“All emotions are pure which gather you and lift you up; that emotion is impure which seizes only one side of your being and so distorts you.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
“This being human is a guest house/every morning a new arrival/A joy, a depression, a meanness... Welcome and entertain them all! ... Be grateful for whatever comes/because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” — Rumi
What is the role of the emotions in spiritual growth? We have been given so many reasons to distrust emotions, from early childhood templates of good and bad feelings, to cultural conditioning in the western world, to religious splits of our “higher” and “lower” natures in dealing with the passions. Then there’s our individual experience of negative emotions threatening to get us into endless trouble, inside and out, when those emotions take over.
For religious or spiritual people, unprocessed emotion or neglected “unfinished business,” to use therapy-speak, can lead to premature transcendence, spiritual bypass, or high-level denial of emotional wounds. Yet unintegrated feelings are notorious back-seat drivers, with the disastrous consequences we see in crashes of the unbalanced psyche at the weak links in society. Where there’s a lack of integration, there’s also a lot of bad advice.
I’ve never understood the “how to” of just let go when it comes to feelings that don’t naturally take the high road, as if they are glitches in our operating system which can simply be deleted, if not reprogrammed. On the other hand, the self-preoccupied, thin-skinned, endless processing of hurt or offended feelings has been the demise of many relationships, which lose sight of the bright side of life.
Fortunately, to be a godly man or woman, though it does imply being emotionally mature, doesn’t mean pitting higher consciousness against the burden of emotional baggage, trigger points, and the general muckiness of negative feelings. That’s where it helps to know Jesus didn’t come to redeem the righteous and doesn’t expect to find us in any kind of pristine state. Starting right where we are, there’s a third alternative to repressing or indulging emotions. It’s welcoming them as messengers and allies of the inner life, bringing surprising gifts.
In order not to “shoot the messenger” one need only ask of a prevailing emotion, “If this feeling could speak (kindly), what would it say to me?” Where there’s a feeling, there’s a need if we pay attention to where the feeling is pointing and the constructive attention summoned. Where there’s a need, there’s an underlying value — something that matters to us. Where there’s a value, there’s a purpose and an intention which, when unearthed, can honour the energy of the original emotion. There are good instincts beneath fear, potential restoration of boundaries within resentment, ground-clearing heralded by depression. For example, ask of anger, “What must be protected?” and “What must be restored?” Ask of fear, “What action must be taken?” Treat each emotion with honour and respect in your interior guest house. Similarly, ask questions of sadness: “What must be released?” and “What must be rejuvenated?” If sadness has a deeper job to do, it can become depression, the stop sign of the soul. Bless the depression and ask the questions: “What must end now?” and “What can no longer be sustained in my soul?” When you approach painful emotions with empathy and understanding, instead of getting burned by them, they can fuel a fire of purification.
Speyer is a Benedictine Oblate as well as Clinical Supervisor of E-Counselling for a major employee & family assistance program and creative director, InnerView Guidance International (IGI). He holds master’s degrees in creative writing, counselling psychology, and education. As a pioneer of e-counselling in Canada, he developed and implemented a short-term counselling model for online practitioners, edited a textbook on the subject, and does related reelance writing. Speyer also directs a documentary series titled GuideLives for the Journey: Ordinary Persons, Extraordinary Pathfinders. http://www.guidelives.ca/