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Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair
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Chapter Four - The Alchemy of Dark Emotions: Three Skills and Seven Steps
The publication of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence in 1995 marked a turning point in popular culture. Finally, emotions were deemed critical to human intelligence. Ironically, the book presents a model of emotional intelligence that is founded on the subordination of emotions to reason.
We have two brains, says Goleman, one that thinks and one that feels. The rational brain is reflective, logical, analytic. The emotional brain is impulsive, illogical, intuitive. While useful in emergencies, when we must act quickly, the emotional brain is outright dangerous unless dominated by the rational brain. Goleman calls the latter the “Manager.” The unmanaged emotional brain, in his view, is responsible for much of the world’s violence, mayhem, and destruction: “Intelligence can come to nothing when the emotions hold sway.” 1
An odd notion indeed in a book that ostensibly honors emotions! The age-old reason/emotion split is alive and well in this paradigm. Despite its considerable contribution to valuing and understanding emotions, Goleman’s work is limited by a masculine bias against the emotional brain itself. In this system, the ability to impede the flow of emotions is dubbed the “Master Aptitude.” Dominance and subordination are major metaphors. Emotional control is the goal.
Contrast this to the work of Candace Pert, a pioneering neuroscientist and author of Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel. In Pert’s model (backed up by her research), emotional intelligence is suffused throughout the body. The neuropeptides and receptors that carry emotional information exist not only in the brain but in the endocrine, gastrointestinal, and immune systems as well. Emotional intelligence hinges not on one part of the brain dominating another, but on a smoothly flowing system of emotional “infoenergy” throughout the body/mind. Emotions don’t need to be ruled; they need to be tolerated and expressed. They have an intelligence unto themselves, not when they are dominated, but when they are free-flowing.2
Goleman’s focus on the need to control potentially destructive impulses neglects the value of free-flowing emotional energy when it’s mindfully tolerated. The free flow of the dark emotions can’t happen in a contain-and-manage model. The alchemy of the dark emotions is not a management kind of process. What Goleman wants control to accomplish is better accomplished through emotional tolerance and mindfulness. These skills prevent the dark emotions from becoming destructive. When we can tolerate emotional energy mindfully, we can control our impulses without suppressing our emotions. Strictly speaking, it’s not our emotions that we control, but our actions. The emotional intelligence of the dark emotions moves us not to management but to transformation.
In his book Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about a state of peak consciousness that comes from absolute concentration on an activity. His name for this state of focused concentration is flow.3 When we’re in flow with an activity, says Csikszentmihalyi, we can tap into extraordinary capacities and superlative performances. To do this, we have to control our emotions. Once again, the control of emotion is a culturally masculine ideal with all sorts of good uses.
But what would happen if we got into flow with emotion itself?
Emotional Flow: Riding the Surfboard of Awareness on the Wave of Emotion
Emotional alchemy is the conscious flow of emotional information and energy. As we shall see in the following three chapters, each dark emotion has its own particular quality of energy and its own kind of flow. Emotional flow is not about letting it all hang out and acting in whatever way we are impelled, but about tolerating the energy of grief, fear, and despair in the body and allowing the wisdom of these emotions to unfold.
The flow of emotional alchemy is not a passive, powerless process—like lying down in emotional waves and drowning. Nor is it a hyperactive, controlling process like erecting a dam to prevent the water from coming through. Emotional flow is a state in which one is connected to the energy of emotion yet able to witness it mindfully. We ride the wave of emotion on the surfboard of awareness.
When we do this skillfully, emotional energy in a state of flow naturally moves toward healing, harmony, and transformation. You don’t have to force the alchemy of the dark emotions. It happens when the conditions are right.
When we can mindfully attend to, tolerate, and surrender to the energy of the dark emotions as it flows, we open the heart’s doorway to the magic of emotional alchemy. These are the three basic skills: Attending, Befriending, and Surrendering (ABS). The ABS process won’t transform a flabby midriff and give you that sleek washboard look, but it may well see you through many a dark night. Without mastering these three skills, you won’t get the information carried by grief, despair, and fear, and you won’t be able to transform their energies to gratitude, faith, and joy. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. With luck, you’ll survive and be happy anyway, and not become an alcoholic or drug addict, or spend twelve hours a day in Internet chat rooms. Maybe you don’t need the ABS process, because you’re content with the way you feel. If so, you don’t need to develop these skills. But if you’re having trouble with sorrow, despair, fear, or any other difficult emotional state, then these three basic skills will never fail you.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan