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Daoist Tips for the 21st Century - Transforming Emotions

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 262 - May 2020


Exploding Emotions

Our health suffers when we avoid our emotions. Alcohol and drug abuse, screen time or over eating – there are many ways to suppress our feelings. And when we do this we may find ourselves experiencing ill health –headaches, digestive complaints, high blood pressure, mental ill health – all these complaints can be the result of avoiding our feelings. Nowadays we recognise the body mind connection and accordingly we give ourselves permission to express our feelings but sometimes this can go too far and become an explosion of emotions. When we find ourselves targeting others with our anger, unable to let go of sadness or overwhelmed by fear or anxiety then we might say that our emotions are taking us over.

I grew up in the 1950s and at that time the mainstream culture saw emotional expression as bad, dangerous, negative. We were all supposed to be stoical and maintain a stiff upper lip. But in the 1970s I, like many others found myself involved in therapies and movements that encouraged us to get into our feelings. I was at first apprehensive –this was a new and scary way to live. It felt strange to fully acknowledge anger and grief—emotions I had formerly pushed down deep inside. Nonetheless once I got the hang of getting into my feelings I found it enormously therapeutic to be aware of the load of suppressed emotions I had been carrying around all my life.

Noticing and accepting feelings is always a good thing – the challenge therein is to not necessarily act out those feelings. I was involved in the 1970s in a cult where we gave ourselves permission to express and act out our feelings like toddlers. If someone was angry he/she would act on it and scream and shout, targeting whoever was at hand. If someone was sad they would wail and express their misery – all of this regardless of who they were with or where they were. Life became one long round of self-indulgent venting without boundaries –we were addicted to letting go. Emotions seemed to be out of control, they had a life of their own and ultimately I could see that our feelings were running us.

Today in the UK, at this time of writing we have witnessed an extreme up rush of emotions as a general election has taken place side by side with the Brexit debate. And with the accessibility of social media people have found it very easy to vent – anger, anxiety, sadness –all feelings are laid bare as Facebook gives us permission to vent our sad and bad moods all over the internet. In part this free expression may well be the result of the cults and therapies that developed in the sixties and seventies which encouraged us to let go of our bottled up feelings. The difference between then and now is the anonymous nature of online social networks such as Twitter which allows us to even more easily express our feelings – not always to good effect.

Bottling up our emotions is never healthy. Neither though is exploding our feelings all over whoever is to hand –friends, family, strangers on or off the internet. Daoists choose another way and that is the transformation of emotions. To transform emotions is to have a healthy control over them – transmuting them into their purest form.


The Five Elements

Reproduced from Aromatherapy, Massage and Chinese Medicine by Joanne Baker

Exploring Emotions

Daoists teach that there are five facets of our true consciousness –the five Te (virtues) and that these become distorted into the five emotions as we go through life. The aim in Daoism is to convert these emotions back into the five virtues. The five emotional states are Anger, Hysteria/Mania, Anxiety, Fear, Grief. All these emotions are in fact transient and fleeting – we feel enraged or fearful, hysterical, worried or sad but the feelings pass, the intensity fades. Unfortunately we often tend to cling to our emotions – we stoke them up and build on them, we act on them and create suffering for ourselves often targeting and involving others too. Instead we need to explore our emotions –be aware of them, take responsibility for them so that they may then transform back into their real and true nature – the five virtues. This is not about sticking to a rule book – transformation in Daoism must happen without effort--gently. The whole point of Daoism is to return to a state of natural simplicity through virtuous actions that arise effortlessly. To follow a rule book, a religious or moral code will not bring us to our real and true nature of goodness. Instead, as we explore and accept our feelings so hysteria becomes contentment, anxiety transforms to empathy, grief to self-worth, fear to clarity and anger to patience. Let us look at each of these emotions in turn...

