Last week, I spoke at two bookstores here in California. During one Q&A, someone asked me about the ideas a current spiritual teacher has about emotions. This teacher says that emotions are the body’s responses to thoughts. I blurted out “Oh, he’s full of sh!t.”
I experienced a complete failure of my internal monologue system. Oh shiiiite! You could hear a pin drop, and then you could hear all the angels who were dancing on that pin drop as well. Thud.
Clearly, I had gone quite loopy. I forgot that you never question a spiritual teacher’s ideas. You also can’t express “negative” emotions about spiritual teachers. There’s absolutely no mechanism for those normal human behaviors in many spiritual circles.
How fortunate it is that we’re not in any spiritual circle!
I am sorry that I blurted out what I really thought about this guy’s ideas, but it’s not as if they were original thoughts of his. I’ve heard similar ideas bandied about for decades in an endless number of spiritual ideologies, but I naively hoped that they had gone away. To meet them again in 2010, re-packaged but not reconsidered — wow, it was a shock. It wasn’t just an angering event: I felt depressed, despairing, offended, horrified, and sort of crushed under the weight of centuries of emotionally-stunted ignorance.
I could have responded by being diplomatic and all-encompassing. I could have utilized assuaging and comfortable social lies. I could have applied my giant vocabulary to the creation of some temporizing and politically apt non-answer. I certainly know how to do that. I could have looked really pulled-together and above the fray. But instead, I used the magic healing balm of of swearing to help myself tolerate the intense pain I was feeling. Swearing is fecking magnificent!!!
But I was in a place where kids could hear me, so that was crass. Dang! I hope the parents used it as a teaching moment.
Now, after many days and liberal amounts of analgesic, health-building swearing in private, I can be more nuanced in my response.
Some Thoughts about Emotions
Contrary to the opinions of many metaphysical and spiritual thinkers, thoughts do not control emotions; they can’t. Emotions are irreplaceable aspects of our intelligence, and they evolved over many hundreds of thousands of years (okay, millions; thanks Leo) to help us survive. Emotions are instinctual, protective, communicative, and meaning-generating aspects of our thought processes. Without them, we can’t understand other people, we can’t communicate or connect; we can’t love, we can’t learn properly, and we can’t even make decisions, as Antonio Damasio showed us in his classic book, Descartes’ Error.
We’ve all been trained, however, to see emotions as problematic — as lower than our thoughts, or lower than our spiritual notions — and we’ve been taught to set up hierarchies inside ourselves. We’re taught to imagine: This part of our humanity is better or higher than that part. This part is more real than that part. This part can control that part. I talk about these unfortunate ideas in my book, and I artificially separate the emotions, the mind, the body, and the spiritual aspects in order to really question what we’ve been told about emotions.
My conclusion is that what we’ve been told about emotions is nonsense, and in many cases, it’s dangerous nonsense. It’s also ignorant nonsense, because it ignores the findings of neurology, psychology, and evolutionary biology.
Emotions are not lower than thoughts; they are an integral part of thinking. In many instances, such as when you’re in actual physical danger and you need to act quickly, you’ve got to rely on your emotions to save your life. Over-thinking when something requires an emotional response can endanger you.
Emotions are not less intelligent than rational, step-by-step thinking. Again, emotions are an integral part of thinking, and without them, you would be less aware, less functional, less capable, and less intelligent. Emotions have very specific functions and offer us very specific intelligences. They’re not like our slower, step-by-step rational thinking processes, but they are equally necessary and equally intelligent.
Emotions are not the body’s reaction to thoughts. Emotions in most cases precede thoughts. Emotions are faster, more agile, and smarter about the intentions and emotional states of other people than mere intellectual ruminations can ever be. Emotions and thoughts do interact (constantly), but to call emotions a byproduct of thought shows (and let me say this without swearing this time) near-total ignorance of neurology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and intelligence itself.
Afraid of Fear, Angry about Anger
All of these confused and incorrect opinions about emotions display the crux of the issue, which is that many people see emotions as negative, irrational, or nonspiritual. This isn’t merely a view of gurus and their followers; it was also a view among scientists for many years. In the past decades, the study of emotions has gained some credibility, but it’s still impacted by these confused ideas.
