The capacity to experience such a broad range of emotions as we do and to experience them with such intensity is a defining characteristic of being human. That capacity is, in fact, a blessing conferred upon us by divine design – though we may not always believe so!
Many times, we curse our ability to experience emotion, because emotions can be painful and disturbing; they may intrude at inconvenient moments; and even the emotions we value as positive can be so intense as to seemingly destabilize the whole structure of personality.
Depending on the quality of the formative experiences of our early lives, we learn, to one degree or another, to control, suppress and deny our emotions, even to fear them.
Society, particularly as embodied in our parents, judges some emotions as acceptable and others as unacceptable and even judges what intensity of emotion is acceptable.
In the estimation of human society as it has existed thus far, the expression of emotion must be carefully and sometimes harshly regulated.
Why? Because those who’ve gone before us were similarly repressed, and they can be afraid of our youthful inhibition in the expression of emotion. They project this dynamic outward and seek to manage their fear by controlling uninhibited youth, their sons and daughters.
To ponder how much creative passion has been denied by this mechanism is a sad subject to ponder; because of it, civilization is less advanced and less fulfilling than it could be.
This tendency to control has serious implications for those who seek a spiritual path. As we grow up, we naturally want to survive and prosper. We adapt to the prevailing climate in which we find ourselves, with greater or lesser success, by internalizing the cultural strictures which are imposed on us, sometimes quite forcefully, by parents and parent surrogates such as teachers, clergy, police, other relatives, and even our neighbors and friends.
We end up riding, like a tiny boat, a sea of repressed emotions, fearful lest a storm brew and blow us about.
It’s amazing how much energy we devote to suppressing our emotions. It can be exhausting! It’s also a huge distraction from the essential business of human life.
Let’s take as an axiom that the purpose of human life is to know God, our Creator, our Infinite and Eternal Source, for that is our birthright as His/Her/Its children.
How can we come to really know and experience God if we are continually distracted by the turbulent experience of emotions and the effort and energy expended to control and suppress them?
The second purpose of human life is to enjoy Life. We’ve all had enough diversity of experience, in this life and others, to know how challenging it can be to do that, simply and easily, gracefully and naturally to flow with the currents of life and to experience the pleasure of that flowing.
Our difficulty in allowing the natural flow of emotion is often a major contributor to that inability to flow with the currents of life gracefully and easefully.
We attempt to adapt in a variety of ways, for to our credit, we’re irrepressible: The impulse to know our Source and to enjoy Life is instinctive and cannot be denied – thankfully!
But in our attempt to do that, we often alternate between denial and indulgence of our emotions. And this imbalance, continually fluctuating between high and low, intense and dull, expressed and repressed, interferes with fulfillment of both the purposes of life.
The yoga sutras of Patanjali offer guidance in this regard when they tell us that a yogi or sage (which I define as any person who’s become completely stable in the art of living with grace and ease, in conscious Union with his or her Source) experiences neither attraction nor aversion (cf., sutras 7 & 8 of pada/chapter II, for example), which the Buddha called the “Middle Way” between craving and aversion. The sage lives in that balance point, the point of equanimity. What does this mean when applied to emotion?
There’s a common misunderstanding about emotion in relation to a spiritual path. It’s often assumed that emotion is irrelevant to enlightenment, that it can simply be ignored when one turns one’s attention to the Infinite One. This may be true for one who’s become stable in the experience of the Infinite One, but it is decidedly not the case for a person who’s still progressing toward that worthwhile goal.
We’re sometimes told that when we’re experiencing a strong emotion, we should turn away from it and focus our awareness on the Infinite, on the One, on the Silence, on the Divine. Is that always good advice? Not necessarily.
Awareness of the Infinite One lies beyond the experience of emotion; it’s fundamentally transcendent to all the gross and subtle bodies of the human being, including the emotional body. The field of emotions is like a veil suspended between us and the vision of the One.
Emotions are like the turbulence that disturbs the water, in the parable, that fractures the image of the moon reflected in it so we are unable to see that image clearly. The yogic traditions speak of calming the waters, stilling the emotions and the mind, in order to see the Infinite clearly. But how does one do this when emotions are sweeping through our awareness?
It’s certainly not by denial, for our awareness is then focused on the effort of repressing the emotion, and some aspect of our consciousness must be continually devoted to maintaining that suppression, preventing us from committing fully to focusing on and knowing the One.
It’s certainly not by indulgence in the drama of the emotion, for then our awareness is engrossed in following the progress of the emotion, perhaps in indulging it and exploring the truly endless permutations of the drama. This is not a path to the One, for pursuing drama is a potentially endless distraction.
We’ve been told that following the Middle Way is like walking a razor’s edge. Indeed, it can be, but that expression is a bit intimidating to many, so let us rather say it is like walking a “fine line.” The fine line in relation to emotion is the division between denial and indulgence.
It’s the discipline and learned skill of sitting in a place of neutrality in relation to the emotion – whether it be seen as pleasant or painful, “good” or “bad” – and allowing ourselves to feel the emotion as we simultaneously observe the emotion, without judgment, without the mind jumping in to analyze or evaluate; simply observing and allowing the emotion.
This skill is applicable at any time, and is very useful when experiencing emotion strongly. If one wants to maintain stability of mind in the presence of strong emotion, observation and allowance are essential skills.
It’s also particularly relevant during meditation, for it’s in the nature of a true meditation to bring to the surface of the mind anything which has been repressed and which needs to see the light of day, so to speak, in order to be cleared, released, healed.
In meditation, it’s useful to be like the surfer of a wave arising in the ocean of emotion: alert but not anxious, balanced, smoothly shifting with the wave, neither sailing off the rising crest nor plunging into the depths, gracefully pointed toward the shore of our Divine Home.
When one is able to sit in neutrality, experiencing neither attraction to the emotion (positive judgment of it) nor aversion from it (negative judgment of it), it then becomes possible to look past the emotion to what lies beyond it.
If one looks far enough past the emotion, one begins to see that Infinite, Transcendent One that’s our true Home. Then meditation, as also life, is serving its purpose.
An interesting side-effect of this neutral position – and of then being able to look past emotions toward our Divine Source – is that emotions then begin to calm and diminish. They move through the awareness, as they will do whenever they are not judged or controlled but simply allowed to be what they are: energy-in-motion.
This calming also creates a space and an opportunity for one to see clearly the issue which is surfacing with the emotion, if it needs to be seen by the conscious mind; if not, simply let it go along with the emotion that will move through, if allowed to do so, unhindered by judgment or fear.
This calming is not a form of denial; it is a natural moderation of the experience of emotion. The enlightened feel emotions just as the rest of us do; they are not automatons. But they see that emotion is relative to the totality of life, that emotions are transient and fleeting.
Their greatest desire is to be ever aware of the One Essence, which is forever permanent, above and beyond all that moves and changes, which is insubstantial, like a mirage in the desert. The Infinite Essence and Source is the absolutely stable foundation of all phenomenal Creation.
In that balanced state, in that Middle Way, life is experienced with gracefulness, and emotions come and go like the currents and eddies of a river, making its way to the Infinite Ocean. The emotions are experienced, neither judged and denied nor encouraged and indulged, as are many things also experienced, none greater than any other, none special above all others.
And then one’s attention, one’s focus, can once again be directed to the Presence of the One, not only in meditation but in every moment of life, a continual, precious and exquisitely-fulfilling Presence.