The Wisdom in the Dark Emotions

eclipseMiriam Greenspan, writing in the January 2003 issue of the Shambala Sun:

I was brought to the practice of mindfulness more than two decades ago by the death of my first child. Aaron died two months after he was born, never having left the hospital. Shortly after that, a friend introduced me to a teacher from whom I learned the basics of Vipassana meditation: how to breathe mindfully and meditate with “choiceless” awareness. I remember attending a dharma talk in a room full of fifty meditators. The teacher spoke about the Four Noble Truths. Life is inherently unsatisfactory, he said. The ego’s restless desires are no sooner fulfilled than they find new objects. Craving and aversion breed suffering. One of his examples was waiting in line for a movie and then not getting in.

I asked: “But what if you’re not suffering because of some trivial attachment? What if it’s about something significant, like death? What if you’re grieving because your baby was born with brain damage and died before he had a chance to live?” I wept openly, expecting that there, of all places, my tears would be accepted.

The teacher asked, “How long has your son been dead?” When I told him it had been two months, his response was swift: “Well then, that’s in the past now, isn’t it? It’s time to let go of the past and live in the present moment.”

I felt reprimanded for feeling sad about my son’s death. The teacher’s response baffled me. Live in the present? My present was suffused with a wrenching sorrow—a hole in my heart that bled daily. But the present moment, as he conceived of it, could be cleanly sliced away from and inured against this messy pain. Divested of grief, an emotionally sanitized “present moment” was served up as an antidote for my tears. However well meaning, the message was clear: Stop grieving. Get over it. Move on.

This is a familiar message. Its unintended emotional intolerance often greets those who grieve, especially if they do so openly. I call this kind of intolerance “emotion-phobia”: a pervasive fear and reflexive avoidance of difficult emotions in oneself and/or others. This is accompanied by a set of unquestioned normative beliefs about the “negativity” of painful feelings.

Emotion-phobia is endemic to our culture and perhaps to patriarchal culture in general. You’ll find it in sub-cultures as different as spiritual retreats, popular self-help books and psychiatric manuals. In fact, my teacher’s supposedly Buddhist response was very much in line with the prevailing psychiatric view of grief. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (the “bible” of psychiatry), the patient who is grieving a death is allotted two months for “symptoms” such as sadness, insomnia and loss of appetite before being diagnosable with a “Major Depressive Disorder.” Grief, perhaps the most inevitable of all human emotions, given the unalterable fact of mortality, is seen as an illness if it goes on too long. But how much is too long? My mother, a Holocaust survivor, grieved actively for the first decade of my life. Was this too long a grief for genocide? Time frames for our emotions are nothing if not arbitrary, but appearing in a diagnostic and statistical manual, they attain the ring of truth. The two month limit is one of many examples of institutional psychiatry’s emotion-phobia.

Emotions like grief, fear and despair are as much a part of the human condition as love, awe and joy. They are our natural and inevitable responses to existence, so long as loss, vulnerability and violence come with the territory of being human. These are the dark emotions, but by dark, I don’t mean that they are bad, unwholesome or pathological. I mean that as a culture we have kept these emotions in the dark—shameful, secret and unseen.

Emotion-phobia dissociates us from the energies of these emotions and tells us they are untrustworthy, dangerous and destructive. Like other traits our culture distrusts and devalues—vulnerability, for instance, and dependence—emotionality is associated with weakness, women and children. We tend to regard these painful emotions as signs of psychological fragility, mental disorder or spiritual defect. We suppress, intellectualize, judge or deny them. We may use our spiritual beliefs or practices to bypass their reality.

Few of us learn how to experience the dark emotions fully—in the body, with awareness—so we end up experiencing their energies in displaced, neurotic or dangerous forms. We act out impulsively. We become addicted to a variety of substances and/or activities. We become depressed, anxious or emotionally numb, and aborted dark emotions are at the root of these characteristic psychological disorders of our time. But it’s not the emotions themselves that are the problem; it’s our inability to bear them mindfully.