Transforming Hysteria to Contentment

Hysteria is associated with the Fire Element, and the virtue associated with Fire, in its natural state is a contentment in life, a warm, quiet joy. But when we constantly cling to joy, wanting to be happy all the time our inner fire can become distorted, burning out of control. This state can lead to mental ill health – hysteria/mania. To cultivate Contentment, to feel steady and well balanced with a flame that is neither high nor low we need space to feel calm and at peace within ourselves – contented. Take time daily to take a walk outside and appreciate nature, make a space in your home to regularly meditate, appreciate your life – in these ways you will harmonize and balance your internal Fire and bring yourself true contentment –a state of inner warmth and wellbeing.

Transforming Anxiety to Empathy

Anxiety is a distorted manifestation of the Earth element. The virtue associated with Earth is Empathy – the ability to deeply understand and care about others. As we go through life this caring can become distorted into anxiety and when that is triggered we tend to feel overly worried about others and also sorry for ourselves. When anxiety arises connect with the strong, stable centre of your being --feel the care, the positive regard –the Empathy that resides therein. Caring for others – humans, animals, the planet – this will bring us out of ourselves, out of our internal, worried state.

Transforming Grief to Self-Worth

Grief manifests when the Metal element is out of balance. The virtue associated with Metal is Self-Worth – an ability to value life and go forward. When we experience loss we feel that deep sense of sadness that cuts us off from the world and we no longer value our life . When we cling to grief we remove ourselves from others and in this cut off state the world becomes a dark heavy, steely weight – too much to bear. To mourn, to grieve is good but eventually we need to yield the weight of grief and move forward to carry on with our lives. To help yourself let go of grieving practise connecting within to the person you have lost. Focus on the love and value you feel for that being and know those feelings will always be there to inspire and encourage you. In this way you will reconnect with your sense of self-worth – you will value your precious life and know how to move on. Take your time – grieving is a process.

Transforming Fear to Clarity

Fear is a distorted manifestation of the Water element. The virtue associated with Water is Clarity and this becomes fear when we muddy our minds with false imaginings rather than clearly appraising situations. As with anxiety when we are fearful we can feel very alone and separate from those around us. In this irrational state we feel that we are not able to handle the challenges we are faced with. Remind yourself that you have the strength to handle the situation you are in. Breathe through the fear, compose yourself. By clearing your mind you restore Clarity and will know how to respond to any challenging situation .

Transforming Anger to Patience

Anger arises when the Wood element is out of balance. The virtue associated with Wood is Patience and this distorts into anger when we feel squashed, unheard, disagreed with, up against it. Instead of raging –which only encourages more anger, we need to cultivate Patience – tolerance and understanding – to treat others fairly and humanely. And remember – patience is also about treating oneself fairly and humanely  – asserting oneself in a calm and firm manner.

Always be aware of your feelings – never deny them but when you feel stuck in an emotional state whether ticked off about politics or worried and fearful about a lack of income instead of launching into an angry venting session on social media or pulling the duvet over your head in a state of fear and anxiety take a deep breath. Firstly recognize the feeling – are you feeling hyper and hysterical, worried, sad, fearful or angry? Feel where the feeling resides in your body and acknowledge the physicality of your emotions. Affirm to yourself that your feelings are opportunities to gently align with whichever of the Five virtues is needed. This is not a cerebral exercise – Daoists are not interested in following a rule book of how to transform your emotions. True transformation comes by being fully aware of your feelings so that they may change gently, calmly , harmoniously. So for Contentment give yourself some space, sit on a park bench, be still and quietly appreciate and feel warm towards everything in your life. For Empathy centre yourself and focus on caring for others – give some TLC to the world. For Self-Worth value and draw on memories of your loved one and feel inspired by that love to courageously carry on living. For Clarity clear your mind and have trust and confidence in your strengths whilst knowing your limits. For Patience breathe, drop your shoulders, remind yourself to be calm and tolerant whilst asserting yourself firmly and patiently.


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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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