Practices to Deal with the Emotions.
The first article in this series should be read before reading this one. It gives a background understanding of how our emotions are generated, and specifically how when our desires are met we are happy, and when they are not we are unhappy. And all of these desires derive from one desire – the will-to-life, or the survival instinct.
Key to the whole approach taken here is one very important idea – we need to study and work with our emotions in a manner that is as unemotional as possible. Our emotional nature is like a machine. When our survival is enhanced (better job, new attractive partner, good health etc) we experience positive emotions, when our survival is diminished (poor health, loss of money, a divorce etc) we experience sad emotions. It works like clockwork, and is reliable as the law of gravity – water always flows downhill. This mechanical nature of the emotions is its weakness. If the emotions were random we would have no way of dealing with them or understanding them.
Many people interested in this line of work will read writers like Schopenhauer or Cioran, but do it with an emotional bias. These writers often fell into the trap of becoming heavily identified with the material they wrote, resulting in depression, and for some writers suicide. We should take Spinoza’s edict that the emotional nature of man can be studied in an impartial and purely intellectual way. So when Schopenhauer points out the futility of a single life, it is quite possible to think about this in the same way we might consider how the law of gravity allows the solar system to function. I’m really not saying this is easy, but it is essential if we are to study reality and remain strong and joyful within. I quote Spinoza:
Thus the passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from this same necessity and efficacy of nature; they answer to certain definite causes, through which they are understood, and possess certain properties as worthy of being known as the properties of anything else, whereof the contemplation in itself affords us delight. I shall, therefore, treat of the nature and strength of the emotions according to the same method, as I employed heretofore in my investigations concerning God and the mind. I shall consider human actions and desires in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids.
So, having established that very important principle, let’s talk about practical methods to deal with the emotions. The first thing to say is that the emotions are in the body, and to become more aware of the body is a very important practice. To this end there are various body sensing exercises, and one that comes straight from the Gurdjieff work. This is not actually new and is mentioned in some old Zen texts. I don’t want to post this exercise willy-nilly, so if anyone is interested please send an email to the address on the about page and I’ll send a PDF, a couple of pages long that explains the exercise.
We need to become more aware of the body because this will allow us to sense the emotional state more acutely – tension in the chest and shoulders, shallow breathing and so on. So we really need to be able to sense our emotional state in the body, and by observing the thoughts we have that go along with these states. This takes a long time to master – years. Anyone who thinks they can master this in an afternoon is just delusional, and is falling prey to a certain form of greed (another emotion that can be sensed in the body). This is subtle work requiring one to master the art of self-observation. I’ve mentioned many times that a book by Red Hawk on self-observation is one of the best resources, and is highly recommended. Self-observation should simply register the emotional state without judgement or the desire to change things. Again this is a skill that takes much practice to master. Inner judgement is a constant feature within most people, unless they have worked to observe it. If you see inner judgement do not judge it – just watch it.
To summarize so far. Our emotions operate in a purely mechanical way – life affirming events and ideas will produce happy emotions, and life negating events and ideas will produce unhappy emotions. This is how we are made and cannot be circumvented. There is absolutely no point reading Ernst Becker’s Denial of Death in an emotionally identified manner and thinking you will not become depressed. Thoughts of death that are not purely intellectual will cause depression – they are life diminishing. By becoming more attuned with our body and learning to observe our emotional state without judgement or the desire to change, we create a little bit of separation between ourselves and what is going on within the body and emotions.
Finally we need understanding – the most important part in all of this. The first article in this series gives an overview of our emotional nature – all of it driven by the will-to-life, the survival instinct. If a person is experiencing a negative emotion they can, with practice trace it back to some diminishing of their sense of existence. Say a person wakes in a depressed mood for some seemingly unknown reason. In all likelihood there will be some background diminishing set of circumstances – shortage of money, failing relationship, or it could even be a hormonal imbalance within the body. Understanding the background driver, and how it is related to the diminishing of the will-to-life in a purely intellectual way will diminish the emotion. A person can quite literally say to themselves “Oh I feel diminished because I’m having problems meeting my monthly rent obligation and this diminishes my survival prospects.”. It sounds mechanical, and that is because it needs to be mechanical – an impartial observation. Again this requires practice and will not be picked up in the space of an afternoon.
Obviously there is more to it, but there is enough here to get a person started on an objective, and purely intellectual study of the emotions. I would strongly recommend studying Part 3 of Spinoza’s Ethics, and Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation. But remember – study these things as if you were studying engineering, or some other intellectual pursuit – without emotion. A gentle, but very useful introduction to Spinoza can be got from Grossman’s Spirit of Spinoza – it also includes many exercises.