Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Your name. Psalm 142:7
Sometimes we find ourselves in a bad mood, but have no idea how to get out of it. We try to change our own state of mind, but it doesn’t work. Someone else comes along and tries to cheer us up, and we feel even worse. It’s as if the bad mood locks us into a kind of spiritual prison.
Tom was feeling depressed about his marriage. His friend said: “Cheer up, it’ll be all right.” He didn’t feel better. He just resented his friend for interfering and for giving such glib advice without knowing what was really going on. He tried to tell himself to cheer up, and this worked for a short time, but then he began to remember the problems they had been having. He felt much worse.
His wife said, “Tom, why are you looking so glum?” He hesitated a bit at first and then said, AI am concerned about our marriage.” She immediately snapped back: “Our marriage is much better than most people’s. You have nothing to be sad about.” This left him feeling worse than ever.
You have probably noticed how hard it is to talk someone out of their emotions, or even to control your own emotions. Feelings do not respond to direct commands. It is as if they do not understand words. If words don=t help, what can we do when we are in a negative state?
We have two distinct aspects to our inner life, the thinking side and the feeling side. Both are important. Without thoughts we would be unconscious. Without feelings we would be lifeless. Each of these aspects can be negative or positive.
Negative feelings include such emotions as: fear, hatred, jealousy, self-pity depression, contempt of others, hopelessness and many others. Positive feelings include such emotions as: peace, contentment, joy, excitement, caring, patience and love. Notice that some of these feelings are very powerful and some of them are potentially destructive. Learning how to deal with them is one of our greatest challenges as human beings, especially since they have such a profound effect on our relationships with other people.
Thoughts can also be positive or negative. “Life is good,” “We can deal with this,” “You are a worthwhile person,” “My life has meaning,” are some positive ones. Negative thoughts sound more like this: “I am no good,” “Nothing makes sense,” “All people are miserable and selfish,” “Everyone treats me badly,” “No one understands me,” and so on and on. When I was a child, we summarized this all in the little ditty: “Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. I’m going to eat worms and die.” When we felt really bad, we would continue: “Big fat greasy ones, long thin smelly ones, horrible little ugly ones, I’m going to eat worms and die.”
Thoughts and feelings are interconnected, as if they are married to each other. When the thoughts and feelings are positive it makes for a happy marriage. When the feelings are miserable and the thoughts negative, it makes for an infernal marriage. In this diagram you see large and small arrows. The large arrows in the center represent feelings. Arrows pointing upward represent positive feelings. Those pointing downward are negative feelings. Each large arrow is surrounded by a cluster of smaller arrows. These represent the thoughts that surround and support our feelings.
There are four circles with arrows in them. Two are labeled as “stable arrangements,” because the large and small arrows are going in the same direction. Two are unstable, because there is a contradiction between the direction of the large arrow and the smaller ones.
Looking at the stable positions, an upward pointing arrow represents a positive feeling, and the cluster of little arrows pointing in the same direction represents the many positive thoughts that support the feeling. For example, suppose you are feeling good about yourself. The large arrow is pointing upward. You will then have thoughts that are positive, such as: “Life is good,” “I am a worthwhile person,” “I like what I am doing, and I do it well,” “other people respect me,” and so on.
When the large arrow is pointing downward, it represents a negative emotion, such as self-pity. The negative thoughts sound like this: “I am a failure,” “No one cares about me,” “I can’t do anything right,” and so on and on ad nauseam.
Then there are the unstable positions. They are labeled “unstable” because they cannot stay that way for long. The large and small arrows tend to line up with each other. If you are feeling positive a cluster of negative thoughts will probably drag you down to the point where you end up feeling negative.
There is an old British vaudeville song in which the person says: “By George you do look well” for a few verses, and the person feels great. Then it shifts, and the message is: “By George you do look ill,” and in no time the person feels terrible. A woman went to a gathering of friends, and was feeling on top of the world. Her friends looked at her, commented on her pale complexion, kept asking her: “Are you sure you feel all right?” to the point where she went home, looked in the mirror, and decided she needed to go see the doctor.
We cannot control our emotions directly. The large arrow is beyond our control. We do have some control over our thoughts. This gives us a very powerful tool in our own spiritual life. If we noticed ourselves being in a bad mood, we can shift our attention to our thoughts, and do what we can to change them.
Suppose we are feeling dejected and bad about our self. Instead of reciting the little ditty about how nobody loves us, we can amend the words. We can reflect on the fact that we really do not know how other people see us, and that there are people who love us. We can say that eating worms and dying isn’t going to make people love us and besides, those icky worms are probably a much healthier diet than the food we normally put in our moth, so we won’t die from eating them!
We have powerful levers in those small arrows. If we can manage to keep our mind dwelling on positive thoughts even for a few minutes, we will experience a change in the negative emotion. It cannot survive without its cluster of negative thoughts. If those thoughts are replaced by positive ones, the emotion simply vanishes – at least for a time.
