Focus on Feelings

Last week’s reflection spoke of listening gently to our own feelings. Even our difficult feelings, such as anger, indicate that something within us needs attending. Beneath feelings of anger often lies suffering that contains our inmost longing for life, for meaning, and for compassion and justice.

We referred last week to the thoughts on anger of Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nath Hanh. He suggested that we attend to the roots of anger within ourselves, to acknowledge them gently, yet not to unleash them on others, but to transform them into understanding and compassion.

I added that our experience of anger may also have positive counterparts in our deep longing for life, for meaning, and for compassion and justice.

I think it is essential to recognize that we share all of the human feelings, even those that are difficult and even unnerving or frightening. They may sometimes catch us by surprise and even occasion feelings of guilt for having them. When someone close to us dies, beyond feelings of loss of the physical presence of that person in our lives, we may even feel that we have been abandoned by that person. At first sight it seems inappropriate, but we can come to recognize it as a quite natural part of our reaction to that painful situation.

It can be very helpful to come to name the experience, either personally, or with the help of a friend, or with some work of literature or other of the arts. I recall coming to a sense that grief is not merely sorrow at a loss, but felt incompleteness. All our relationships have an element of incompleteness. But the separation experienced by death or other extended form of separation gives a kind of permanence to the feeling of incompleteness. When my younger brother died at the age of 26 from a chronic heart condition, it felt that we had been interrupted in the middle of a conversation that we could not finish.

On another occasion, I recall spending a day in a beautiful natural setting, with some fellow students. Later in the evening we listened to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and had the profound sense that this music named our experience.

Theologian, Paul Tillich, devoted a book, The Courage to Be, to the study of anxiety, the threat to existence, meaning, and integrity, that are felt in every human life. These can be met with courage, trust, and love.

The familiar story and film, The Wizard of Oz, tells of a storm that carries the child, Dorothy away to a strange new land where she encounters three friends who seek a mind (scarecrow) a heart (tin man) and courage (cowardly lion). Her three companions illustrate that this is really an inner search, a search for inner qualities that affect how we live our life inwardly and then outwardly as a result. Initially they think that their search is for someone who will confer these qualities, upon them, as if in a magical way. They learn in their journey that the ability to become mindful, heartful, and courageous really resides within them. It depends upon their experiences, how they respond to these experiences, and how they name them.

Their journey through a strange land and their encounter with strange creatures may well reflect the truth that, in our journey inward, we encounter unknown dimensions of ourselves, both creative and hurtful. The end of that journey, and really the goal of that journey, is to find and to return home. In fact, though Dorothy seems to return to the same home, it is in fact a different home because she is different.

These comments are an attempt to suggest the importance of recognizing the whole range of our experiences and finding ways to name them truthfully and deeply. I would add that we must do so with kindness to ourselves, which will then radiate with kindness to others. There can readily be a movement within ourselves to regard our feeling harshly, even to judge that there is something wrong with us for having them. I like to say that we should never speak to ourselves or treat ourselves other than how we would respond to a hurt or angry child on our best day. In these instances, we become attuned to the suffering behind that outburst, and even moreso to the sacred person that lives within and beneath that array of feelings.

Often, as we noted last time, a whole variety of feelings can mask an underlying suffering, whether within ourselves or in others we encounter. The Dalai Lama has stressed the central importance of kindness. He advises that we must first cultivate an inner peace within ourselves. This is best accomplished by developing love and kindness towards others.

In a little book, On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, state that many people today have been taught to perceive ourselves as fundamentally antagonistic to one another, and motivated by self-seeking. As a result, there is an immense loneliness, and lack of connection to one another. The pandemic and its resulting prolonged isolation have certainly made tangible how much we need one another. And to fulfill this need these authors stress that the path to follow is one of mutual respect, cooperation, and above all kindness.

It is interesting that the word, kindness, is related to the word, kin and kinship. This relation suggests that to be kind to someone, including ourselves, we need to feel some connection. This connection is certainly with ourselves and other human beings, near and far, and with the earth itself and its other than human inhabitants. As we have noted, we need to see the universe not as a collection of objects to dominate but a community of beings to reverence. Integral to this process is a sense of connection with and therefore kindness to ourselves. As educator, John Holt has said, we have enough kindness and compassion for others only if we have enough for ourselves.

Once again, the whole process of being gently in touch with ourselves and all the universe within us is part of this development. This can occur through solitude and meditation, through intimate and open conversation, through exposure to literature and the other arts, and through social involvement.

May you come to discover with gentle kindness all that is within you, and gradually extend that kindness in ever wider circles. As Thich Nath Hanh has stressed we must be peace before becoming peacemakers with others and our world.

Norman King, September 04, 2022