Getting emotionally fit — A workout for the soul

I turn once again to the work of Miriam Greenspan for inspiration for this week’s post.

“Befriending emotional energy is about focusing our attention on these sensations and reactions nonjudgmentally, allowing the body to feel what it feels, and the mind to think what it thinks, | while maintaining a witness consciousness—a mindful awareness of the stream of sensations and thoughts as they pass through our bodies.”
p. 77-78

If, as I discussed in The dark emotions: Food for the soul, you can let go of shame, doubt, analysis and condemnation, and listen attentively and non-judgmentally, the body can be a source of wisdom. Following Greenspan’s suggestion, try to be present to your experiences and the environment in which they are taking place. Whenever possible, replace negative interpretations and labels with neutral or even positive ones to increase the chances of deriving a more hopeful understanding of your feelings, sensations and thoughts. For example, when your gut is churning, your fists are clenched or you feel like you might faint, stop and try these reframes:

  • If treated the churning in my gut as though it were a good friend emboldening me to take the significant first step in a new direction, what could I learn?
  • If I imagined my clenched fists as though they were strong companions encouraging me speak my own truth, what could I learn?
  • If I listened to my spinning head and weakened knees as though they were calm advisors protecting me with their consoling words, what could I learn?

When you concern yourself with whatever is going on in your mind, your body and your immediate environment, you can hear the spirit speak. The trick is to determine what these broadcasts are saying: Are they warning you of danger, stiffening your resolve, empowering you to act, prompting you to defend your decisions, alerting you to a violation of your values? This sort of soul listening is hard work. The channel can be filled with static and the message can appear garbled.

“In the realm of physical exercise, most of us believe ‘no pain no gain,’ but when it comes to emotional exercise, we want the quickie route to emotional fitness. The fact is, as with the body, so with the emotions: no pain, no gain. You can’t be emotionally flabby and expect to come to a place of emotional transformation and spiritual power.”
p. 77

As with any exercise — be it in the gym or the classroom — the more you do it, the more skilled you become. This is not repetition solely for the sake of it, however. The key here is to exercise the emotional muscles with an open heart and without attachment. The goal is to achieve the “witness consciousness” that Greenspan describes. When you are prepared simply to listen to these dispatches from the soul, you can begin to integrate the wisdom of both your personal and the collective psyche. This is the self-awareness and self-appreciation advantage.


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Getting emotionally fit — A workout for the soul

The dark emotions: Food for the soul

For this latest post inspired by Miriam Greenspan’s Healing Through the Dark Emotions, I’d like to talk about what she refers to as “affect tolerance” or our ability to feel our dark emotions, to experience them fully, and wherever possible, without judgment.

“To befriend the dark emotions, your intention must be to get close to what you want to run away from. You need to take your time and give yourself permission to let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling without shame, doubt, analysis, or condemnation.”
p. 77

How do we engage with the energy of the dark emotions long enough to learn and grow from the experience? As Greenspan suggests, when it comes to the dark emotions (and perhaps emotional energy more generally), we need to release our shame and our doubt, our need to analyze, and our tendency to condemnation.

Shame. As Brené Brown has highlighted we all battle shame in the effort to see ourselves as “[worthy] of love and belonging” (Supersoul Sunday – Shame is Lethal). To be mature, we are told, is to be free of certain emotions. We are socialized to present a façade which conceals our discomfort or pain when fear, despair and grief strike, not solely because the expression of these emotions could make other people uncomfortable, but also because of our should’s— we shouldn’t feel this way, we shouldn’t react this way, we shouldn’t express ourselves this way, if we want to be seen as a proper grown up people. These should’s keep us stuck in a sense that we are “never enough” (Supersoul Sunday – Shame is Lethal); and, until we let them go, we will find it difficult to absorb the lessons of the dark emotions.

Doubt. When we doubt, we deny the truth of our emotions. We call into question the their very existence. We get caught up in thinking that we are losing our sanity because no one else seems to feel despair, fear or grief. If we believe that we are alone in experiencing these feelings, we may come to question both the validity of our emotions and our right to feel them. Operating from this place of skepticism and distrust, these feelings will appear unreasonable or suspicious. Unless we can adopt a more open perspective that affirms the legitimacy of these feelings, we will struggle to benefit from the transformative power of our dark emotions.

Analysis. When we turn to analysis, we seek to hold back the rawness and the pain of the dark emotions by boxing them up neatly. Instead of despair, fear and grief, we have a problem that can be solved or a list of actions to be taken. Instead of feelings, we focus on facts. We examine the current situation, the wrongs from our past or our concerns about the future, neglecting the emotional and spiritual realm in favor the intellectual one. Yet without an emotional appraisal, we cannot be truly engaged and any solution we do find is likely to be lifeless and uninspiring.

