Instead of resisting or denying negative emotions or feelings, accepting their reality is a better way not to be controlled by them.
“The healing is in the return … Not in not getting lost in the beginning.” – Sharon Salzberg
The Buddha spoke of greed, hatred, jealousy, and fear as “Visiting Forces” that are the source of our suffering. These forces may visit incessantly or occasionally; either way, they are not who we are. They are visitors. And they are the source of our suffering.
Sharon Salzberg offers this metaphor.
When the Visiting Forces come knocking at the door of your True Self – as they inevitably will do – it does no good to try to keep them out. Slam the door and they’ll get in through a window. Batten down the windows and they’ll come down the chimney. Do not waste your energy on futility. You must let them in.
But do not give them free run of Your House. Not even your welcome visitors are given that kind of access. Their presence does not make you bad. It makes you suffer.
Let them sit in the kitchen. Offer them hospitality. Feel the pain of their presence rather than the disgrace of it. Take the energy you would have put into resisting them and put it instead into disentangling yourself from them.
The Visiting Forces are not you. They do not have unfettered access to Your House. They are welcome in the kitchen. With some compassion for yourself and your suffering, and some compassion for the Visiting Forces, they will, like all guests, eventually leave.
Another word for what Salzberg is talking about is “mindfulness.” Sure, mindfulness is trendy; it’s also one of the most effective ways of managing negative emotions. Mindfulness techniques help us recognize what we’re feeling without fueling those feelings by giving them more energy, either by trying to deny or repress them, or by wallowing in them. Accepting is not the same as condoning; it’s about acknowledging reality.
Many people – and many men among them – still live with the notion that control is a virtue. Recognizing our inability to keep the Visiting Forces from entering our House (negative emotions entering our life) flies in the face of a central tenet regarding control: that we have it, or ought to have it, or can learn it. It connects to the notion that the individual is the primary unit of agency. Individuals have rights and power. It also connects to science, which is in the business of understanding things, at least in part, so they can be controlled.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that self-control is a bad thing. Self-control at its best is a virtue. But even virtues have their shadow side, and it is the shadow side of self-control, and the desire to control other-than-self, I’m talking about. A social and political assessment of our addiction to control reveals the racist, sexist and colonialist underpinnings of the illusion of control. Women, people whose skin is not called “white,” and people who are not Europeans or descendants of Europeans, frequently have not had control of their bodies, their actions or their futures.
The reality of the Visiting Forces’ ability to overrun our interior life, and by extension our actions in the external world, reminds all of us who live with the illusion of control, that that is what it is: an illusion. We are not in control of even our own thoughts and emotions, much less the world around us. COVID-19, a virus whose size is roughly 1/2000 that of the width of a human hair, should have taught us that we have far less control than some of us want to believe.
Another aspect of the shadow side of the virtue of self-control is that it is a short step to the illusory world of pretend perfection. A world where people can be blamed for their addictions, or for their homelessness. A world in which losing a job or needing help from a food bank is a source of embarrassment or shame. A world where winning is always better than losing, where success equals more, where ostentatious wealth is coveted. Woven unspoken through this world is the usually-unstated assumption that the blame can be often laid at the feet of a lack of self-control. As though those of us who are not “like that” are somehow superior.
We pretend that the weakness, the brokenness, the shame, the pain we feel isn’t there. We’re “fine thanks. How are you?”
And yet, the collective spiritual wisdom of our species insists that the truth is precisely the opposite. Our goodness is not based on our being right, better, richer, faster, smarter.
· In Judaism, the great heroes of the tradition regularly do despicable things and no attempts are made at whitewash, spin, or a cover-up.
· In Christianity, the parable of the prodigal son celebrates not the one who got it right, but the one who is faithful.
· In Taoism, distinctions between good and bad are perceptual, not real.
· In Buddhist meditation, the goal is not constant mindfulness, but self-compassionately returning when the mind wanders.
As long as we insist on trying to live up to the cultural perfection game, judging ourselves and each other when we fall short rather than shining the light of compassion on our brokenness, doing the hard work together of turning to a better path will remain elusive. That better path is found by learning to accept the reality of negative emotions as much as the positive ones, acknowledging that the goal is not to “get it right,” but to faithfully return to the practice.
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