Embracing Fear

I am scared. I’m having surgery, and it’s really making me nervous. I’m currently sorting mail from 2009, it’s that bad. Normally my filing is chronological (with some local turbulence, where I had to root around in the pile to find something).

A few weeks ago I spoke to a colleague who was also having surgery, and she seemed very relaxed about it. It wasn’t anything major, but then I’m not getting a heart transplant either. And she’s always moving so fast, perhaps she never stops long enough to be scared. Or maybe she just didn’t like to say.

It did make me wonder: are other people less afraid than I am? Or are they just better at hiding their fear, or ignoring it? And is that a good thing?

– Heresy n°3 –

Emotions are an essential part of our being. To accept ourselves is to notice our feelings and to accept them.

We are taught to reject all our negative emotions, to suppress them, to ignore them, or to distract ourselves from them. Don’t worry. Don’t be sad. Don’t be afraid. Cheer up. It’ll be alright, I promise. How often have we heard these phrases?

But when I am afraid, or I am sad: that’s me. You’re telling me not to be myself. At the same time all these things are meant kindly. What they mean is: “I can see that you are sad/scared/… and that makes me sad/upset… because your happiness is important to me. I would like to help you feel better.”

Sweeping our negative emotions under the carpet guarantees that they stay with us. In order to let them go, we need to walk through them, to let them be there. In other words: it’s OK to be sad, or afraid.

The other day the fear was even worse, and I took the time to sit down and feel it. I even allowed myself to realise that I can still call the whole thing off if that’s what I want. At the same time the alternatives are not that great. For now, I’m OK with doing it.

Am I still scared? Sure: I dare to be scared.

And I may even get that pile of letters cleaned up.

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Why Hate Hurts

Urban garden

A single flower can be my garden,
a single friend my world.
Leo Buscaglia

In Embracing fear I discussed the importance of accepting our emotions as they are. Yet our emotions do not come about entirely by chance.

Our reality is an inner stage representing the real world. We can see the glass as half-full or half-empty: one will tend to make us happy, the other anxious. I’m not talking about positive thinking, or trying to keep an unrealistically bright view of the world, but about thinking positively or looking on the bright side. Looking at the photo I can see a sorry excuse for a garden or someone’s personal little paradise – my choice.

This is especially important when we think about our relationships with others. The same interactions can be viewed in many different ways. Two people may have widely different ideas about their relationship with one another.

When I think about a person and our relationship, I am envisioning two little avatars on my own inner stage: a little “me” and a little “them”. All the thoughts and feelings I have about that person are messages in my brain, transmitters flooding my synapses, hormones coursing through my veins.

When I hate someone, I may do something to hurt or even kill them, but feeling the hatred makes me suffer, not them. By nourishing angry or hateful thoughts I am poisoning my own life. Why on earth would I want to do that? Conversely, when I feel kindness or compassion towards someone, endorphins flood my system.

Viewing our relationships with others through rose-tinted glasses would only create unrealistic expectations of their behaviour. But it’s a good idea to avoid nourishing grievances (Heresy n°2 helps) and to accept a share of the responsibility in a conflict. Not only can we then approach the other person more compassionately, we can also focus our attention the part in the relationship we have the power to change: our own. Denying responsibility always makes us powerless.

Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.
Eph. 4:26 KJV

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
The Dalai Lama

Throughout history, spiritual teachers have advocated practicing compassion, tolerance,  forgiveness, and gratitude. Not because of any moral imperatives, not because we “should”, but because doing so will make us happier.

Why I Feel What You Feel

Watercolour from leaflet photo.

Emotions are the source of empathy and connection. We cannot read each others thoughts, but we can feel each others feelings. This can work in different ways.

1. Feeling and form

We show what we feel in our posture, our gestures and facial expressions, even our voice. This also works the other way round: smile and you will feel slightly more relaxed, let your spine droop and your morale will drop a little too. When we look at someone we unthinkingly mirror their general demeanor. Sometimes we can’t help smiling when someone smiles, or yawning when we hear someone yawn.

So we have a chain here. You feel, you express, I copy your expression (a tiny little bit), and I feel what you are feeling (at least a little bit).

Incidentally, this is what makes portraiture so difficult. Painting a face is not intrinsically more difficult than painting a tree, but we look at the result far more critically because so much brainpower is dedicated to “reading” each other’s faces.

2. Imagination, or “as if”

If you tell me, your neighbour has just won a major award, I can imagine he must be feeling happy and proud. If you tell me he’s just been fired from his job, you don’t need to tell me he’s upset.

We can put ourselves in another person’s situation, and imagine what we would be feeling if we were in their shoes. It’s not accurate, as in many situations our feelings can differ, but it gives us a starting point.

3. Knowledge

We can learn to interpret signals. I remember a teacher whose jerseys came in two colours: red and …mud-coloured. When he was happy, he wore red. When the mud-colour came out, we knew he was in a foul mood.

And we can interpret language, such as journals or blog-posts, to understand what the person writing them is feeling.

* * *

When we look into someone’s eyes, when we imagine their situation, we can feel what they are feeling. Not only every man’s death diminishes me, but every person’s – every creature’s – pain is in a way mine and their joy also. This is where our sense of connection, and of oneness comes from.

To my mind this is what makes us human. Not that it separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom – e.g. dogs and dolphins share this trait – and why would we want it to? Being fully human is also being part of the big animal family.

I do not think we are rational creatures, but regardless of that I’ve always rejected the tag of “thinking thing”. As sentient beings, I think we are far more than that.