The dynamic swirl of emotions
Emotions provide a much better gateway to the spiritual dimension of our lives than beliefs. Awe and wonder are emotions particularly associated with spiritual experiences. Calm, joy, and contentment are among other emotions that typify mature spirituality.
The spiritual dimension looms largest in extreme situations, when someone is faced with great challenges or a major loss. Unsurprisingly, the path to positive feelings often lies through more adverse emotions, such as foreboding, even terror. Stark bewilderment, rage, deep shame, self-blame, and intense sorrow may also be provoked.
This is part of the natural order of human life. The wise approach is to trust the process of emotional healing and growth toward maturity summarized last time. [See my post of 27 August.]
Ultimately, submission to one’s fate and acceptance of loss brings the necessary ‘catharsis’. This release of emotions is uncomfortable, such as when sadness is accompanied by tears. People often resist crying, and apologize for it; but it is an essential part of the healing process.
When the storm of grief does eventually pass, however long it takes, serenity is restored. A new level of happiness, contentment, and equanimity arises, and with this – often unexpectedly, after a period of considerable struggle – feelings of humility, gratitude, and wonder. Renewed clarity, as bewilderment and confusion subside, reveals a new level of spiritual understanding, of wisdom. Recognition that everyone else faces similar troubles in their lives increases compassion and loving-kindness towards others.
Why, then, is everyone not already emotionally and spiritually mature? One reason concerns the very strong emotional likes (attachments) and dislikes (aversions) that naturally come into play. Each of us has emotions we seek to avoid and those we prefer. The natural tendency is for people to prefer joy over sorrow and calm over anxiety, for example, but it is not so simple. We get into patterns or habits of emotional experience and expression.
Feeling bad about feeling bad is one kind of problem. For example, some people are deeply averse to anger. It scares them. When a situation arises to provoke anger, anxiety rapidly takes over instead. This short-circuits the natural process of energy flow through the full spectrum of emotions. Anger is necessary for resistance, so such people are at a disadvantage. Worse, their anxiety and inability to fight back against loss and injustice can give rise to a handicapping degree of shame. It also predisposes them to being exploited by those who seem to be stronger.
Feeling good about bad feelings is the reverse of the same problem. So, on the other hand, rather than being averse to anger, some people are attached to it. A strong feeling, anger gives them a sense of power, and often the certitude (whether accurate or not) of being in the right. This predilection for anger often overrides doubt.
Attachment to anger is destructive to self as well as others
Some people, consciously or otherwise, even seek opportunities to get angry, by seeking out faults in others for example, or by engaging regularly in arguments and other forms of winner/loser behaviour (usually biased in their favour). An attachment to anger thus covers up a wish to avoid shame as well as doubt. It protects against other emotions, like anxiety and sadness, too - but at a price. When a person’s emotional life defaults towards anger, this has destructive consequences for the person concerned. Both the range and spontaneity of their emotions are limited.
There are consequences where others are concerned too. People may feel unduly coerced and bullied, and seek to avoid those who seem unreasonably – and ultimately selfishly – angry much of the time.
When any of the other emotions are similarly strongly either preferred or avoided, there are similarly negative repercussions. Excessive shame (in today’s terminology, ‘low self-esteem’) is a painful problem for many. An excessive sense of self-worth, on the other hand, soon leads to quick-tempered vanity.
What can be done? How can we learn to accept our emotions as they arise, change in nature and intensity, and eventually fade? how can we learn to be less attached to some and averse to others? Problem recognition is the first step: knowing that something needs to be remedied. This means paying close attention to our own emotional profile. Which emotions do we prefer, and which do we try to avoid? This, in itself, is beneficial. Seeking help, finding an effective remedy and making a commitment to change come next. Using that remedy on a regular, disciplined basis will lead towards progress and maturity. This is certain, just as wound healing is certain if the wound is kept clean, free of infection, and dressed regularly. Nature takes care of it.
What are the remedies? Formal psychological treatments can work, and so can spiritual practices. They can also be combined. For example Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and other, more intensive forms of psychotherapy, can be effective; but better results have been described when meditation exercises are included, as with ‘mindfulness-based CBT’. For those who are not clinically ill with anxiety or depression, mindfulness alone, that is the regular practice of meditation in one of various forms, may be sufficient to produce the looked-for benefits associated with emotional - and spiritual - growth. Its effect, though gradual, is not to be under-estimated.
Other forms of spiritual practice, both religious in nature and secular, will be the subject of a future installment.