Monday, April 23, 2012

Emotional Intelligence (7): Guilt

Michelangelo's depiction of God, the Father, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

All this talk of emotions and how to manage them is fine in theory, but how do things work out in practice? I'd now like to examine some "challenging" states of mind, using examples from my own life. And "guilt" is a particularly pernicious feeling I've had continuing experience of.

Born into a God-fearing, Methodist family ruled by a strict and domineering father, I was soon acquainted with the notion of guilt and its effects. Although there are differences of emphasis and interpretation, all Christian sects and denominations believe in the concept of "original sin" — the belief that at birth we enter a world already contaminated by sin, the result of the Biblical Fall of Man and our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. From a rational, emotional and instinctual standpoint, I've now believed for a long time just the opposite: that we arrive in this world pure and innocent, and that it's the flawed human world which corrupts us. However, dubious attitudes and ideas drummed into us from early childhood are often hard to dispel. Or, more precisely, we may be able rationally to reject these attitudes and ideas, but the emotional toll they exact on us is often more difficult to reverse.

My parents, especially my father, dinned into me that I would be damned and rot in hell if I sinned.  My youthful crimes and misdemeanours were, on reflection, pretty mild and ordinary: telling lies, swearing, chasing girls in the school playground, masturbation, drawing rude cartoons of my father's lorry driver (which led to the lorry driver reporting this to my father who gave me a beating), being cheeky at Sunday School (again this led to a beating when my father got to know of it). Yet, despite the innocuous nature of these little vices, the corresponding guilt I felt was hugely disproportionate, and hung over me like a black cloud for much of my childhood and early adolescence. I don't want to exaggerate things, as I remember many happy times too: playing with mates, reading books, Christmas, holidays by the sea. Periods when this feeling of "guilt" seemed to subside, when I could overcome it by escaping outside my self. But I would always return wretchedly and with a sinking heart to what seemed at the time to be inescapably my "default" condition, a permanent background state of fearful guilt and anxiety.

Since I was brought up by my parents to be wary of the rough and godless village children, I also found it difficult for a while to mix in with most other normal kids of my age — though I always had a small circle of close friends. All this caused further debilitating feelings of shyness and acute self-consciousness. Much of my school life was therefore a bane to me. Luckily I was intelligent and assiduous, and retreated into my school work, which I found relatively easy. Which begs the question: was I hardworking out of fear of the teachers, out of a desire to please my father, out of an anxiety I might fail, out of guilt? As though hard work and "doing well" would help assuage my constant, irrational guilty state of mind? Because I knew that my father's leather strap was always waiting for me, lurking on a hook behind the tea towel in the kitchen?

I am glad to say that life improved dramatically in my early to mid-teens, and I changed unrecognisably — gaining confidence amongst my peers, with girls and with adults, and claiming my rightful place in the world. At the age of fifteen I walked and hitchhiked through the Swiss Jura. I stood up to my father and informed him that no, I would not be going to chapel with him on Sundays any more. I grew my hair. I read Orwell and Jung and books on Existentialism. I developed, I matured; I side-stepped as best as I could the tyrannical influence of my father. I asserted my true self. I did everything that is "normal" for an adolescent, and I began to love life with a passion and intensity which has never left me to this day. Yet even now — often, ironically, when I am engaged in transparently blameless activities — residues of guilt persist, like ancient dust still clinging to the bottom of a spring-cleaned wardrobe. Fortunately I have been able over the years to deal psychologically with these childhood traumas and irrational guilts and fears, though it has been a gradual process. I think that the seeds of all such long-learnt destructive feelings and emotions remain hidden somewhere deep within us, ready to germinate again if given the opportunity.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Emotional Intelligence (6): Flowing, Transient States Of Mind

It seems natural to follow my last post with some insights from Buddhism. These ideas we've been discussing about standing back a little from our emotions, examining them, not identifying with them completely, recognising they are an important part of us yet not us . . . are fundamental Buddhist concepts.

