We will be discussing the place that negative emotions have even at higher spiritual levels, and how to know when it's time to embrace negativity as a part of continued spiritual growth.
No matter how much we embrace our religious or spiritual beliefs, we are still just people living in the real world. We like to post memes that quote the Buddha: "You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger."
We talk about the destructiveness of being a hater, of judging others, of not being "grateful", of not holding enough love. We talk about hate and fear as the opposites of love, as though they are the corruption within us. As though "allowing" ourselves to feel these emotions is a failure.
What kinds of messages have you heard? What do those messages mean to you?
|Tell that to people living in fear...|
How might those messages be hurtful for people in different circumstances?
We should be "rising above" such negativity. If we are still feeling hate and anger, we aren't as spiritual as we should be. How do those sound to people with mental illness, chronic pain, chronic poverty, or in an environment of oppression?
What do those two ways of looking at emotions have in common? They assume that emotions are controlled by and a symptom of the person feeling them. This perspective has several problems.
The first problem is that this ignores the legitimacy of those emotions. Spiritual growth is about understanding who you are, accepting the flaws of human incarnation, and living a life complete with suffering and hard knocks. In many ways, a spiritual path is less about who you should be and more about who you really are, stripped of the illusions of culture and expectation.
There is a brutal honesty inherent in that. We are supposed to accept that we are clumsy, but not the angry reaction we have when we stub our toe? We are supposed to accept the complications of relationships, but not the heartbreak that comes with that?
Where is the line of what we are allowed to feel? Who gets to decide if our emotions are valid enough to acknowledge?
The second problem is that we often choose to suppress our negative emotions. We are supposed to change our sadness into gratitude, or our anger into empathy.
First of all, that doesn't work. You can fake it for a while, but those emotions will show themselves eventually. Bitterness, passive-aggressive words and actions, sabotage of oneself or others... those are the negativity leaking through. And it's subtle and insidious.
Secondly, it assumes that feeling certain emotions will lead to certain behaviors and mindsets. Anger isn't the problem. Punching a stranger in the face is the problem. Sorrow isn't the problem. Railroading every situation and conversation for the next six months to talk about how your ex was your soulmate and you can't live without him or her - that's the problem.
The third problem is that the mindset that you can just decide not to feel a certain way is extremely contextual and, in many ways, inaccurate.
This means that there are assumptions made about those feelings and the situation that caused them in the very statements that say things like "your anger will hurt you more than it hurts them."
Except, why are you angry? Was someone you care about hurt by someone else? Are you angry over injustice? Those are pretty legitimate reasons to be angry.
You can watch a funny movie after a bad breakup - and you will probably laugh during the movie. You may even feel better about it. But the humor of Hollywood won't take away the knowledge of what has been lost.
Emotions don't happen in a void. You don't just be sad. There is always a reason. People get angry or sad or hurt or possessive for many reasons. The emotions themselves won't change. They can't.
The assumption that we can control and change our emotions is a myth based on the fact that we can temporarily feel differently with certain behaviors. But it is still a myth.
If you feel sad over the death of a loved one, that sadness never goes away. Once you process the grief, your mind can move on. It returns, more often at first, then less as time goes by.
But anyone who has lost someone close will tell you that there is still a pang of grief when you realize it's their birthday, or the anniversary of their death. The emotion never changes, you just don't focus on it as much.
Unless you grieve appropriately, you will still feel it come back at times. Even if you *do* grieve appropriately, you will have feelings returning. Grieving lets you process the situation more deeply, more often. Essentially, you are allowing the focus on that feeling to wear itself out.
But the feeling doesn't go away. It can't. The reason for the feeling is still there.
And therein lies the core of the issue.
We can't control our emotional state because it is an indication of what is happening to us.
"Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they're big, flashing signs that something needs to change." Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project.
In a healthy, spiritual life, negative emotions are great big indicators or how we are doing. Sadness tells us we've lost something, even if it's just a potential of something. Guilt indicates that we've violated our own code of conduct - it is the emotion of honor. Loneliness indicates we need to establish more meaningful social connections.
Anger, says psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters in "Spiritual Bypassing", is “the primary emotional state that functions to uphold our boundaries.”
Fear is about acknowledging possible threats, whether physical or emotional. It's okay to understand that there are things that can happen. Dwelling on remote possibilities may not help us, but healthy fear can tell us when there is a real danger.
Jealousy and envy are horribly maligned emotions, but they tell us the most about our spiritual path.
Jealousy tells us what we are most connected to, for better or worse. If we are jealous over a person, we may have an unhealthy connection. Or that person may be a lifeline that provides something we should work on for ourselves.
Envy shows us what our desires are. We become envious of our friend's new job, but that may simply indicate that we would like to find work that is equally fulfilling to us as their job is to them. We become envious of a new relationship, but we don't necessarily want the person they have - rather we desire the support and connection they seem to have with them.
The best way we can progress on our spiritual path is to receive all of the messages that we are sent. We acknowledge "signs" and "omens", and interpret dreams, but we ignore the powerful, motivating force of what our negative emotions are telling us. They may be the best insight we will ever have, so don't suppress them. Let them tell you what's going on.