Spirituality and Emotion

A spiritual experience can be emotionally powerful. Some have concluded from this that spirituality is primarily about emotion. That spirituality involves emotion is true enough — just about everything humans do involves emotions. That spirituality is primarily about emotions is more questionable. Here I want to explore the relationship of spirituality and emotion, at least as these have played out in my own experience.

In the various spiritual traditions, spiritual growth requires a deepening of self knowledge; an important aspect of deepening self knowledge is to deepen one’s understanding of his or her emotional nature — to be “in touch with one’s feelings” to use a popular phrase.

What does it mean to be in touch with one’s feelings? Some people think it means that we aren’t afraid to express our emotions. If by expressing emotion we mean acting out our emotions, I think this is rather off target. If we mean expressing our emotions in words, we’re closer to the mark. Translating emotions into words requires what has been called “emotional intelligence.” To express our emotions in words, we need to develop a habit of recognizing our emotions and taking them seriously. We have to feel what we feel, accept what we feel, and interpret what we feel. The ability to understand the information content of our emotions, I suggest, is what it really means to be in touch with one’s feelings.

That emotions convey information should be fairly obvious. Outwardly, when we see a person that is angry, the information conveyed to us by their emotional state could possibly save us from harm. We can read this same kind of information in a dog or other wild animal, and take appropriate precautions. The conveyance of other emotions, such as amorousness or playfulness, provide more attractive information, and properly interpreted can lead us to pleasure.

While the emotions of others convey one kind of information, our own emotions also convey information to us. If I am angry with another person, I can simply strike out at that person and express my anger. But I also have the ability, hopefully, to stop and ask myself “why am I angry?” If I am angry at another person, it usually means that they are doing something that I want them to stop doing, or I want them to do something that they aren’t currently doing.

If we know what we want a person to do or not do, we have the option of asking them to either stop or start doing it. If nothing else we can move from emotion to dialog. Or sometimes we recognize that what we want of the other person is really not reasonable and we decide to accept the situation. In the first case, if through our words we succeed in getting the person to do what we want, we have successfully mined the information content of our emotion and used it to obtain a satisfaction. In the second case, we may not feel completely satisfied, but we have successfully understood the information the emotion had to convey and gained a degree of acceptance.

Alcoholics Anonymous have what they call the Serenity Prayer, which goes “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” This prayer is very apt for how we treat the information content of an emotion like anger. There are times when it is wise to change a situation that does not please us and times when the wise response is to accept the situation as it is. And as the prayer suggests, wisdom lies in knowing the difference and as the title suggests, working through this process often can transform the turmoil of negative emotions into the serenity of resolution.

In addition to negative emotions like anger, there are also positive emotions like pleasure. Whereas a negative emotion tells us that we don’t like the way things are and we want a change, a positive emotion tells us that we do like how things are and we would like the situation to continue. Generally, it doesn’t require any elaborate interpretation to figure this out.

There is, however, a dark side to these emotions that tell us “this is good, let’s have more of it.” This has to do with bad habits and addictions. While our emotion may be telling us “this is good,” the voice of reason may be telling us “this is not healthy and you are going to regret it later.” Learning when and how the positive emotions fool us is also a part of being in touch with our feelings.

On the surface, this all sounds rather simple, but for most of us developing a kind of mental space between our emotions and our response to them, is quite difficult. With their existential immediacy, emotions can sweep over us, drowning the “still, small voice of reason,” like a tsunami drowning an unsuspecting coastal village. But developing this skill is possible. In the West, the Stoics have provided a comprehensive philosophy and method for doing so, while in the Orient, the tradition of yoga has served a similar purpose. (By yoga, I mean the classical tradition of India of which the physical yoga, so popular now in the West, is a rather small part.)

At their best, both these traditions can provide a healthy way of dealing with emotions. But corrupted, as they often are, they can become methods of emotional suppression. Rather than helping people get in touch with their feelings, they can cause people to become detached from them. The stereotypical Victorian Englishman with his stiff upper lip is a portrayal of this kind of emotional ignorance.

I first came upon the idea I am presenting here — the value of translating the information content of our emotions into words — in the philosopher Spinoza’s book Ethics. He writes: “An emotion which is a passion, ceases to be a passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.” I came upon this idea a few years after I was married. I had been brought up in a family environment where emotional suppression was strongly modeled, and I was rather poorly prepared for dealing with all the feelings that marriage stirred up in me. My wife was much better at expressing her emotions than I was so she modeled for me a healthier approach to emotion. But coming across the idea in Spinoza gave me a “clear and distinct idea” of what until then was still a vague one. Putting this simple idea into practice helped me become much better at communicating with my wife, which in turn made marriage more comfortable and enjoyable.

In addition, Spinoza’s idea gave me important insights into my spiritual practice, which is based on Zen meditation (though I call myself a dharma bum rather than a Buddhist as my practice is rather eclectic and haphazard).

The discipline of meditation increases our aware and gives us greater control of our inner being. As our skill in meditation increases, our awareness becomes less entranced by the stream of objects that ordinarily are the focus of that awareness — a stream comprised of perceptions, thoughts, imaginings and emotions. We develop a kind of space within our awareness between this stream of stimuli and our response to them. The creation of this space allows us to do what Spinoza suggests, to explore our emotions and other stimuli rather than simply reacting to them. We cease to be like Pavlov’s dog unconsciously responding to stimuli, and gain more conscious control of our response.

Again, it is important to emphasis that we do not achieve this self control through the suppression of our emotions, but by being mindful of them and taking seriously the information they convey. This inner space allows us the wisdom to act upon feelings conducive to our well being and not act upon those harmful to it. The feeling that ultimately comes to occupy this space is a deep and abiding peace. Such peace is the emotional reward of a spiritual life — the information it conveys is that “this is very good indeed.”

Some spiritual traditions are based on giving one’s love totally to a personified deity, and emotion is necessarily central to such spirituality. Emotion plays quite a different role in the contemplative forms of spirituality, as I have tried to describe here. In conclusion, while it is not entirely correct to think that spirituality is about emotion, it is partially correct.


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