Spiritual Life and Our Emotions Part 1
Transformation of our emotion life remains one of the greatest challenges confronting us on our spiritual path.
Indeed, perhaps in exasperation, many historical strands of Christianity relegated feelings to an inferior and suspect status, often seeing them as manifestations of female weakness far less trustworthy and more 'primitive' than 'male' rational powers. Strong feelings needed to be muted for fear of muddying objectivity, with 'dispassion' being seen as somehow superior. Some emotions, like anger, even found themselves onto lists of deadly sins. However, in reality our so called 'objective' thoughts are not separate from our feeling life, and we deceive ourselves to not recognise their true interdependence. This myth of rational objectivity is more exposed in our current post-modern culture where we also recognise that we can be strongly emotional and lucid at the same time. Furthermore, we also now know that the practice of dissociating ourselves from our emotions, especially our darker or more uncomfortable ones, can seriously disrupt our ability to think clearly and act morally.
In contemporary times, emotional experience is embraced as part of our holistic spirituality, and understood to have an essential role in our full humanity and holiness. Martha Nussbaum, a distinguished American philosopher, argues that emotions help us see what is important in life - what moves us, and so help us recognise important truths. They are ways of embodied knowing with an important evaluative essence. Any aspect of experience can mediate the Divine, and feelings also often provide a powerful window to the Holy. We can meet the Creator Spirit in the glory of a morning sunrise, in the intricacy of a leaf, or in the sense of awe at the power present in a moorland landscape. The Spirit also lives in the world community's sense of compassion for those trapped in situations of disaster, poverty or oppression. Feelings such as grief tell us what we value and the importance of what we care about.
Feelings have an object, an 'aboutness', it is this intentionality that reveals their evaluative purpose. Jung argued that it was because Nazi Germany separated off their feeling function that the atrocities happened. Anyone truly in touch with the full range of their emotions could not have knowingly participated in running the death camps. Through human history very 'rational' arguments have been made to justify atrocities ranging from the slave trade, to female suppression, to genocide, to genetic manipulation of food sources. Modern neurological research also demonstrates that impairments in emotional capacity, such as those caused by brain damage in areas essential for emotional processing, can actually retard our ability to make sound decisions. Ignatius Loyola, in the 16th Century, also understood the importance of our emotions in the spiritual life, as a key part of our felt inner process of discernment.
Emotions also reveal those places in life where we feel vulnerable, where we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world we don't fully control. Perhaps this has been part of the struggle that has relegated the value of our feeling life, for it is difficult to be 'naked' and vulnerable with ourselves and others, recognising and being in places beyond our control where strong emotions pervade us; particularly in a culture that can outwardly value emotional suppression as in some way being spiritually superior. But if we were without our capacity to engage the spectrum of all our feeling life, not only would our moral function be impaired, but would life not be bereft of all its subtle tones and shades? And it is often these very places of emotional crisis, where we long for meaning and purpose so desperately, that reveal to us our need of the Divine if we are willing to listen.
However, it is a tricky business. Feelings, from anger to compassion, are complex and capable of much distortion as well as wisdom. When the mind is dominated by destructive emotions it can be essentially out of control, we can feel ourselves powerless, enslaved; drowning in their torrent like the leaf in this picture.
We can also chase our thoughts and emotions in our mind, being swept along by, and helplessly identified with, them rather than being able to witness their wisdom. Have you ever experienced not being able to get the same circling patterns of thoughts, over something that has heightened your emotions, perhaps annoyed you, out of your mind...? Yet, unwillingness to confront these destructive emotions, or of condemning them as spiritually impure, leads us to repress them, to refuse and cut-off part of ourselves. But splitting-off part of ourselves is contrary to any Christian notion of peace or 'wholeness'. The Hebrew word for wholeness, sheleimut, comes from the same Hebrew root as shalom (peace), and is not seen as a static condition but as the dynamic interplay of opposites balancing one another; wholeness is understood to be essentially paradoxical. When we refuse part of ourselves, and the paradox of our humanity, we create in our psyche what Carl Jung describes as our Shadow - a topic I will explore in depth in a forthcoming blog. In spiritual communities we do indeed often also have feelings about our feelings. We may fear or judge them as unacceptable and struggle to know how to integrate them into a healthy spirituality, and so bury them away in our depths.
So it is not emotions themselves that are the problem, but how we relate and respond to them without becoming identified with and lost in them. The challenge is not one of taming or controlling emotions in a sterile version of humanity, but one of a knowing relationship and transformation. Neither the repression of our emotional life, nor acting it out, resolves or transforms it; or in Christian terms we may say liberates or 'saves' it. Being out of relationship to the uncomfortable parts of our feeling life, in favour of a false spirituality projecting that all is well, can result in what psychologists call 'disassociating', or what John Welwood in the early 1980's termed, 'spiritual bypassing' - a particular problem I will also explore in more depth in my next blog on working with our emotions in the spiritual life.
The challenge we face is to be able to be with and witness stronger emotions whilst retaining a clear sense that doesn’t become submerged in identifying with them – to be present to these emotions in the midst of our inner turmoil. It is a process of integrating our emotions into our wholeness by not collapsing our sense of self into them, but to come to rest in freedom in a place of accepting clear awareness. By living in this place of undefended awareness, we can open toward the divine with intention of heart in the midst of our emotional turmoil, and set the stage for a gradual transformation of our emotional life. In the Christian tradition we understand it is this opening towards God, seeking continual immersion in the divine love, that gradually deepens our sense of being lovable and loved, and helps us come to a place of acceptance of all our limitations and imperfections, of all we are. Emotional wholeness is cultivated by returning again and again to this unconditional divine embrace.
To continue go to 'Spiritual Life and our Emotions Part 2 : Spiritual Bypassing' or look at practical meditations to help us be with our feeling life.