Saturday, January 6, 2007

EMOTIONAL TAOISM: Problem or Process?

Imagine the typical fight between partners in a relationship:

A woman sees her husband smiling and talking cheerfully to a pretty girl at a party. The woman’s blood runs cold as feelings of agitation, anger, jealousy and fear surge through her body. After the party, she says something nasty or accusatory to him. A four hour argument follows, escalating into a shouting match. Doors slam, they sleep in separate rooms. The outcome could be make-up sex or the end of the relationship.

This is the classic fight. They occur in every relationship to some extent, and are always based on unpleasant feelings. The cause of conflict is always ‘emotions’. Feelings are hurt. Couples go to therapy, read books, 'work on the relationship', or just ignore the problem. Is there really a problem?

In my opinion, there is no such ‘thing’ as 'an emotion'. What we call emotions, or feelings, is actually the natural and normal process of soul making far beyond human comprehension or control. Like dreams, which are beyond our conscious choice, emotions bring about a shifting of the ever evolving and dissolving psychic landscape. These emotions are not psychological abnormalities.

These so called emotional upheavals are not really a problem. They may be personally painful and socially or politically inconvenient in a polite society, but they are not odd or dysfunctional. These chaotic experiences are part of the process of soul making. They are normal psychic experiences in the real world. They have as much right and functional necessity at the psychic level, as intestines do at the physical level. Imagine someone being chronically troubled and in search of a solution when he discovers that his intestines not only metabolize food, but turn it into waste and excrete it!

To place qualitative or quantitative labels on these unpleasant experiences of psychic upheavals, or soul shifting, denies the process of reality. We have come to believe that we can call things ‘anger’ or ‘jealousy’ and thereby understand them, contain them and what they signify. We actually believe they exist as our defining words suggest. We think there are actual and specific objects called ‘sadness’, ‘jealousy’ or ‘fear’, just as there are rocks or butterflies. We arrogantly reduce soul to a manmade science.

Our terms could never contain the totality or purpose of the psychic events they try to describe. The danger is that after we define and describe them, we think we can understand them, assume them to be bad and prescribe cures for them:

1. “Oh your anger is because your Mother was critical and never gave you enough attention.”
2. “You get jealous because you want to believe you are the only one in the world.”
3. “Your depression comes because you were abandoned by your father.”
4. “Your hysteria comes because you were abused as child.”

This clinical focus on causal emotional reductionism always has a sort of logical and meaningful goal. It is a way to give us hope and meaning, making us believe that we can identify and fix the psychic pain if we can gather it up in a neat little package with a name and a solution found in some diagnostical and statistical manual. It is part of our modern mechanical view of reality where we name the parts, then identify and fix them if they break down.

Every age lives in a paradigmatic mythos, seeing natural and psychic phenomena through a certain lens. This is not bad. We humans must break things down and find analogies, but each cultural paradigm needs to be seen as provisional and subject to other lenses or ways of seeing. Our modern paradigm is still very Newtonian and mechanical. Everything, from clocks and cars, to solar systems and human minds are made of components we can label, predict, evaluate and ideally fix. We know what the parts are, where they fit, what they do and how to repair or junk them if they break. We have manuals for our cars and computers, why not for the human psyche?

In my opinion, we can neither adequately identify ‘emotions’, nor do we need to reduce or fix the psychic pain. We are not clocks or cars. There is no manual. The attempts to reduce and fix our psyches often cause us unnecessary reflective agony, especially when the 'cures' don't work.

What if these psychic events or ‘emotions’ are just the earthquakes and volcanos of the soul? What if they are as necessary and normal as thunderstorms and floods? What if the nature of the physical and psychic Universe is to be constantly shifting positions to change the face of the landscape? What if our personal and social soul-scapes need shaking and eruptions? What if the goal or result is no more than a shifting of positions to make room for some unforseen psychic geography? What if there is no 'reason' other than it is the nature of the Universe to always be shifting?

It seems to me that there is no single completed 'work of creation’ or assumed order that must always result from these catastrophes. Sometimes the disaster leaves a gaping scar, other times it creates pretty a waterfall. These judgments of scars and being pretty are nebulous anyway. Sometimes we have make-up sex, sometimes we break up, but most often not much that is really noticable happens after these disturbances. Then we move on, unless we believe the event is abnormal, sinful, sick and inhuman. This seeming casual attitude does not ignore that these troubling shifts without consequences; they are often indescribably traumatic, like the birth or death of a galaxy.

