One way meaning comes to a person is through achievement, and nobody achieves anything much when they’re bored. Being excited, being angry, even being sad feels much more satisfying than feeling numb and disinterested. All around us are reminders to “live life with passion”, to “follow your bliss” and to “seize the day”. It’s not a sentiment that too many people will argue against for long. In fact, the emphasis on living a passionate life notion is so imbedded in our contemporary psychology that it has become common for people to see themselves as somehow inadequate if enthusiasm is not at the center of their pursuits.
Is it possible to find just as much satisfaction in one’s achievements when there is a sense of calm equanimity at the core of action? A poster I saw during a 3 week silent Buddhist meditation retreat I attended in the 70s read “There is no higher happiness than peace.” I agree with that sentiment, but.... not to the exclusion of passion. It is the sense that passion and equanimity are mutually exclusive that troubles me. Why do we think that?
As short as our supply of daily wisdom is in the world, as useful as it is to move out of the way of emotional hijacks to preserve reason, composure and clarity, the perils of boredom and self-recrimination await anyone who concludes emotions are his adversary. Similarly, anyone who depends on emotional excitation to fuel his every move will inevitably discover how unreliable and temporary such motivation can be. Can the passion play of emotions lead a person not just to achievement but to wisdom, to awareness, as successfully as calm equanimity does? Can these two dimensions of experience work in a united way?
It that’s ever to happen, it will depend to some extent on appreciating both the power and limitation of emotion. This becomes apparent when considering that one of the most central intentions arising from any emotion is to connect a person with something. Anger, with its “pushing away” words, nonetheless connects the person bellowing those words with his target, even if his intent is to destroy that target. Sadness, when it burrows itself inside an individual, still can’t prevent other concerned people who ignore that individual’s “leave me alone” signals and instead try to make contact with the the person: sometimes to bring him away from the feeling, sometimes to join him in it, and sometimes without even knowing why he’s doing so.
Making contact in this way can be a terrific first step in allowing emotion to lead us to wisdom, but often doesn’t play out that way. The reason it doesn’t is because the contact gets derailed. That happens whenever a person gets swept away by the content associated with the emotion, and then gives that content center stage in awareness. It all seems logical: I’m sad because my brother died, I’m happy because I’m getting married, I’m frustrated because I can’t get my point across, etc. We prefer our emotions to have a straightforward meaning we can draw on, and oftentimes the one we assign to them makes perfect sense.
But what happens in those rare moments when contact is valued simply for itself? When the content, and any meaning we may want it to give us, remains secondary? An experienced psychotherapist will tell you that yes, sadness may have been triggered by a brother’s death, but it’s not confined to that event. The texture of sadness has much more nuance than any event can contain, no matter how tragic and significant the precipitating event is. It’s a thread that weaves through the entire memory of a person, through his history, his body, his aspirations, his failures and his successes. Sadness and all emotions provide points of contact, rising and falling in intensity. What happens if that contact is deepened, instead of being deflected so that content becomes the focus?
The equanimity spiritual disciplines advise us all to cultivate becomes much more accessible when a person can recognize contact, fearlessly engage in it, and resist the urge to prematurely move away from it towards content or meaning. As soon as content and/or meaning is dominant, contact disappears from the scene. When that happens, it usually doesn’t take long before the bond the emotion initially invited a person to form - between himself and somebody else, or between himself and something inside his own psyche - gets lost. The whole purpose of emotion is sabotaged. Why? Perhaps the person simply can’t contain the power of his emotion. Perhaps his historical associations with a particular emotion simply take over. Perhaps he’s been feeling “dead” for so long, that any emotional reaction is worth cultivating simply for the aliveness it temporarily provides.
Whatever the reason may be, the peril of mistaking emotional arousal for realness, or for certainty, is immense: it’s particularly dangerous when that content is taken so seriously that it wraps itself inside an ideology. A system, a series of prescriptions, mixing truth with the requirement for compliance, and encouraging a person to relinquish a bit of sovereignty over his own capacity to think things through in exchange for certainty and the security of numbers. It feels real, but that reality is a bubble reality. It’s a reality that can convince someone that housing prices will always rise, that a worldwide proletariat revolution is inevitable, or that 70 virgins await him if he successfully delivers his suicide bomb. Because ideologies, by definition, espouse meanings that claim to be universal, they automatically undercut realness. Then the organization underpinning the ideology engages in what it does best: emotionally exciting its followers in order to convince them that the contact they feel when they are excited is due to the “truth” of the ideology, rather than just being a reflection of how emotion works in any context.
So the next time you’re emotionally aroused, resist the urge to make too much meaning out of it. Just notice what the emotion is putting you in contact with, and deepen the contact rather than cutting it off - a task that requires equanimity on the heels of passion.