“The word shaman means ‘to see in the dark.’ There is a shamanism of the dark emotions — a way of maintaining awareness in the midst of the chaos and turbulence of the darker regions of the psyche. . . . Painful emotions challenge us to know the sacred in the broken; to develop an enlarged sense of Self beyond the suffering ego . . . a wider and deeper perspective not limited by our pain but expanded by it.” — Miriam Greenspan
There’s a scene in the movie The Pink Panther 2 in which Chief Inspector Dreyfus (played by John Cleese) is ordered to reinstate Inspector Clouseau (played by Steve Martin) on a criminal investigative team. Dreyfus had previously kept Clouseau on parking ticket duty to minimize the chaos Clouseau causes everywhere he goes. Upon being given no choice, Dreyfus excuses himself to the washroom where we see him literally banging his head against the wall; then he returns to the meeting in tight control of his frustrated rage.
Painful or “dark” emotions are often subject to such two-choice dilemmas. We can hide them, numb, dissociate, and maintain a veneer of politeness or even piety while in a state of emotional constriction. Or we can “act out” in ways that hurt ourselves or throw loved ones and not-so-loved ones under the bus, in favour of how they “make” us feel.
There is a third alternative, however, which allows both needs of the heart. One bleeds. The other forbears. It’s the psychospiritual practice of relating to the passions in the following ways.
Attending: The adversity of the dark emotions invites us to practice emotional mindfulness with whatever state we’re in. Just stay with the images or sensations which arise. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling without having to do anything about it. Watch the thoughts and feelings like you would when watching a movie. View yourself with the same compassion you would extend toward someone you love in the same situation.
Befriending: Welcome whatever you’re feeling like an honoured, or at least interesting guest, without judgment. Maintain witness consciousness for the stream of sensations and thoughts as they pass through your body/mind/spirit. Let any emotional toxicity circulate like you would with overactive, demanding children running around until they tire themselves out, while you “hold the space” and make sure they don’t get into trouble.
Surrendering: While staying connected with the emotional energy, allow it to flow where it wants to go in the spirit of “let’s get into it” rather than “get me out of here.” Open your heart wider in the face of emotional pain, rather than closing and contracting around it. Set the intention to trust it. Move into what hurts, with awareness as your safeguard. Trace back grief, fear, or despair to the essence of what matters to our shared humanity.
Intending: Set the intention to practice emotional alchemy for personal and collective transformation. The dark emotions contain subtle calls to action since the world lives in us as much as we live in the world. We are called by fear to protect and preserve what is life-giving. We are called by grief to join in an uprising against systemic sin, like the Parkland high school students in Florida are doing. Despair calls for deep contemplation of eternal values in this, our collective dark night of the soul. We then tap into the human condition at its most crucified, where we can discern how conscious suffering leads to service.
Speyer is a Benedictine Oblate as well as an author, subject matter expert for e-therapy, clinical consultant and director of InnerView Guidance International (IGI). https://www.innerviewguidance.com