Emotional content pointing at the moonA student asked me about what I meant by emotional content last week and as it is an important concept in martial arts, I’m seizing the opportunity to discuss it at length here. As Bruce Lee famously mentioned in Enter the Dragon, emotional content is about being in the moment, free of attachment, and feeling. 

Don’t think, feel…it is like a finger pointing the way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!

This is one of my favorite quotes (and if you are in the dojo during a full moon I’ll most likely say it). On one level, he’s talking about feeling vs thinking. If you try to think your way to enlightenment or self-perfection, you’ll be stuck examining the finger. If you simply point yourself in the direction the finger shows and allow yourself to be in the present, you’ll be able to go much further. Feeling here is not the same as a specific emotion, however. Most people confuse or conflate these things but it may be more helpful to use the word be rather than feel. In being we open ourselves up to the experience of the moment in an expansive way. In feeling a specific emotion, we become attached and limit ourselves.

Pure energy

Another way to look at emotional content is like pure energy. When doing a particularly hard class or trying to throw a technique with as much power as possible, we can’t let our brains get in the way. We must harness as much energy as we can, unencumbered by the ego. 

Think of emotional content as white light, directly from the sun. When you take light and filter it through a prism, you get different colors. These colors are like specific emotions, and the prism is like the ego. Each emotion is unique and useful. You can experience life with all its nuances if you have different emotions and use them correctly (rather than letting them take over) in the same way that you might paint a beautiful picture using different colors. If you have only one color or no colors you don’t really have an interesting painting. You should also be able to step back and look at the painting with all its exciting colors and see that it is not you, and you are not it. In the same way, we want to be able to step back from the ego and see our emotions for what they are: a way to experience life. 

Absence of the Ego

Emotional content is the absence of the ego for at least a moment so that the energy can flow freely. Take away the prism and you have pure light, energy straight from the sun. Let your ego fall away; cease judgement, trying to fix, comparing yourself to others. Now you’ve got all the energy and power you need.

Practice this in meditation and your physical art. The more you practice connecting to emotional content, the easier it becomes. In daily life, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to set aside energy-sucking thoughts and emotions and just be in the moment. Use them.