Negative Emotions Aren’t Really Negative

My first true spiritual epiphany came not through religion or spiritual activity, at least not the way I would have defined it at the time.  I was in my early 30s, pursuing what I thought was a dream of mine, and failing spectacularly.  Not many people knew how spectacularly I was failing — I put on a really good front.  But I could feel my ambitions crumbling into failure and found myself in a desperate search for some explanation for the long run of similar circumstances in my life.  I was smart.  I was talented.  I was motivated.  Why didn’t things come together for me?

My parents espoused the theory that when we feel bad about ourselves we should pray about it, give our negative feelings over to god and let him take that burden.  That approach had never worked for me.  At the time, my approach had been to turn more deeply into my pagan spiritual practices for guidance out of my negative thoughts and towards productive action.  

In the end, rather than finding god or the power of positive energy, I found Nine Inch Nails.  Specifically, I found all of the negative emotions I’d tried to rid myself of my entire life.  I found words to express all the times I was disappointed in my choices, angry at myself for my mistakes, upset because I couldn’t find the courage to do what I knew I should.  I discovered the value of all the negative things I’d ever thought or felt but was afraid to express or acknowledge.  Letting myself feel those things was revelatory.  When I let myself think about events which made me feel rage and hate and terror and shame I finally realized what I needed to change about my actions, my decisions, my way of approaching life’s challenges.

The problem with spiritual or religious paths which tell us that anger, sadness, jealousy, judgment, fear, disappointment, and doubt are symptoms of lack of faith or signs of failure is that those emotions are useful and shutting them off has consequences.  Serious consequences.  Just like physical pain, emotions which make us feel bad rather than good are symptoms that something needs to be changed.  If we touch something hot or sharp we feel pain, and it means we should move away from whatever is hurting us.  Instinctively we know this.  We don’t question it.  But when something happens that makes us feel sad or angry we question our emotions.  We try to alter what we feel rather than address the cause of those feelings.

I grew up being taught that faith should take away negative emotions.  I simply wasn’t supposed to feel them.  That meant I never learned to interpret them, never learned to address their cause.  I was taught that god would take them away if I had faith, if I focused on spiritual things rather than reality.  If I felt alienated or rejected it was because I put importance on what others thought when I should have been focused on what god thought.  If I felt angry with myself or with others, it was because I did not trust god to work in my life to fulfill his own plan for me. 

When my faith put me onto more pagan paths, my approach to negative emotions was different but the outcome was the same.  Negative emotions meant I needed to put more effort into finding inner peace or focusing on channeling my thoughts and energies into more positive outcomes.  If I felt alienated or rejected it was a sign that those who were shutting me out were bad for me, that I simply needed to find more positive influences and allies.  If I felt angry with myself or others, it was because I had not learned to love enough, to forgive enough, that I was putting out negative energies and reaping the negative results.  

Finding proper expression of my negative emotions revealed a hard but welcome truth:  there were things about myself that I needed to change.  It didn’t mean I was a bad person or that I was flawed or damaged.  There were simply skills I needed to become better at, mistakes I’d made that I needed to fix.  

Feeling alienated and rejected was sometimes a sign that I didn’t really know how to connect to other people.  Sometimes it was a symptom of self-doubt, a twisted interpretation of my reality which allowed me to blame others for not including me when in reality I had been so scared of being ridiculed that I didn’t make an effort to reach out.  When I really thought about what I was feeling, I realized that not knowing how to deal with being teased as a child for being different led to a lifetime of self-imposed barriers between myself and others.

Feeling angry with myself or others was sometimes a sign that I was involved in relationships which weren’t good for me.  Sometimes it was a sign that I was avoiding the reality of a situation, and yes, that sometimes meant that I was to blame and deep down I didn’t want to own up to it.  

There is a physical condition called congenital analgesia which causes an inability to feel pain.  It is dangerous and life threatening.  People with the condition suffer injuries and infections without realizing they’ve been hurt, and can suffer from illnesses and diseases without feeling the symptoms.  Though many of us might think a life without pain would be a blessing, pain is actually a necessary part of existence.  The same goes for emotional pain.  We should not strive for a life without negative emotions.  Living a life where we never feel the emotional sting of doubt or fear or shame means we aren’t able to tell when we need to take action, to protect or defend or heal ourselves.  

Ultimately, what I learned through digging through a lifetime of ignored emotions is that they have meaning.  They may not always mean what they seem to mean at first glance, but they always mean something.  They are our inner spiritual guide, our inner voice.  We shouldn’t blindly follow where it leads, but we should always listen when it speaks.

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Slogging Through the Untamed Jungle of Religion

I’ve not relied on many spiritual guides through my life.  Largely this is because I’ve never quite been convinced that there is anyone out there who will guide me to where I am trying to go.  Let’s face it, spiritual leaders exist to guide people along a prescribed path to a prescribed destination, and the instructions are not open to interpretation.  

