Self-knowledge and Self-control (2/23/20)

Many wake up regularly to some turbid emotional state or nebulous, lurking mood. It is the unsettling ones that vie for our attention, especially when their causes are mysterious and unknown to us. When I am able to represent my mood or emotional state to myself in apt words or mental images, there is an accompanying sense of relief—even if it’s only momentary. Somehow, the mental act of reflecting on the emotion and finding expressive form for it leaves me feeling slightly less trapped or bound by it. (Perhaps for this very reason, many persons are reluctant to reflect in this way upon their joyful, exuberant moods, lest they lose their magical, uplifting power when we ‘step back,’ coolly, from them.)

It seems that in the very process of finding language to represent and express these otherwise mute, murky moods and mysterious emotions, I am able to avoid two errors I committed more frequently in the past. One error was to simply and unreflectively act out the emotion—to become its ‘meat puppet’ or unconscious plaything. The other mistake was to passively succumb to the emotion, to mope and squirm, to become more or less paralyzed or inundated by it. In both cases I would fail to do what I now make every attempt to do: come to conscious terms with the mood or affect by means of creative-interpretive engagement.

I’m trying to become something of a horse-whisperer—or a dog-, cat-, snake-, bat-, termite-whisperer—with my emotions since, in some ways, they are akin to live animal-souls. Who will disagree when I say that our desires, fears, hopes, and other passions move us into and through life? And, conversely, when our passions and desires die or sink into a kind of hibernation or a depressed condition, life and our relationships with others often lose much of their former vitality or attractiveness. Whatever power or freedom we achieve in our lives and choices depends to a large extent, then, upon our learning how to unveil and represent ourselves to ourselves—and secondarily, to those with whom we are significantly related.

When we feel trapped and reduced to a miserable state of impotence by our poorly understood, but tremendously forceful, moods and emotions, we are far more likely to do unintentional harm to ourselves and to those we love. Powerful passions—like jealousy, anger, terror, pride, melancholy, and sexual hunger, when raised to a high pitch of intensity—quickly and decisively overwhelm and enslave a weak, undisciplined, or deluded mind. Likewise, manic, depressive, and paranoid moods overtake and diabolically possess a mind that helplessly identifies with the mood instead of doing everything in its limited power to break that spell of identification by willfully stepping back from the otherwise engulfing mood.

As soon as we become identified with a mood or passion, we consign ourselves to mental and emotional slavery. Nevertheless, such enslavement does not always leave us feeling deflated or reduced. Passions—like all polaristic phenomena—have light and dark, positive and negative, modes. Like large magnetic fields, passion-spectrums have what may be thought of as attractive and deflective poles, and the greater the magnitude or intensity of the passion, the greater will be our need for managing and moderating our relationship with the passion. Relationship (which is always between two distinct things or forces) is different from identification, where the weaker force is absorbed or swallowed up by the stronger force. Persons who know—or care—nothing about moderating and wisely tempering their conscious relationship with their passions and desires frequently regard those who earnestly guard against ensnarement by the positive and negative poles of the emotions as ‘cold’ or ‘detached’—somehow less than ‘fully human.’ The free soul certainly responds to charged emotional situations and events quite differently than do these unfortunate slaves of passion.

Strong passions and moods, fears and desires, naturally produce biases that steer and color our thinking. Like the nearby magnetic field that moves iron filings into specific patterns on the paper, our conscious thoughts invisibly conform with the general bias of the fear, desire, hope, etc.—to buttress and intellectually reinforce the ‘picture’ projected by the prejudicial passion. If there is any ‘rule for the direction of the mind’ that bears repeating, again and again, lest we forget it, it is this one: the ‘rational’ arguments we make, along with the evidence we select to support our arguments, are almost invariably determined, from below, by the bias of our passions which, as often as not, are taken for granted as axiomatic and beyond dispute.

Obviously, insofar as we are committed to a larger, more comprehensive vision and understanding of things—an understanding that is not completely subservient to our unexamined, governing desires, fears, hopes, delusions, etc.—we must be willing and able to investigate and identify all those influencing background passions and desires. Together, these constitute the ‘colored lens’ through which we behold the world and conceive of our place in that world.