In a recent comment exchange with a reader, I found myself arguing a position that once felt important to me. Namely, I insisted that emotions constitute a central and vital feature of human life. Although on some level this is obviously true, I took it further and stated, in essence, that a life with less feeling is a life less lived. However, as I thought about the conversation afterward, it became clear that my attitude has changed.
As it should. No one committed to growth should feel locked into any belief, because as we mature our views broaden and our opinions change. A year or so ago it felt important to embrace my emotions. Throughout my entire life I’d been scared of my intense feelings. They seemed dangerous and (of course) irrational.
The fear bore its fruit of avoidance. My desire to sidestep pain grew so great that I accepted antidepressants and many other psychiatric drugs in an effort to keep a lid on my experiences. This strategy proved disastrous. Side effects mounted, my productivity declined, and I felt a chronic low grade misery in place of the intense mood swings of earlier years.
Fortunately, I learned another approach. Under the guidance of an Acceptance and Commitment Therapist and also my good friend Tom Wootton (founder of Bipolar Advantage), I began to move toward rather than away from my strong emotions. I learned to be still as feelings flowed through me, first during meditation and later in day-to-day life. The deep sadness, the powerful surges of creativity, and the abiding ache of love and oneness became my teachers rather than my enemies. Emotions became beautiful, even when painful.
Tom Wootton and I have discussed the next phase in development. After one learns to surf the raging waves of extreme mood swings without decompensating, one begins to see them for what they are: unnecessary. As soon as the palpable reality of strong feelings gets replaced by awareness of their transience and emptiness, they begin to seem less exciting. The initial thrill of riding emotional surf gets replaced by something akin to boredom and disinterest. As I look back on my response to the suggestion that an enlightened person could rise above emotions, it seems clear to me that I have been resisting this next step in evolution. I have become attached to my experience of beautiful, powerful feelings.
It cannot be denied that sages throughout history have taught that much of what we take so seriously in life is illusory. Some even say the entire formed universe represents Maya, or illusion. If so, and if one could attain that realization on a deep level, one would begin to feel less intensity simply because nothing would seem so vitally important. Not pain, not sorrow, not life, not death. All would be glorious, but not heartbreaking.
There’s a feeling of loss as I anticipate this prospect. What of the passion that’s driven me so long? What of poetry, and art, and drama? No doubt they will still appeal to me, but perhaps with less gut-wrenching impact than before. Hence my instinctual rejection and dismissal of the suggestion that emotions might be outgrown: to not feel, I proclaimed, is to deny life.
But is it really? Maybe the true denial comes from not seeing reality for what it is. If we embrace the unity of all life, if we internalize the eternal circularity of history, we must sooner or later recognize that peaceful equanimity is the only sensible stance. The feeling tone will lessen. Emotions might not disappear, but they won’t pierce the heart like before.
And isn’t that what I always wanted? To protect my heart from those slings and arrows of misfortune? Why would I grieve the loss of that? Probably for the same reason one grieves any bad habit once abandoned. It may not have been healthy, but it was a crutch. Powerful feelings are a great lever to move boredom out of one’s experience. In a calmer mind, I’ll need to find new tools to flavor life with zest. Stay tuned…