Did you ever have one of those morning meditations that was absolutely perfect? Maybe you get up out of bed, light a candle on your altar, close your eyes, and the love and peace just FLOW into you as you sit there. You feel compassion for all living beings and you feel oneness with the entire cosmos. You feel that if you aren’t totally Buddha-like, you must at least be the illegitimate child that Ram Dass never acknowledged. You are just SO high, SO spiritual, SO totally in the flow!
The feeling may continue as you take your shower, allowing the warm water to wash all the negativity from your aura. And then again, as you eat your oatmeal, reminding yourself that you honor all living beings by not eating the flesh of animals. You know you’ll have a perfect day at work.
And then . . . and then . . . you can’t find your car keys. You go through the pockets of the clothes you wore the day before. Check your night stand. Look under the bed. Scour your sock drawer. Crawl around on the floor in case you dropped them. Within the span of a few moments you’ve been transformed from Pema Chodron into a snarling, wild eyed beast.
“Where are you, you goddamned little jingly bastards? Where in the fuck ARE you?”
Ironically, at the very height of your fury and hysteria, you locate the keys. On your altar.
Sigh. Another failed leap into enlightenment.
In their book, “Ask and It Is Given,” Esther and Jerry Hicks make the point that sometimes it’s perfectly okay to feel angry. In fact, sometimes getting really pissed off can be a sign that our mental health is improving.
It’s kind of a breath of fresh air in the New Age/New Thought movement. We are constantly being told that we must stay positive and that, because of the Law of Attraction, being angry will do nothing but attract angry people and unpleasant events into our lives. We find ourselves trying to censor our emotions, consistently trying to not feel what we’re feeling – if what we’re feeling is anger – and then feeling guilty when we can’t do it.
The Hicks look at it from a slightly different vantage point, which is that angry emotion is better than no emotion. The basic premise is that our emotions are what motivate us, what keep us moving in life, what draw us toward love and make us run away from hatred. Without emotions, we’re just stuck, dead in the water.
They say we live on a sort of a ladder of emotions, with apathy and depression at the bottom rungs of the ladder and love and joy at the top. In between joy and depression there are our other emotional states like irritation, feeling overwhelmed, pessimism, hopefulness, and so on. As we climb the ladder and become more fully emotionally engaged with joy, we become more fully alive. When we descend the ladder into depression and apathy, we’re not really living, we’re just existing. The ladder would look a lot like this:
I really like that idea of an emotional ladder because it allows me to be the mess that I frequently am and be honest with myself about where I’m at. As the Hicks said in another book, it’s easy to program a GPS to take you from Phoenix to L.A. but first you have to know that you’re in Phoenix. If we’re on the second to the top rung of the ladder – positive expectation – then it’s relatively easy to take that next step up to joy. On the other hand, if we’re stuck WAY down the ladder in anger and we try to jump straight up into joy, we’re probably going to fall off of the ladder and land on our asses. It’s important to be honest with ourselves about where we really are on our emotional journey. It saves us from broken asses.
And that leads into another neat concept which the Hicks came up with: the, “emotional set point.” Basically, that’s just the rung of the emotional ladder that we live on most of the time. We humans tend to be creatures of habit and so we pretty much maintain a consistent emotional state. If we’re happy most of the time, we’ll stay happy most of the time. If we’re sad most of the time, we’ll stay sad most of the time. We may occasionally climb up and down a few rungs on the emotional ladder as life brings us good or bad events, but we tend to return to what feels like our, “natural,” state of being.
And there is a certain natural, genetic component involved in that. According to The Harvard Health Blog, about half of the reason we may be happy or sad is based on the disposition we were born with. So that person you know who’s always chirpy and perky and bright and annoyingly happy? Yeah, that’s probably real. They were likely just born that way. And the friend who always seems a little sad may have just inherited it from his parents. It’s their natural emotional set points.
The good news behind that, though, is that we can change our emotional set points. Just because it feels, “natural,” to be in a certain emotional state doesn’t mean that we have to stay in that emotional state.
Suppose, for instance, that I’m a perfectionist. I would want everything to go exactly according to plan and turn out just the way I’d envisioned it.
What would flow out of that state of being would be a great deal of impatience with my co-workers and/or family members because they weren’t living up to the high standards that I set. I might be constantly criticizing them, sniping at them, belittling their efforts and generally acting like an insufferable prick.
The cure for that could be to do loving-kindness meditations. Starting to actively envision what other people are going through and building in empathy for the fact that they’re struggling with life the same way that I am. As I continued to do that, my perfectionist expectations would drop away and I’d begin to see the people around me as fully dimensional human beings who deserve caring and patience. I’m changing my emotional set point.
Or perhaps, like so many of us, we grew up in physically or emotionally abusive families. Our, “go to,” response to stress in life might then be emotional flatness. We learned very early in life that it’s easier to just turn off our emotions rather than feel the pain of the abuse.
What flows out of that is becoming emotionally absent with our partners or children whenever there’s a problem. Even worse, we abandon ourselves emotionally and fail to experience joy and deep love because we’re so shut down.
The cure for that could be to start doing, “happiness meditations.” Just sit down once or twice a day and meditate on something that makes us happy, even if it’s a distant childhood memory of a beloved dog. Start learning to live in that emotion again. Stopping several times during the day and asking ourselves, “Am I happy right now?” And, if we’re not, pull up that memory again until happiness becomes a habit.
The point is that it’s a practice, the same way that yoga or meditation are practices. We don’t get where we want to go all at once. If we come home and find our life partner shtupping our best friend, it’s okay to be angry. In fact, it’s a hell of a lot better to be angry than it is to be depressed. Anger can empower us but depression takes our power away.
As long as we’re feeling something, we’re still okay. We’re still moving. We’re still growing. And, as the Hicks said, we can reach up for that next best emotion on the ladder. We can change our emotional set point. It’s better to feel irritation than to feel overwhelmed. It’s better to feel pessimism than to feel irritation. It’s better to feel hopefulness than to feel irritation. We can steadily, consciously move our emotional set point upward toward joy as long as we’re honest about what we’re feeling and we don’t shut ourselves down.
If we don’t feel it, we don’t heal it. If we don’t heal it, we don’t grow. And growing toward happiness is even better than knowing where your car keys are hiding.