Condemnation. We are brought up to see some emotions as dishonorable, disgusting or even wicked. With these labels comes the sense that we are these emotions incarnate, and, because they are bad, so are we. When we move from saying “I am afraid right now” to “I am a pathetic coward” or from “I am overwhelmed by despair right now” to “I am a pitiful loser,” we condemn ourselves to an understanding of self that is inflexible and limited (a fixed mindset in Carol Dweck’s terms). This mindset blocks our growing and changing through these experiences. Until we can recognize the invitation in our dark emotions— to do something different, to ask for help, to fail better the next time, to develop a richer model of who we are—we will wrestle with them fruitlessly. But when we take a welcoming and appreciative approach and sit with them patiently, full of wonder and curiosity, the dark emotions cease to make us feel as if we are destined to live in hell and instead can reveal a route to the divine.

In truth, we need to recognize that emotions simply are. To accept this idea, it may be helpful to think of them in terms of a physical process like digestion: You take something in and this sets off a cascade of processes where some of what you take in nourishes you and some must be released as waste. Everything deserves to be “chewed on,” however, because the more you can focus on maximizing the value you extract, the stronger you grow.

 


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The dark emotions: Food for the soul

Connecting within and without

I turn again this week to Miriam Greenspan’s Healing through the Dark Emotions for what it suggests about how we can best approach the processing of painful feelings.

When we experience fear, grief and despair, many of us tend to hold back from sharing these emotions. This silence can help us to discover what is at the core of our pain. With time to ourselves, we can delve into how what has happened treads on basic values or re-activates old wounds. We can start to decode the messages our pain has for us. Off on our own, we can wrestle with how much we hurt without worrying about needing to put a good face on things. Time alone can be a crucial part of the healing process.

Alternatively, silence can seem the only safe way forward. We may believe that we will burden others with what we are experiencing. We may imagine that speaking with them will only intensify our pain through encountering a lack of understanding or empathy. We may be concerned that admitting our brokenness will cause us to be shunned, shamed or belittled. This sort of silence can hinder rather than help our healing.

“Emotional alchemy is not only a process of going deeper, it’s also a process of getting wider—telling a wider story, recontextualizing your private, personal pain. The wider we get, the more our dark emotions connect us to the world and the more we grow in wisdom and compassion.” p. 85

Engaged in thoughtfully, going deeper can facilitate your healing and help you grow as an individual. However, it may also serve as a substitute for looking at the broader meaning of your feelings, circumstances and experiences. We all want to feel that our story is unique and yet focusing on this uniqueness may obscure our options for action. We can derail our healing if we fail to acknowledge the way our narrative is shaped by the world around us. Becoming conscious of the bigger picture can also help us to be more self-compassionate.

“The single greatest barrier to…healing and transformation is not really…traumatizing events themselves but…isolation. This isolation…is not so much a failure of the individual to find community as it is a failure of the human community to offer connection to the individual.” p. 212

Let’s begin to think about emotions as being a bit like breathing. That is, think about how can you cycle between taking them in and then out again: Connecting with yourself, connecting with others, understanding the personal nature of your pain, understanding the universal nature of your pain. If you can connect with others – when you or they are in pain – and at the same time deepen your connection to self, you can transform isolation into enlightenment.


 

Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.
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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Connecting within and without

The landscape of healing

This week I want to introduce to my next Inspiration Shout-Out — Healing through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan. The book’s message is one of hope and wholeness, for the individual as well as for the wider world. It focuses on the alchemy that is possible when we embrace our emotions in all their diversity and all their fullness.

“Dark emotions don’t go away. They simply come to us in whatever form we can bear.”
p. 27

In 2007, I was very afraid. After a number of inconclusive tests, I was due to have surgery. No one could tell me what the surgery would entail, but one possible outcome was that cancer would be discovered and I’d require extensive surgery and a long recovery period, likely to be followed by some sort of additional treatment. Luckily, no cancer was found and the operation was very positive in physical terms.

The emotional landscape had been changed, however. While both grief and despair surfaced, it was the fear that remained most acute. Not having cancer was indeed a relief, and yet I wasn’t relieved of the fear that I was not really in control. From the fear that my body would betray me (again), blossomed a fear of failure and incompetence. Being unable to think my way out of my medical issues scared me into believing that I might also be unable to think my way out of other challenging life situations.

“You don’t surrender by moving away from what hurts. You surrender by moving into what hurts, with awareness as your protection. This is not ‘detachment’ in the conventional sense; it’s a connected detachment: staying connected to emotional energy mindfully. The detachment comes from being mindful, not from disconnecting.”
p. 78

To heal I had to come to grips with a new understanding of the world, namely that sometimes the only “rational” explanation is that there is no explanation. There is no thought process or logic that can save you. Even coming as it did after years of managing chronic health issues, years of needing to ask for and gratefully accept help, this was and remains a hard lesson to integrate.

As with feelings so with other aspects of our inner lives: we need to surrender to their existence, we need to make them personal without taking them personally. The fear, the pain, the suffering were mine, yes, but seeing them as an affront or as an attack on me personally would have moved me away from, rather than toward, greater awareness and connection. When we can stop attempting to “handle” our dark emotions and instead try to listen to them with an open heart, when we can embrace them as a message about our health and wholeness, we have new energy to channel into becoming our true selves.

 


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

Creative Commons License
The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The landscape of healing