can we be free. The old levels of the brain continue to do their thing, based on emotional charges and associations of the past, but with neutrality and amusement, we can learn non-attachment, freeing us from reacting to and from the old brain. We come to have true free will to be in the moment and choose how to respond, how to create, how to live.

Personal change, growth and healing involve processes that integrate across all the levels of our being. When feelings dominate, and we “think” emotionally and live out of our past experience and associations, we recreate them in the present. The spiritual practices of all traditions are designed to support stepping out of the internal and external reinforcement of old habits and social conditioning. The goal is to create space to hear the voice of Spirit, by reducing the volume on all the other stories. Brain researchers can now see that the visual cortex temporarily shuts off just before the flash of an inspiration.10 Stepping into the unknown we are free to create, be inspired obtain insights, access the creative areas of our mind.

Higher Self and Emotional Intelligence

Echoing Joseph Campbell,11 many people speak about following your passion. However, there are different levels of passion, some of which may serve us better than others. Campbell was talking about the soul’s passion, that deep inner sense of who we are that manifests as enthusiasm and joy. Freewill is NOT about acting out every emotional passion that arises, these are mostly old programs reacting. As we learn to be able turn down the volume and urgency on our emotions, to work consciously from our higher brain centers, we open space for our spiritual passion to become clearer. In order to know our Soul’s passion we must also learn to distinguish it from the passions of the body. It is like learning to tell the difference between physical passion and the yearning of the heart, a long and subtle learning. Both have their place, but it is important to know the difference, and when you are following one or the other.

Freeing ourselves doesn’t mean un-creating all, including stories that serve us. It means being able to choose which ones we are acting out, each day, each moment. It means being able to choose new options when they are what best serve us. It means waking up, rather than sleep walking. This is subtler than it seems. There are many levels of awareness, just as in the brain there are many levels of unconsciousness. The ongoing experience of Spirit, and of our higher Self are essential. The transpersonal gives you the overarching space to make choices. It also provides the resources, both personal and spiritual. It gives us a place to stand outside of the emotions and the drama of our human selves. With a little distance and perspective we can pause and before being swept along, consciously choose to ride the emotions or let them flow through us.12,13,1411. Campbell, Joseph,

This is the foundation of emotional intelligence. Learning to be mindful, to allow old emotions to surface but not cause us to act, is key to stopping the old stories. The ability for human beings to live from a more spiritual awareness, parallels their ability to live from the higher levels of the brain. Learning to recognize and release the patterns of the feeling-thinking level of the brain, allows us to create a new story, or simply Be in each moment. Doing this we have to allow the body to be uncomfortable, be unhappy through the transition. Bio-chemistry makes us addicted to what we know, even when it is inherently painful or un-serving. The evolutionarily pervasive endorphins do this. Stepping into the unknown takes courage. On the other side of the discomfort is spaciousness, is freedom.

Being connected to the higher levels of your Self, to the Spiritual levels of Being is essential to this ability. The physical/emotional discomfort that comes with changing an old story into a new one is easier to move through when you can feel the enthusiasm and joy of your Spirit. It doesn’t mean you won’t be aware of the emotions. In fact we need to be aware of them. When we try to ignore our emotional selves, they will act out on their own, before we have a chance to think, or a chance to decide consciously. We can’t suppress or bypass them. Being aware of our higher Selves, though, we can come into a conscious relationship with the emotions. Infused by the clarity and certainty of Spirit, we can clear the old charges, the old traumas, patterns, and habits. Being larger than our human selves, free of the old charges in the lower brain, we can let present emotion flow naturally, informing us and guiding us, rather than commanding us. Feeling emotions arise we can pause and choose what serves us. With the freedom to write a new and original story in our lives, we come into union, the yoga of body and spirit. We can feel, and when we choose enjoy our human passions, but our lives are guided from our Soul’s passion. Over time new patterns in the brain and body bring these closer together, moving into alignment.

Decades ago on my Grandmother’s porch, the emotions that arose in me led to unconscious choices and in consequence I literally lost a part of myself. I might have damaged someone else; I did damage myself. We all need to realize our Soul’s passion and express it to create a new world. Much evolutionary programming must be recognized and neutralized in order to be free to do this. Old karmic patterns, embedded in our biology are witnessed and burned. Otherwise we will end by creating again out of old karma rather than present enlightenment. Being individually free of our emotion/mental patterns, we will effectively come together in community to create the new world that our Souls yearn for.


Pausing Emotions:
These are steps to coming into a positive relationship with your emotions, to being able to have them move through and transform. Practice them when you have time and space and you will be able to do them even when you don’t.

Emotional Awareness. Give yourself permission to notice when an emotion is moving in your body. Often when they begin to arise we will tell ourselves to ignore them. Notice this reluctance and allow yourself to let them surface more fully. This resistance is often at the edge of awareness.

Release Associated Mental Stories. Notice the thoughts that are associated with the emotion. The who, why, where, and what. Give your self permission to let these go. Whatever is happening to trigger the emotion, is a gift in this regard. Bring your attention to the emotion itself, independent of any story.

Body Sensation. Being slightly curious, notice what you are feeling in your body and where. Letting the emotion become a physical sensation, like being hot, or hungry, is a powerful way to gain some distance and neutrality.

Explore the Sensation. Knowing that you are safe, allow the emotion intensify. Rather than avoiding it, lean into it. Allow the charge to surface in your body as much as you can.

Dissipation and Transformation. Emotions are energy. Energy moves and transforms. When you can be present with them, without story, without judgment, simply witnessing them, you have gotten to the core energetic charge. Your awareness gives it space to be present. They will dissipate and transform.

Spaciousness and Life Force. The result of this process is new spaciousness in your being, spaciousness that fills with new Life Force. You will feel more alive. Live fresh air after the rain.

Action. Now, if it seems necessary or useful, take any actions that are appropriate to your current circumstances. You have complete freedom to respond rather than reacting.


References and Further Reading

1,13. Levine, Stephen, Healing into Life and Death, Random House, 1987.

2. Ornstein, Robert and Sobel, David, The Healing Brain, Malor Books, 1987.

3. Neuroplasticity, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity
4. Behrens, Tim, Neural Mechanisms Underlying Human Choice in the Frontal Cortex, Scripta Varia 121 Vatican City 2013. https://www.casinapioiv.va/content/dam/accademia/pdf/sv121/sv121-behrens.pdf

5,7. Pert, Candice, Molecules of Emotion, Simon and Schuster,1997.

6,10. Kounois, John, The Eureka Factor. Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain, Random House 2015.

8. Castaneda, Carlos, Tales of Power, Simon and Schuster, 1974.

9. Satinover, Jeffrey, The Quantum Brain: The Search for Freedom and the Next Generation of Man, Wiley, 2002.

11. Campbell, Joseph, eg. The Power of Myth, Anchor Double Day, 1988.

12. McAllister, Alan, Healing Stones, SYJ, Winter 2016

14. Dispenza, Joe, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, HayHouse 2013.

(© 6/2016)

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