Recently, I shared with some people the following gatha that I use in my Plurationalist meditations:
In response to the first line of this gatha, somebody asked me what was wrong with surrendering to one’s emotions. This person concluded the question with a reminder of the obvious fact that emotions are there for a reason.
Answering this question requires me to explain two things. First of all, just because our emotions are indeed there for a reason doesn’t mean that surrendering to them is a good idea. Why it doesn’t mean that is the first thing that I must explain. The other thing that I must explain is why surrendering to our emotions is harmful. And indeed surrendering to our emotions is in fact it is quite harmful.
Explaining these two things requires me to clarify exactly what surrendering to our emotions does and doesn’t mean. In doing so, I will also clarify what not surrendering to them does and doesn’t mean.
For starters, to not-surrender to emotions does not mean shutting them out. Emotions play a key role in our psyche as human beings. They can be used to inform logic. That said, I do not want my emotions to have the driver’s seat in my decision making. Letting them have that kind of control over me is what it means to surrender to emotion.
As for why we have emotions – the answer is that we evolved to have emotions. Specifically, we evolved to react emotionally in certain ways to certain stimuli. Not everyone’s emotional responses are identical. Partly this is due to the fact that we’re not all identical clones of one another, and partly because our brains’ emotional responses are affected by environmental conditioning that also vary from one human being to another. However, our emotional responses, different as they may be, are mere variants of the emotional response system that our species evolved to have.
Anyone who understands evolution knows that our emotional system developed the way it did because it served us better than other things that were tried in the kinds of environment that we evolved in. That, however, does not mean that we can trust our emotions to reliably direct the best possible response in situations that we face.
For starters – the emotional response system that we have did indeed serve us better than alternatives that were tried in our evolutionary process. But that just means that one variant of emotionalism resulting from random mutation outperformed other variants of emotionalism that also resulted from random mutation. Some people like to believe in some clockmaker in the sky who designed us (including our emotional responses) to the have the best form that they possibly can. This explanation, however, is discredited in the scientific community. As a matter of fact, it isn’t even regarded as being well enough formed to properly qualify as a hypothesis.
The emotional response system we ended up with was just one randomly generated system that outperformed other randomly generated systems. It never was some masterful work of art designed to perfection. But even as the best of several randomly generated variants, it only was that for the kind of environment that it evolved in. Depending on how fast evolution works with regard to emotional response, that would be either a paleolithic or a neolithic environment.
Our emotional response system evolved to give us maximum protection against venomous snakes and large growling animals. It did not evolve to help us deal with the challenges of modern life. It did not evolve to help us deal with a situation in which our collective decisions will drastically affect the biosphere of the planet, and certainly did not evolve to protect us from blowing up this planet in a nuclear holocaust. It didn’t even evolve to help us drive a car without getting into a fatal accident!
As much as our emotions kept our prehistoric ancestors alive, it is sheer folly to let them have control of us in today’s day and age. We can not trust them to be the directors, not just of our political opinions, but even our everyday actions.
It is therefore unwise to surrender to our emotions – that is, to allow our emotions to rule us. That said, this does not mean that we should be looking for ways to eliminate them altogether from our thought process. There are ways in which our emotions can be useful to us – just giving them the driver’s seat of our actions isn’t one of them. Neither is letting them have the final say on any matter, or letting them run free and unchecked.
Every time you experience an emotion, it means that a part of your brain is sending you a message. The first step of knowing how to properly deal with that emotion, therefore, is to understand what that message is exactly and why your brain is sending you that message. It could be an irrational response to an external stimulus, or it could be a very accurate assessment of what’s going on. It may not even be a reaction to an external stimulus at all, but an indication that something is physically off in your body in a way that’s affecting the function of that part of your brain.
But whatever the message that my brain is trying to send me, and whether that message is right or wrong, the first thing I try to do when I experience an emotion (at least if I remember to do so, which I don’t as frequently as I wish) is to understand what the message is. If I have this level of understanding, I should be able to express the message, not in terms of the emotion in which it is sent, but in terms of a factual, non-emotional statement. I call this unpacking the emotion. From my experience, if the emotion is in fact a reaction to an external stimulus and not an indication of something being off in my body chemistry, the emotion tends to dissipate very quickly once I’ve done this.
Now – once I’ve unpacked an emotion, what I do next depends on what I find inside the package. If it’s an accurate assessment of a situation that calls for action on my part, I ask myself what the appropriate action to take is. If it is a disproportionate response to a very remote or unlikely danger, I try to put things in perspective. What I do at this point varies on a case by case basis.
But whatever the emotion is, I am always at my best when I master my emotions like this. I do well when my emotions play a role in my thought process but are not allowed to direct it. On the other hand, at times in my life in which my emotions were allowed to overpower my sense of reason and take command, the result was disaster every time.