January 24, 2019

Happiness, Addiction, Training

How Can Emotions Be Commanded?

‘How can emotions be commanded?’, I am asked, when I go over the three main commandments regarding Sukkot:  to live in rickety hut with an unfinished roof (Sukkah), wave a bunch of foliage around, and be only happy. I am certainly asked to explain the rickety hut and the waving of foliage, but the commandment to be happy must be justified. The “how” in the question is usually the “how” of complaint, not the “how” of curiosity.

First of all, emotions are commanded all the time.  We are asked to move on when we are grieving, to calm down when we are excited, to get over it when we are upset. We tell our children to stop pouting.  We tell them to be grateful. 

In the commandment to be “happy” (meaning here inner wellbeing), it is not just the emotion of happiness that is being commanded, but more essentially the feeling of happiness. In my work, the distinction between feelings and emotions is crucial. I see emotion occurring rather immediately.  Emotions take us over before we are even aware of it. They often come and go quickly. Emotions usually bridge our inner lives to the outside world, to other people. 

I see feelings as running more deeply.  I can recall times when my deeper feelings were troubled, worried or grieving. I would have moments emotional happiness when I was with other people, or doing something enjoyable, but once I was alone with my feelings again, the pain came back. Feelings are often kept inside. When they are negative, they can produce a range of destructive emotions and behaviors.

This where addictions come in. Addicts want to feel better. External substances help the body lie to the soul that we have found a solution. It is not too different with emotion addicts; profound physiological changes occur when we are, for example, angry, which both produces a high, but also, like addictive substances, damages our health (the heart, the immune system, the arterial system, the hippocampus  — the list is rather extensive).

Negative feelings damage us. Positive feelings, well, make us feel better, and can improve our health, psychological, spiritual, and physical. We would typically not question a physician who told us to quit smoking, go on a diet, exercise more, drink less alcohol, not to take methamphetamine and so forth. But the directive to be happy is questioned.

Cultivation of feelings of happiness is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. The real question to ask at this time is not the complaint: “how (dare) the Bible tell me how to feel?”, but rather:  “how exactly do I fulfill this commandment?”.  Many wise books have been written on precisely this topic and those who follow the advice of the wiser of these books are likely to become happier (and if the book sells well, the author, too, may experience an uptick in the happiness quotient).

If you add up all the advice offered in these tomes, under the bottom line you will get an answer, in which the following advice is central: learn to manage consciousness toward inner wellbeing (a synonym for the feelings of happiness). Getting negative people out of your life or extricating yourself from negative situations are included under the bottom line, as well, but quickly getting negative people out of your life or getting out of negative situations are, however, not that easy for some of us.  So we are left with managing consciousness as our main course of action.

Managing consciousness takes training. Managing consciousness can feel like an inner battle. If you have ever wrestled with procrastination or depression, you know that it often feels that we are way out of our weight class. The feelings behind those patterns are heavy and they dominate us. With procrastination and depression, time seems to slow down.  If we learn how to engage the enemy, we typically have the time to do so.  (Here I am not referring to clinical depression, but rather the sort that can be treated with a cognitive-behavioral approach).  With anger, on the other hand, time speeds up. We have to be pretty well trained to intervene. 

Training consciousness to deal with anger, one of the strongest forces that attacks our ability to cultivate inner wellbeing (happiness), is to fight a crafty, quick and strong inner foe.

Training consciousness is not as difficult as it sounds. What is difficult is showing up for the training. Once you show up, things get better rather quickly.

The essential questions are how to get yourself to show up, and how to start the training.

During the holiday of Sukkot, I will give an abridged training (teaching) on how to manage consciousness on this blog. Stay tuned and Chag Same'ach!