The twelfth chapter of David Brazier's The Feeling Buddha ends: "This ability to be both in and aside from the feeling at the same time is something that the Buddha taught his disciples to cultivate. He did not teach them to not have feelings. He taught them to allow the process to flow whilst also being able to observe it. The flow of feelings gives us essential information about our lives. To cut them off would be one extreme — the extreme of asceticism. To abandon ourselves to their control would be the other extreme — the extreme of indulgence. The Buddha taught a Middle Way between these extremes, a middle current where life flows effectively. This teaching of observing feeling while in the feelings is given time and again in the Buddha's basic instructions on mindfulness."

Having lived some parts of my life at both of these extremes, I for one now gladly embrace the Middle Way. Mindfulness is the key here, I think — though I'm not going to go into that right now, as many other writers and bloggers have explored it at length, and I've talked about it myself on my other blog The Solitary Walker, particularly with reference to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Steve Hagen, Eckhart Tolle, Krishnamurti and other Buddhist, Zen Buddhist and Buddhist-influenced thinkers.

Stephen Batchelor, in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs, writes: "Much of the time we are driven by a relentless and insistent surge of impulses . . ." (For impulses also read feelings and emotions.) He then goes on to consider randomly one emotion in isolation, the emotion of "hatred": ". . . to embrace hatred does not mean to indulge it. To embrace hatred is to accept it for what it is: a disruptive but transient state of mind. Awareness observes it jolt into being, colouring consciousness and gripping the body. The heart accelerates, the breath becomes shallow and jagged, and an almost physical urge to react dominates the mind. At the same time, this frenzy is set against a dark, quiet gulf of hurt, humiliation, and shame. Awareness notices all this without condoning or condemning, repressing or expressing. It recognises that just as hatred arises, so will it pass away. By identifying with it ('I really am pissed off!'), we fuel it  . . ."

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Emotional Intelligence (5): We Are Not Our Emotions

My jumping-off point for this next post about feelings and emotions is Bonnie's wise and helpful comment on my last post. I think it's so important that I'd like to quote it in full:

"With time and attention we can learn not to become identified with our feeling states. We can learn to let them wash over us, giving us the information we need without attaching to them. One of the keys to a balanced, open, healthy emotional life is to relate TO our emotions and not FROM them. E.g. 'Of course I am feeling over-wrought considering the trauma I have just experienced.' You acknowledge the emotion, give it room to be without allowing it to 'rule'.

E-motions are meant to move through us. Our goal should be to not allow them to possess us. Easier said than done, but with practice we can allow the emotion, glean the information it is giving us, and then move on to the next emotion that will surely follow. Feelings are essential to the flow of a human life — adding richness and depth — we just don't have to drown in them as we do when we become identified with them. E.g. 'I am experiencing angry feelings right now' rather than 'I am an angry person'."

Yes! The prime insight here, I think, is the recognition that we are not our emotions. They are closely involved with us but they are separate from us. This perception allows us to distance ourselves from our emotions slightly, to consider them from a more objective standpoint. You could perhaps say that it's our complete self, our whole psyche, that's the essential thing, and emotions take their valued but secondary place within this framework — or rather, as Bonnie states, they move right on through the frame, as feelings always seem to be in flux. Feelings do indeed give richness and depth to our lives, and we would be less than human without them. But we ourselves are more than just our transitory feelings, much more.

In a way, we are the sum of all our emotions, all the feelings we have ever experienced or anyone has ever experienced, just as we are the sum of all our thoughts and actions, and the sum of all anyone has thought or done. We are all connected to a kind of Jungian Collective Unconscious. We are unique individuals, but at the same time we are universally bound together. We are all carbon, all stardust. We all have bodies, brains, thoughts, feelings. And if I'm unable to achieve something in one area of my life, someone will realise it for me in theirs. And vice versa. In this sense, we are all saints and we are all sinners, and everything in-between, and if we truly understand what this means, then it may help us extend empathy towards the whole of mankind.