The relatively new science of positive psychology is attempting to study emotions, but unfortunately, without challenging this confusion. In positive psychology, the central premise is that positive emotions such as happiness are good for you, for your health, for your relationships, and for your well-being. There are a lot of studies being done on optimism, positive affirmations, positive re-framing, and other pop psychology (and pop spirituality) staples.
Interestingly, the data aren’t supporting these premises. In fact, the data on positive psychology are leaning toward the negative. Positive affirmations can lead to a lowering of self-esteem, “positive” marital behaviors may actually damage relationships, and the entire field of positive psychology is being called into question as simply not robust enough.
But here’s the thing: these negative data are only surprising if you take the incorrect view that emotions are lower than, or less than, or subservient to thoughts, etc. For people who understand emotions as vital and irreplaceable parts of full intelligence, these seemingly surprising data elicit a “No sh!t, Sherlock” response. I mean, of course leaving most of the emotions out in the back yard while you enforce allegedly positive emotions won’t work. Enforcing some emotions and suppressing others means that you have to truncate and diminish human intelligence … of course it won’t work!
And who decides if an emotion is positive or negative in the first place? Negative to whom? Positive for what?
The socially accepted view is that there are good emotions and bad emotions. These categories have a bit of interplay, but basically, good emotions are the ones that make us easy to be around, while bad emotions are the ones that shake things up. The good emotional states are happiness, pleasantness, joy, and some forms of sadness (if an appropriately saddening situation has occurred, and if it has occurred within a recent time frame). Anger dips a little toe into the good category when it’s a response to injustice, but the acceptable time frame for anger is a lot shorter than that allowed for sadness. Notice how people will let you be sad about a senseless death for a lot longer than they’ll let you be angry about it.
The bad emotions category is very large indeed. Sadness that lasts too long (or deepens into despair or grief) is definitely bad. Depression is bad, but suicidal urges are emergency-room bad. Anger is bad, as are peevishness, righteous indignation, and wrath. Rage and fury, then, are extra-strength bad. Hatred, we won’t even go into. Jealousy is bad, bad, bad. Fear is so bad, we’ve got bumper stickers that shout to others that we, at least, haven’t got any fear – not a drop! So, all the fear-based emotions are bad, too. Anxiety, worry, and trepidation are bad, and panic is call-the-hospital bad. Shame and guilt – they’re so bad that we don’t even know what they mean any more! We’re persistently trained and implored to express (or more often, repress) our emotions so that other people feel comfortable. (from The Language of Emotions, page 26)
In truth, the concept of positive emotions is not a scientific idea, and it’s not a spiritual idea; it’s a form of social control. Sure, strong emotions such as anger or fear aren’t happy-peppy fun to have, but I challenge anyone who says they are not necessary. I also challenge the idea that strong emotions are not pro-social.
For instance, anger is one of the bad boys of the emotional world, and though almost no one will tell you this, you’ll feel anger when your position, your place in the world, your self-esteem, or your boundaries are threatened. Anger brings you the strength you need to recover from attacks to your person. However, you’ll also feel anger when you see someone else being threatened or offended against, and anger will give you the strength you need to intervene and help the other person re-set his or her boundaries. That’s clearly pro-social and positive behavior coming from a supposedly anti-social and negative emotion.
Fear is another bad boy of the emotional world, but fear is also totally necessary — not just for your survival, but for your social viability as a friend, mate, or parent. You feel fear when you sense change in your environment, and when you sense threats to your physical survival. Fear brings you the instincts, the intuition, and the street smarts you need to make it through in one piece. However, you’ll also feel fear when you see another person’s life endangered, and you may do foolishly brave things that will save the other person’s life. Fear can provoke totally pro-social behaviors, and it’s totally positive when you need it.
Shame is another emotion people run from but shouldn’t. You feel shame when your behavior may hurt another person, or when you’re going against one of your internal rules of conduct. Shame brings you the strength you need to halt your behavior and make amends. As such, shame is massively pro-social; it’s one of the most pro-social emotions going, but the myopic and confused views many people bring to their study of emotions throws shame into the shadows.
Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe asked What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding? I’m asking the same thing about the allegedly negative emotions. Because honestly, those old, tired ideas are so full of sh!t!
Just tell the kids I said “full of spit,” okay?