Making Space for Reactive Emotions

Published by Greg Heffron on

Angry_woman_with_t_2264396bWhen we work with the reality of The Three Lights, the Red Light of reactive emotions can seem especially challenging.

Red indicates that the communication is blocked by any of the five basic patterns (ignoring, blaming, arrogance, grasping/addiction and power games). Of course, our most painful experiences with others generally fall into one or more of these categories. Because they’re confusing, we develop a strong anxiety that they can and will happen again. This anxiety affects how we enter each situation, watching and wary, looking for the first sign that we might get caught in that same painful trap.

Awareness can be positive — allowing us to enter situations calmly, with eyes open. It can also lead us to feel “guarded,” “hyper vigilant,” and even, at times, “paranoid” or “desperate.” Ironically, our fear of losing our natural connection with others leads us to become too focused on preventing disconnection. The painful irony? This attempt to protect connection at all costs, including working to manipulate our relationships, itself creates disconnectedness. By disrupting the natural relationship of the Green Light, we hold ourselves back from true connection. Even if we’re cheerful, we never relax. Instead, we work tirelessly to create an artificial relationship that even we, at the end of the day, don’t quite enjoy. And others wonder why they can never feel close to us.

This comes from our fear of the Red Light. We know that when others shut down, they can cause harm. We can’t be naive and pretend that this isn’t true. Yet we also go too far, thinking the Red Light is “real” — that if someone is in the Red Light one day, they’ll always be that way, in every situation. We can stamp others with the label of “Red Light people.”

Our own experience of our mind, however (especially through a regular practice of mindfulness meditation) is that our own Red Light comes and goes. One moment, we feel awful and angry; an hour later we’ve just finished a meal and have completely lost contact with those emotions. One year, we’re immersed in grasping onto the romantic object that will save us (or job, or material possessions); two years later we realize that we haven’t thought about that situation for months. How “real” is this red light?

But the more we train our mind through mindfulness meditation, the more this realization of the natural movement of the mind seems true. Truer than the “drama” of the moment. Instead of feeling disconnected, “fake,” cold or paranoid. we can lean into situations without as much fixation and fear. When someone’s light goes red, we remember that they’re just in this state right now. And we can apply the antidote to the Red Light: “When the Light is Red, STOP.” Stop means making space. Less talking. Engaged silence. Or perhaps distance, if the person’s words or behavior is asking us to back off. This doesn’t mean we can’t love this person, or respect him/her. In fact, giving space to Red Light emotions is respect. We understand this person’s “No Trespassing Sign,” and allow him or her to go through a process.

Neither is this “giving in” to the Red Light. In fact, no communication is possible in this state. Outside of our moral judgements about this person, ourselves, the situation, and so on, waiting for the red light to change is simply being accurate. Then, when the Red Light naturally soothes into the Yellow — in five minutes or five years — we can be a good “Green Zone” companion. Here, we use our Mindful Communication training to help our companion find a way through to the natural state of the Green Light, which is heartful and mindful.

By making space for it, the Red Light doesn’t have to be “the monster in the closet.” Instead, it can be just a moment of natural pause, the way snowy weather asks us all to stop our usual patterns and shovel the sidewalk. If we know what to do, it doesn’t even have to be a hassle. We can breathe in the fresh air, lean in and do what needs to be done — with dignity and even, at times, joy.


Greg Heffron

Greg Heffron

Greg Heffron directs Green Zone Institute. He was the first certified teacher of Mindful Communication authorized by Susan Gillis Chapman. He has been teaching Mindful Communication workshops since 2009, and has been a mindfulness meditation teacher since 2005. In 2005, he apprenticed with senior Mudra Space Awareness teacher Craig Smith, and became authorized to teach this unique mind-body meditation technique — included in nearly every workshop. In 2007, Greg co-taught with Smith to fourth year students in the Dance Division at the Julliard School in New York. Greg has taught Mindful Communication and Mudra Space Awareness workshops in Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Ukraine and across North America. In 2003 Greg graduated with an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from the University of Iowa. He coaches individuals, teaches workshops, and consults with businesses and organizations like Shambhala Mountain Center, Dechen Choling Buddhist Retreat Center and others.