There is much talk about the need to honor your feelings and express them. We have seen the consequences of people repressing their feelings. What is the difference between this task and repressing emotions?
Emotions are a very important of our life. It is good to be in touch with them and to honor them. There are many times when emotions give us important signals. Anger might warn us of danger or inspire us to correct some injustice. Fear might help us to avoid danger. Often, the negative emotion has no positive value. Feeling hatred toward someone has no positive use. Self-pity does nothing to improve our life. Many kinds of fear cripple us without adding anything useful to our life. In a sense, negative emotions are like uncomfortable feelings in the body. Once a toothache has inspired us to get dental care, it is of no value to us.
While having positive uses, pain is a negative experience. We naturally seek relief from pain. The same can be said for negative emotions. They may have value as signals, but they are terrible to live with, and we want relief. Anger is of special interest. Many of us, when we were children, were told not to be angry. We might have been punished for being angry. We learned not to express anger, and maybe not even to feel it. Some people experience a breakthrough in therapy when they finally get in touch with their anger, express it and let it go. This is a healthy thing to do. This does not mean that being chronically angry is a healthy thing. Recent studies have shown that anger is very destructive, leading to violence, abuse and murder. Besides, anger shortens a person’s life, greatly affecting blood pressure, digestion and a host of other things.
Chronically angry people do not need to be told that their anger is fine, and that it is healthy to express it. They need to know how to reduce it or get rid of it.
Sometimes this involves taking some kind of action, but very often, it is simply internal spiritual work, and for that we need tools. The exercise of using positive thoughts in place of negative ones can be a very powerful means of doing this. Take this example. A person is driving along a road, and another driver cuts in front of him, almost causing an accident. This triggers a number of emotions, especially fear and anger. The upset person can dwell on the event and intensify the anger with such internal messages as: “That fool has no consideration for other people,” “Drivers like that should be shot,” “Wouldn’t it be great if he had an accident and got killed?” “Nobody has any consideration these days.”
The anger surrounds itself with negative thoughts like this that can go round and round in a person”s head, increasing the anger almost to the boiling point. We occasionally read of drive-by shootings that seem to have come out of this kind of situation.
A person doing spiritual work would handle the situation differently. When the driver cuts in front the fear and the anger would be the same as for anyone else. The mind would also begin its internal muttering, but the person, noticing the negative pattern would take steps to improve the situation. She would acknowledge the fear and anger, and also be aware of the stream of negative thoughts. The difference is that she would then make a conscious effort to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones.
You might think that there are not any positive thoughts for such a situation. But that situation is urgent, since if the anger is not reduced it could lead to some reckless action, or eat away the person on the inside. The spiritual person turns to thoughts such as: “Isn’t it wonderful that we didn’t collide,” “That person must be very relieved that he didn’t kill someone,” “I am glad that I am a careful driver,” “That other driver must have had a very difficult day, maybe he just got fired. I hope his day improves.”
But isn’t that making things up? Yes, it is. Remember, we are always making things up about other people: “She probably doesn’t like me,” “He probably waited for two blocks to cut in front of me and not some other car,” “He probably always cuts in front of women drivers,” and so on. Whatever thoughts we have about the other driver are mostly fiction, so why not make it nice fiction?
If that sounds like being unrealistic, think of the results. The negative thoughts lead to negative emotions and usually to negative actions, even to the extent of murder. The positive thoughts lead to positive actions, better driving, more consideration, and feeling better inside. Isn’t it more realistic to deal with the situation so that it gets better and not worse? We can do that because of our power to create positive mental images that in turn will reduce negative emotions and maximize positive ones.
WHAT ABOUT GRIEF?
Is grief a negative emotion? By itself, grief is just a natural response to loss. You lose something, it hurts. Grief easily gets infected with negative emotions. It is the most prone to infection of any of our emotions. When a person is grieving he or she is open to anger, guilt and self-pity. These emotions are opportunistic, like certain diseases that attack us when we are physically low. And there are a lot of other emotions that will go in and infect the grief wound.
Grief is a wound of the spirit that can be compared with a physical wound. If a person cuts his finger, the first thing to do is put on some kind of antibiotic ointment, and then bandage the wound. Otherwise the wound would soon get infected. The bandage does not heal the wound, it simply protects the area during the natural process of healing. It takes time to heal.
The same is true with grief. If you lose a loved one through death, or for some reason have to be away from your family, it hurts. It is not healthy to deny the hurt or ignore it. It is normal to cry as a way of dealing with the pain. Some people find it helpful to share their feelings with someone else. It is not necessary to do spiritual work on grief because it is a natural and healthy process.
But when a person is grieving, there is a need to protect against the secondary infections of negative emotions. For example, if a person who has suffered a loss feels self-pity, or resentment, he or she can work on those things. She can change her thinking about them, and find some positive thing to think instead, and still let herself grieve.
Here, then, is a second spiritual task.