On the plus side, this means I’ve never had the unfortunate experience of being misled by a spiritual guide.  

But this also means that I’ve always had to go my own way, like slogging through the untamed jungle of religion with only a machete and a compass.

That’s not a bad thing, though.  The feeling of being lost (or maybe not lost, only searching) is what has driven my entire spiritual life for the past 20 years.  For me, I’ve come to realize that the search is the root of spirituality.  It’s not a matter of certainty.  Certainty is terrifyingly boring.  Who wants to live the rest of their existence absolutely certain that they understand everything they ever need to know?  Where is the wonder, then?  What is there to be excited about, if it isn’t new discoveries, new understandings, the revelation of mysteries?

And that is why I think I’ve never wanted nor accepted the guidance of anyone else in my spiritual life.  The quest is my religion, and if I have a map or a guide to show me the mysteries of existence then it isn’t a quest, it’s a tour.  I don’t want a step by step guide to enlightenment.  I want to spend my whole life digging for new truths, new epiphanies, new layers of understanding.  I want to see old things in new ways and include new components in old traditions.  

I’ve long said that my goal in life is to get to old age and, rather than being able to say I committed myself to one job and worked it until the end, I wanted to be able to look back on a long list of experiences, skills, and accomplishments.  Though it’s taken me a very long time to realize it, I now understand that my spiritual ambitions are similar.  I have no interest in ultimate truth wrapped in stagnant dogma.  I want to understand the breadth and depth of human thought on spiritual things and to spend my life thinking about what it all means.  

The divine is knowledge.  Knowledge is infinite.  Learning is the ultimate religion.

If Wishes Were Horses…

Surprisingly, there is an awful lot of spiritual and religious teachings which revolve around asking for favors.  We pray for healing, ask for forgiveness, use energy to assert our will.  We believe karma will bring us good things in return for good actions, and hope that the same mechanism works to visit punishment on people when we can’t bring that justice ourselves.  People look for ways to make spiritual action produce material prosperity.  We want things, and we want our religion to open up channels by which we can obtain the things we want.

Only it rarely works.  For every prayer for healing, there are reassurances that death and suffering happen for good reasons.  We hope for prosperity, but are more likely to find teachings which elevate poverty as an expression of faith.  For all the things we want, there are few examples of people for whom those wishes came true as envisioned.

So is the problem in our faith?  

Partially, yes, it is.  But the bigger problem is in how we try to use our faith.  

Spirituality deals with our connection to the other, the outside, the transcendent.  Whether you believe this to be god, a pantheon of gods, a conglomeration of energies, a universal consciousness, or none of the above, spiritual practice concerns itself with things outside of our physical existence.  Looking to spiritual forces to produce solutions to our material problems is like asking a financial advisor to deposit money in your bank account.

Instinctively we know this to be the case.  When parents refuse to get medical care for their ill children because they believe god will heal them, most of us realize that this is a misunderstanding of how spirituality works.  When musicians thank god for helping them win awards and sell albums, most of us know that this is false.  But when the stakes get more personal, what we know in our hearts gets pushed aside to make room for what we wish could be true.

Whether or not you believe in magic, the practice of using rituals and spells to make something happen is simply a more straightforward example of what spiritual people do every day.  While some pray to a benevolent spirit to ask for favors, practitioners of magic cut out the middle man.  And there is a particularly important part of the magical practice which I think applies to all spiritual requests:  you have to really think about what you want and why you want it, or you won’t get what you ask for.

One thing I have observed in the pagan community is that those who hope the right spell will give them good health and lots of money and great relationships with no work on their part are as disappointed in the results as those in the traditional religious community who ask god to grant them the same.  Spirituality simply doesn’t work like a karmic vending machine.  

What does happen, though, is that spiritual practice can point you towards ways of making your own actions and decisions more effective when it comes to getting what you want.  And even more importantly, a meaningful spiritual practice can help you understand that what you really want isn’t what you always thought you wanted.  

You may think you want money, but what you really want is to be free of debt or financially able to pursue certain projects or able to leave a job you dislike.  You may think you want to find love, but what you really want is to feel loved and valued or to not feel lonely or even to recover from the loss of a previous relationship.  What we ask for often isn’t what we really want, and that’s where we fail to understand what we can and cannot expect to get from through spiritual means.

To figure out what you really want and need, however, requires us to dig into our minds and spirits.  It means taking a look at what we can change about our actions and decisions to get us moving towards the goals that really mean something to us.  The easy button options we ask for are just clues to what we really need to be asking for.  

So first maybe we should be using our spiritual energies to do that digging.  Then we can start asking for what we want.