Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Emotional Strengthening

The semester is drawing to a close, and so things have been extremely busy lately. Also, I have my concert soon, and so any extra time I am able to eke out gets channeled into extra time to practice. It's been hard to find time to write here. But I would like to take a little time now to do so.

I would like to talk about how spiritual disciplines can help strengthen us emotionally.

It seems that a lot of people think that our emotional natures are relatively fixed, and cannot change very much. I used to think so myself. Even another word for emotions, "passions," suggests that we are passive in relation to our emotions -- they happen to us. The most we can do is decide how to respond to them. Should we unquestionably obey them? Should we struggle against them? We may be passive in relation to them, unable to control how they beset us, but what's irritating about them is that they do try to drive us to action -- e-motion, to put into motion. Emotions move us. They come upon us and try to bypass all our rationality and get us to do things that we may later regret.

At least, that is the sense we get from much of Western philosophy.

I've long been interested in trying to understand emotions in new, more positive ways. And I've long wanted to move away from feeling in perpetual conflict with my emotions. I've especially struggled with fear and anxiety. For a time, I thought I was doomed to struggle with these forever.

But over time, I've learned to establish a new relationship with fear and anxiety, and that is what makes me optimistic about the possibility of emotional strengthening. It is not that I have vanquished fear and anxiety, even though it is true that they don't afflict me as much as they used to. It's that I've become less afraid of them! It's that I've learned to question these emotions and interact with them instead of just being controlled by them.

Emotional strengthening then is all about learning how to handle one's own and other people's emotions better. Having emotional strength means that you are not trying to run away from intense emotions, either postive ones or negative ones, but can face them without feeling threatened or hurt.

I think there are two major arenas for this: one is learning how to be compassionate, even towards those you may have difficulty feeling compassionate towards (including, possibly, yourself!). The other is learning how to deal with fear without being cowed and controlled by it, but also without becoming reckless and foolhardy in some misguided attempt to "dominate" it.

How can spiritual discipline help with these? We can learn to become more aware of our emotions, and to pause and reflect on them. It takes discipline, for example, not to immediately act on them. It takes discipline not to judge them. It takes discipline to be open-minded about what they may mean. It takes discipline to fully face them and experience them, especially when they are difficult. But that turns out to be what helps us become strong. When we fully experience the difficult emotions, and realize that this experiencing of them did not destroy us, we then change in a profound way. Those emotions cannot frighten us anymore in quite the way they did before.

Spiritual discipline also helps us learn to be compassionate towards the people we may find difficult in our lives. Again, this requires discipline. So much in our world now teaches us how to blame and punish. People even feel justified in harshly judging each other -- as if it's our moral duty to keep each other in line! But if we adopt a spiritual discipline of always asking the question, "why would that person think they were doing the right thing?" (because most people, most of the time, do think they are doing the right thing, even if it doesn't look that way to us), then we can learn how to see the world through others' eyes, which is what "compassion" is really all about. This doesn't require us to agree with everything everyone else says or does, but it does position us to engage our disagreements more effectively -- from a basic grounding in respect, from a humble desire to understand, instead of from a habit of judging negatively all who refuse to act in ways we want them to act!

I am not the center of the universe. This is a shared reality, and it is filled with all of these fascinating beings each with her or his own autonomy! Why not celebrate how amazing this is?

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