Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Destructive Emotions

Only the rare high saints achieve a level of being untouched by anger and other destructive emotions. The rest of us must deal with distasteful, even ugly emotional states in ourselves. For a meaningful and satisfying life, and particularly for our spiritual path, our emotional nature matters dearly, serving alternately as an essential help and a severe hindrance. We need the inner skills to manage our troublesome emotions. The bouts of anger and rage, fear, anxiety and timidity, greed, lust and gluttony, envy and jealousy, arrogance, coldness and rigidity, squeamishness and laziness, worry, hurry, and depression all take a toll. They make us pay by destroying the precious energy of our inner life in a wasteful, self-referential cycle. These self-reinforcing emotional descents interpose themselves between us and the people around us. They distract us from working toward our goals.

But emotions are not our enemy: they are us.  Or at least through the process of identification, we believe them to be us. Emotions propel us through life. Our destructive emotions call us to respond to ourselves with kindness, acceptance, and patience. We can learn to neither abandon ourselves to their indulgence, nor to blame ourselves for their arising. Indulging in destructive emotions makes us petty and self-centered, and can even lead to emotional instability requiring professional psychotherapy. The other extreme of unwillingness to face destructive emotions or of condemning them as spiritually impure, leads us to repress them, to refuse and cut off part of ourselves, part of our energy. And ultimately, the repressed energy finds a way to surface, perhaps even more destructively.

With destructive emotions, the most effective spiritual practice, assuming one’s readiness to bear it, is to be openly and unflinchingly present to these emotions, to be here within myself in the midst of my inner turmoil, to simply see and not to run away into repression or indulgence, and to not identify with or collapse into them. Such forthright presence brings a subtle but crucial new element to bear in our emotional life. Persisting, eventually our presence grows stable enough, large enough, and strong enough to embrace the whole unexpected catastrophe of our destructive emotions. By choosing to participate in an undefended awareness of what we find most objectionable in ourselves, we set the stage for a gradual transformation of our emotional life. By respecting even what we consider lowest in ourselves, we learn to respect others as well. We clear a path for the higher emotions such as love, kindness, generosity, joy, and compassion.

While presence to and awareness of our destructive emotions forms the first requirement, the second crucial element for working with these states is the willingness to let go of the emotion, to let go of nurturing and dwelling on the cause to which we ascribe the emotion. If, in our mind, we keep ruminating over the unpleasant event or situation, then we feed the wrong side in ourselves, giving energy to our downward emotional slide. We need to be willing to let the whole thing go, so that we can live in a higher part of ourselves instead of lingering in our emotional dungeon of identification, which drains the life-blood out of our spiritual work.

Transformation of our emotional life remains one of the greatest challenges confronting us on the spiritual path. We so easily fall into our emotional mud. Another step and we sink up to our necks. Our head then enters the fray as a supporting actor, busily thinking and imagining in ways that only worsen our position. Our breathing may grow rapid or shallow, our heart may pound, our shoulders may slump, and our face may flush or tighten. Our entire bodily demeanor reflects and abets the emotional siren. Our consciousness flees, not wanting to face the disaster. And so, we abandon ourselves to the chaotic whims of the torrent. By this time, there is little we can do but ride out the storm, attempting not to inflict any lasting damage. But even in the thick of it, if we can but open one eye, ever so slightly, and see with a modicum of clarity and perhaps even a hint of compassion for ourselves, we set the stage for the next round not to be quite so dark. Perhaps the next time we open an eye a bit earlier in the process, and a bit warmer. Eventually we may see with kindness at the tempest’s beginning, at the first flap of the butterfly wings, the triggering event. Then, before the emotional storm clouds gather, we can choose to let it all be, and let it all go. Out of respect for ourselves and for others, we might choose not to allow this wasteful pain to overtake us again. This forms part of the long-term blue-collar work of the path, wherein our hands get dirty and our heart gets cleansed. We become able to be more present, more compassionate, and more joyful.

