Sunday, September 25, 2016

Summary of a Workshop: Negative Emotions on a Spiritual Path

Many times, we get the message that being on a spiritual path means you can't have anger, depression, anxiety, or fear.  Instead, we are told to quickly get rid of such emotions and replace them with something more akin to love.  But is that really the case?  Is that healthy?

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...
Many people, in normal everyday lives, look at these and see a message of hope. But others see those ways of looking at emotions as being accusatory, a symptom of denial, and - yes - privileged.

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.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Darkside of Libra

Astrology is an interesting study. Not only does each person have their own natal chart (the signs at your birth) with 10 planets, two lunar nodes, ascendent/rising signs, and several asteroids, but then there are progressions (how zodiac influences have developed into the current aspects).

On top of that, the current placement of the stars and planets can have an overall effect on the world at large. This is seen more prominently in the outer, slower-changing planets (while the inner, faster-changing planets are more influential on individuals).

Each zodiac sign has it's own personality. Most zodiac descriptions focus on the positive of each sign, but each sign also has a dark side - the negative aspect of that sign.

This series explores the negative, world-effect aspects of each sign. For simplicity, I am assuming we are talking about the Sun in each sign, though most of these analyses would apply to other planetary placements, as well.

Libra is a cardinal air sign, with its opposite/duality in Aries. Libra is the sign of balance and diplomacy. Able to see both sides and empathize with all, Libra is a non-judgmental and compassionate sign.

The flip side of being non-judgmental is that it is difficult for Libra to judge anything. They often have trouble determining the pros and cons of every decision and, afraid of hurting feelings if they make the wrong choice, often find themselves unable to make any choice at all.

Let's not forget the less optimistic way of saying indecisive: fence-sitting. Libra's can sometimes take this lack of judgment to the point of refusing to take a side when sides need to be taken. What is a positive thing when two friends bicker with Libra in the middle, can become a violation of friendship when one of those parties seriously harms the other - and Libra still attempts to remain neutral.

Libra is the sign of balance, and they are constantly walking the balance of not hurting people's feelings. While this is nice to be around, it makes them inconsistent about any kind of feedback or criticism, something that good friends can and should provide. Every now and then, friends should call out bad or destructive behavior to help each other grow.

The scales can swing back and forth to reveal the truth, and Libra needs to learn to embrace that: Truth can trump balance.

The Libra time of year is the start of the new school year, when things reset and people prepare for winter. We may find ourselves unable to determine what old stuff to let go and what new stuff to let slide, giving us a real balancing act of projects.

Now is the time of year to find the most difficult kind of balance: you have to allow new things to come into your life without judgment, AND you must force yourself to make hard decisions - and they will ALL seem hard - about what must stay and what must go. You've gotten on a path, but figuring out the specifics will require the complexities of Libra's scales and the diplomacy that Libra excels in.