Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Some thoughts on emotion



One of the things that strikes me about human nature is how volatile we all are emotionally. I run into this all day long, not only in myself, but in everyone else as well.

We literally live in a sea of both inner and outer emotion. It is easy to see the physical objects around us--but we quickly forget, because we are identified with it, that the emotional content of the world we inhabit is equally material. Emotions are as supple, changeable, and exotic as pigments in the skin of a cuttlefish: constantly changing, shimmering, adapting to the conditions around them, expressing things in a language all their own.

They are beautiful, alluring, and dangerous. It’s hard not to get caught up in the drama.

The emotional part in ourselves, which reacts very quickly indeed, is constantly taking the temperature of every event around us. We are so invested in us that we do not even know it’s happening. In order to have any awareness at all of it, we need to maintain some kind of a connection with the body. Otherwise the situation is hopeless.

The difficulty with the emotional part is that it is relatively imbalanced. As I put it to my wife when I first met her many years ago, we should not believe in our emotions. They lie to us constantly. Although they are powerful and quick, they lack rationality and frequently respond to situations in an inappropriate manner. This is true of almost every single human being; it is rare to meet people who are emotionally balanced in any meaningful sense.

I have a lot of strong reactions in the course of the day. It frequently surprises me, how absolutely physical, intense, and visceral they are. It is a real work to be present enough to have any degree of relationship with them. And it is only if I have a relationship with them that there is a chance of them not dictating the course of events.

This takes place, in my experience, in both an inner and an outer sense, because the emotional reactions dictate the way I exchange with other people, and they also determine the inner tone of my attitude towards my life. This means I need to take a careful measure of exactly what the value of various emotions is as they arise. Especially with negative emotions, when they come up, I need to examine them critically right away instead of signing on to them.

There are times when I just go ahead and sign onto them anyway after a brief period of examination. The reality is that I am negative; I have these parts and they have baaaaad attitudes. I am not some Christ-like guru filled with groovy love. In fact, people who behave in that way always leave me a little suspicious. It doesn’t seem real. If we want to experience who we are and know who we are, we have to experience and know the negative parts as well as the ones that are warm and loving.

Another way of looking at this is to say that we need to experience the full range of our emotional being in order to understand any of it. In self-knowing, we can’t just parse our emotional being out into the bits we like. It’s all or nothing.

It’s a good thing to perform an inner “stop” when we see ourselves having a strong emotional reaction. Before we take any rash steps, it’s a good thing to review the reaction and see if it is based on anything real. More often than not, in my own case, I discover that emotional reactions I am having don’t make any sense at all. They are suggesting that I do things that are fundamentally stupid.

Jails and graveyards are filled with people who listened to emotional ideas of that nature without exercising sufficient discrimination.

God willing, we will not end up among that number. But just the thought that we might avoid hurting another person by examining our emotional state a bit more closely makes the action worthwhile.

I believe that the phrase “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” from the Lord’s prayer relates to this kind of work. It encapsulates the idea that we are both unwitting victims and unwitting perpetrators in this exchange of emotional energy. The tendency is to see ourselves primarily as the victim; as we work on ourselves, we need to see our role as perpetrators as well, and become sensitive to the fact that all of us are in this mess together.

Forgiveness can go a long way towards straightening things out.

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