In practice, we must find a way to “own” our destructive emotions. Take the example of anger. As long as I inwardly blame another person for “making” me angry, I am feeding my anger. As soon as I see that the anger is mine, that it has arisen in me, that the other person's actions do not directly arouse my anger, but rather find a ready response in me, that someone else might respond without anger, that I am responsible for the anger, then I may decouple my anger from the outward apparent cause. When I am able to see this clearly, the anger subsides rapidly. Then I am free to take or not take appropriate action in response to the outward situation. But my inner life has been spared the cost of allowing the destructive action of anger to continue within me. Notice that owning my anger does not mean pushing it away, repressing it, or disowning it. It means accepting the anger as mine and seeing into its roots within me. A similar process applies to all our destructive emotions: not blaming the outer situation, owning the emotion and, finally, letting it go.

Some emotional storms are short-lived, even less than a minute. Others can last for days. Recurrent or chronic destructive emotions that consistently derail us from living a full life, from loving relationships, and from our spiritual practice may require the help of a good psychotherapist. If that describes our situation, then the sooner we seek therapy, the sooner we can move on. We need to be responsible for what we make of our lives, because our precious time is limited.

So if you see the anger or other destructive emotion, understand its causes, see it as baseless and unnecessary, and yet despite all that it still has you, then what? [1] Depending on how thoroughly involved you are, you may be able to turn your attention away in that moment, toward something else. One potentially powerful place, if you have a prayer practice, is to turn to prayer, as deeply, strongly, and genuinely as you can. At that time, rather than ask for relief, we offer our love for the higher. Opening toward the Divine, with intention and heart, can transform your state of difficulty into a state of grace. As a byproduct, prayer releases the energy of the destructive emotion to feed your soul instead of sapping it. Another excellent place to persistently direction your attention is toward the work of sensation and presence.

Another source of help in an emotional storm can come from remembering the purpose of our life, remembering our spiritual path. Destructive emotions are so called precisely because they destroy, at least temporarily, our spiritual possibilities. These emotional upheavals burn our energy and entice us into attitudes and actions that increase our egoism, our sense of separateness. Remembering that all this flows in the opposite of our intended direction can help us do damage control, conserve our rapidly ebbing energies, and shift our sights toward the path of purification. Every time we fall into some dark state that causes our inner work to vanish, we get up and start again, sooner rather than later.

And what if even that does not help? You are left bereft. Seeing and inwardly admitting to your enslavement, your powerlessness in the face of your emotional state, can empty you, can breach a hole in the darkness of your ego. Your heart and soul lie in ruins. Such emptiness cleanses your heart. Indeed, this emotional emptiness can lead us toward true spiritual emptiness, toward the inner need and openness that relates us to the Ultimate Source of All. The higher can only enter our emptiness, not our fullness. If our need is strong, and if we can orient that need toward the Sacred, the Response will surely come.

The challenge of emotions is not one of taming or controlling them. We need our emotional engine to be strong and vibrant. Our problem arises from our fractured nature. Our emotions, our mind, our body, and our spirit all push or pull us in different directions. The spiritual challenge calls us to integrate our heart into our whole being. Within that wholeness, all our parts find transformation. Then our true consciousness emerges, not identifying with our painful emotions, letting them pass through without singeing us or our neighbors. Clear seeing of our emotional dramas and traumas in action extricates our sense of self from our narrowly-defined, self-centered emotional pseudo-life and brings us to a wider consciousness. By integrating our emotions into our wholeness, by not identifying or collapsing our sense of self into our emotions, we can rest in the freedom of consciousness and toward the higher emotions, toward the source of love. Furthermore, the whole of our inner work, all rightly conducted spiritual practice contributes toward freeing us, which, in part, means loosening the grip of our destructive emotions. So by working at meditation, prayer, presence, kindness and the rest, we naturally lighten our emotional burden.

[1] For an excellent introduction to research-based methods for dealing with negative emotions see Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross, 2021

See Also: Essence Self-Centeredness, Emotions as Emotions, and Emotional Presence



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