Emotion is tectonic soul shifting. ‘An emotion’ cannot be pin pointed or clinically defined. It cannot be identified, analyzed and healed any more than a tsunami or tornado can be identified and analyzed. The disaster rolls in with as many faces, aspects and definitions as points of contact. These disasters change a million features of the landscape and then go away. There is debris left behind. Victims are stranded and lives are altered or ended. And while we like to think a certain event can be neatly described and named, there is no single ‘tsunami’ or ‘tornado’ as such. Clearly, there was a chaotic event that changed the world which it touched.

Meteorologists try to treat the event as a single, simply defined incident. They name it Katrina or the December 2004 Tsunami. Our nominalistic age then thinks the label actually means something. But if you speak with the thousands of people who were in the middle of the cataclysm, you get a different story from each person. Hurricane Katrina was as diverse as the number of people and places it touched. In spite of the attempt to circumscribe it with a single name and set of traits, it was actually many complex experiences beyond categorization. So is 'an emotion'.

Humans, since Aristotle, have categorized and labeled the natural world. This is called nominalism, the attempt to contain by naming. It has actually been done since Adam named the animals in Eden. Human nature wants to reduce reality into manageable chunks. In the 19th century, Freud tried to apply it to the realm of psyche, and the subsequent schools of psychology began to reduce psychic phenomena to lists of named neuroses and complexes. The fact is that it cannot be done in either world, neither the natural nor the soulful.

Many individuals and relationships are damaged by this simplistic reductionism of naming, which assumes a fairly complete science of emotions and psychic experiences. Couples always fight over their emotional responses. In this post-Freudian age, we start accusing the other of some sort of emotional pathology – being too controlling, hysterical, angry, jealous, greedy, lustful, etc., ad infinitum. Then they resort to identifying the causes for their partners who obviously need to be diagnosed, informed and fixed. We tell them not only what their emotion is, but it is because of…fill in the blank. These blanks often have to do with past family or personal relationship experiences.

Most relationships go over and over the same conflicted terrain for years. The same fights arise. The same emotions are identified. The same pathological causes are drug out like surgical knives, or daggers, to be plunged into the heart of our beloved enemy. They most often go away with little or no insight, usually feeling horrible that they had yet another fight with little or no “solution”. You see, there is the tacit assumption that the psychic machine is broken and needs a new part.

Most people in our culture view these events as bad, unnecessary and in need of fixing. I’m sure there are times this is true, just as we can prepare for, or avoid a natural disaster in order to maintain our safety and comfort. But what if we could also see them as necessary and natural?

I do not mean to justify or excuse carelessness and cruelty to your self or your partner. But what if we could stop seeing these chaotic events as unusual or bad? What if we spent less time reducing our fights and outbursts to simple emotional labels, formulas and trite solutions?

Perhaps soul making requires these times of upheaval and chaos. They are necessary and wonderfully normal. Consider the Chinese Tao Te Ching:

Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

If you open yourself to the Tao,
you are at one with the Tao
and you can embody it completely.
If you open yourself to insight,
you are at one with insight
and you can use it completely.
If you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Do you want to improve the world (psyche)?
I don't think it can be done.

The world (soul) is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

This paradigm is radically different than our western concept of fixing, controlling and repairing based on our clinical judgment of how things ought to be. Weather patterns include tranquil sunny days and violent rain storms. Jesus said, “He (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) The world of nature and soul are perfect as they are. That doesn’t mean they are always pleasant, peaceful or happy – but it does mean that the sun and rain are both necessary for soul making. That doesn’t mean that we cannot strive to find more sun than rain, or that we cannot work for peace, but we must realize that the creative principle in the Universe requires chaos as much as organization. There is nothing ‘wrong’ when there are disagreements or ‘fights’.

I suggest that there will be more peace of mind and forgiveness in relationships when we realize that we don’t understand why. It is never ‘just’ anger, fear or jealousy. Soul making is too complex for it to be ‘just’ anything. Our emotions are beyond mechanical and statistical analysis. When we are conflicted and in emotional upheaval, more is going on in the psyche than any human could ever deduce. There is probably more need to respectfully and lovingly take care of the aftermath than to sit around naming and blaming.

As the 23rd poem in the Tao Te Ching says:

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Copyright Michael Bogar, MDiv, ThM

No comments: