Managing Our Emotions as We Age

How does emotional growth aid our conscious evolution?

Posted Nov 23, 2016

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. “

                                                                                             J. R. R. Tolkien

A Cherokee Indian Chief was sitting in front of the fire with his oldest son. The boy asked, “What bit of knowledge do you want me to remember?” The Chief replied “Always remember that inside us are two wolves that are continually at war with each other. One wolf is evil and tries to fill us with anger, greed, frustration, envy, hostility and grief. The other is good and fills us with love, compassion, kindness, generosity, patience, self-discipline and restraint.” The son sat quietly for a long time in contemplation and then asked, “Which wolf ultimately wins the struggle?” “The one you feed,” answered the Chief.

For each of us managing our emotions to assist our conscious evolution and successful aging is not compulsory. It is the result of a conscious struggle. Nature does not compel our inner personal growth in the same way that our genes compel aspects of our outer physical growth. The evolution of our emotional control is not a mechanical evolution but a sense of conscious and volitional evolution. In some ways managing our emotions requires the elements of virtue: honesty, patience, self-discipline and restraint. And we may need a framework to help us see through the barriers. After all our emotions are an integral part of our operating equipment and we cannot deny them, but we must re-channel, supervise, manage and control them.

We live simultaneously in two worlds: our inner personal world of thoughts and emotions and the outer physical world of the society we live in. The challenge for us is to attain a harmonious relationship between the two. We need to follow appropriate societal protocols, but we must not let the society dictate to us how we should think or live.  

Problems occur when our emotions take over the work of our intellect. This is usually evident by the degree of passion or intensity given to an activity, but our primary aim must be to manage our emotions because new knowledge, new understanding and harmony will come through our emotional center and not through our intellect. This disciplining of emotions may be uncomfortable because at certain moments we must choose between work and comfort. Productive inner work and perpetual peace tend to be incompatible. We do not sharpen a knife with a soft stick of butter. The awareness of our need for more emotional control initiates the growth of our consciousness and begins to subordinate our mechanical reactions to various situations. We feel that things are not right, there is more to life than mechanical repetition and we need to change.

Our first step is to be completely honest with ourselves and our self perceptions. One lesson I learned in childhood was to never, ever tell a lie. Putting all the religious and moral arguments aside, as I did not think about them at the time and just had a vague sense that lying was wrong. There was a very practical reason for this: if you are always truthful you have much less to remember because you do not have to keep conflicting stories straight. Later I learned that lying is the tribute that inferiority renders to merit. The truthful person is strengthened by the ability to face facts even if doing so may be unpleasant.

Dealing with Worry, Anxiety, and Feelings of Inadequacy

Worry is to our consciousness as anxiety is to our emotions. It is the incessant “what ifs” with potentially catastrophic consequences that overload our awareness. “What if the airplane crashes?” “What if my business fails?” ”What if my child gets an illness?” Anxiety is the emotion we experience when we are not sure we can handle the future. As opposed to fear there is no immediate external threat in anxiety. There is a delicate distinction between worry and concern that can help illuminate our inner life and assist us in managing our emotions. We need to be concerned for others, but how can we express this without anxiety or loss of sleep? Worry tends to be very “me” centered. We worry over things we have no control over like the weather and we worry about outcomes beyond our control. Things we cannot control confront us with a need to trust in ourselves and let go.

How does worry differ from concern? Concern is more outward looking than worry and is based on some reality that we may be able to control. For concerns we can try to do our best, fully and completely for each and every opportunity.