Every dark emotion has a value and purpose. There are no negative emotions; there are only negative attitudes towards emotions we don’t like and can’t tolerate, and the negative consequences of denying them. The emotions we call “negative” are energies that get our attention, ask for expression, transmit information and impel action. Grief tells us that we are all interconnected in the web of life, and that what connects us also breaks our hearts. Fear alerts us to protect and sustain life. Despair asks us to grieve our losses, to examine and transform the meaning of our lives, to repair our broken souls. Each of these emotions is purposeful and useful—if we know how to listen to them.

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7 Comments on "The Wisdom in the Dark Emotions"

  1. Jordon Flato | Nov 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm |

    What an amazing article. I identify with this so much. Five years ago I lost a child, during a home birth. She was alive moments before delivery, and came out dead. That moment, and the months afterwards, were the most intense of my life. For a decade and a half I’ve been working with the ideas of G. Gurdjieff, so mindfullness, presence, and attention, are core aspects of my work. This worst of all possible tragedies for me was also the source of the most profound experiences of presence and mindfulness I’ve ever experienced. I think it was because of my practice that I was able to fully witness the complexity and intensity of my grief in such a way that I knew, in the full moments of pain, that this was an absolutely necessary and lawful experience. That I had to let it come out. I had to wail, and pound the floor when it was needed. And in those moments, I’ve never felt more clearly the absolute and fundamental existence of the Witness behind our normal consciousness. The taste of those moments lives with me intensely to this day, and I’m sure will for the rest of my life. There are plenty of ’emotions’ which are petty, and driven by vanity, ego, and imagination, and these should be seen and left to slip to the side without attachment. But the deep FEELING of grief and loss is a Law. It is a Law that one ignores at ones peril. I know, for myself, that the deep experience of grief, and the attendance to it, was the only thing that got me through that horrific time.

  2. Wow I’ve always felt this way… This article has helped me so much. Thank you.

  3. I have a fair amount of experience with Buddhism as it exists in America… been around various teachers both domestic and imported… read books… done practices etc…. all valuable in their various ways.

    One of the things I have noticed in the popularizing, commercializing and institutionalizing of Buddhism is how it is made to fit our existing cultural bias and blindspots. Becoming “enlightened” is shaped much like the story of Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

    Once upon a time things were perfect, and then we humans fucked it up with our limited little consciousness and/or our terrible DESIRE to know things and get our hands dirty messing around with real life.

    The message from Fractured Fairy Tales seems a good guide to me… “First you gotta suffer, then you gotta travel, if you wish your self to unravel.”

  4. Ted Heistman | Nov 8, 2013 at 12:54 pm |

    I liked this article a lot. I feel that its worth working through “dark emotions” often merely acknowledging them helps quite a bit. There is wisdom in not allowing them to control you, but I think what happens is that if you try to bury them or repress them, they end up controlling you for your shadow side. Then from experience, I find that I then continue to attract situations into my life that then force me to deal with these buried emotions.

    • Monkey See Monkey Do | Nov 9, 2013 at 3:21 am |

      That is what I think a lot of these so called ‘lightworkers’ are doing. They just suppress the darkness instead of working with it and becoming empowered from it. Their intentions are mostly good but intentions don’t pave an accurate path. I find the key aspects of most types of shamanism is confronting these dark emotions and using them for spiritual evolution, becoming the action instead of the reaction to whatever your consciousness receives.

  5. Simon Valentine | Nov 8, 2013 at 1:19 pm |

    aka “one with the Zmack down”

  6. I too am a Buddhist. probably not a very good one, but I try.
    I think the Buddhist teacher was not telling you, that 2 months grieving was enough, and you should move on. (As opposed to modern medicine, who will jump at any chance to give you more pills).
    As difficult as it sounds, he was telling you to let go of your grieving, and understadably attached pain. I am aware that this if WAY easier said than done. And I don’t know how I could or would cope if I were in your shoes, but it kind of makes sense.
    If you jumped into a pool holding a large rock, you would probably drown. If you let it go, you probably won’t.
    What we all need to learn, are strategies for being able to let go of this pain we too often cling to so dearly. We don’t love them less, or care less. Us grieving or suffering will not bring them back, or make them feel better, it will only hurt them too. Even if they knew?
    I hope we all find peace:)

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