Planting the Seeds of Soul: The Seed of Emotional Intelligence

“There is a promise that is a common theme in world mythology and folklore,” says philosopher Sam Keen in his book entitled Inward Bound: Exploring the Geography of Your Emotions. “We discover beauty only when we embrace the beast. Where we stumble and fall, there we find the gold. Beneath the fault lies the virtue. The stone the builders reject becomes the cornerstone. The treasure is hidden in the trash. Authentic happiness,” he goes on to say,” is only possible when we allow ourselves to experience the full range of human emotions, including boredom, fear, grief, anger, and despair.”

And so it is. Beauty only when we embrace the beast. And for religious liberals, this point has particular poignancy, since for too long, our movement has been suspicious towards emotion, often wanting to recast religion and the religious life as a hyperlogical sort of thing, presuming that only when you become free of emotion, spiritual sanity and truth will come—but it won’t come. Can’t possibly come. Cutting-edge neuroscience tells us that reason and emotion operate in the very same brain centers, so for one to conquer the other is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. In cases where people’s brains have been damaged—through a stroke, or a tumor, or a blow to the head—and they can no longer feel anything, even though reason and logic remain intact, what happens is that their lives fall apart. They can no longer make even the simplest decisions or set goals for themselves.

Just in pure neurological terms: no beast, no beauty. But also in practical terms. Here, I’m thinking of an article in the UU World magazine from 2009, by my colleague the Rev. Christine Robinson, entitled “Imagineers of Soul,” and I’ll quote her at length. She writes, “Four out of five Unitarian Universalists came to Unitarian Universalism after a childhood spent in other faith communities. We left those communities because we no longer believed what they taught, and we often left wounded and bewildered by our experiences. If we were led to feel that our inability to believe what we were taught was due to a flaw in our nature, we brought with us a burden of shame. […] And because of that deep, shaming message, many Unitarian Universalists experience their rejection of what others believe—and, often, what they themselves used to believe—as not simple or freeing but as complex, angry, brittle, and defensive.

“But we don’t need to pretend to believe what we cannot believe in order to reclaim our spirituality. We Unitarian Universalists mostly have what twentieth century American theologian Martin Marty has called ‘wintry spirituality’: Our religious experience is of doubt, shades of gray, and absence. Although there are plenty of wintry spirits in conventional religious communities, what is celebrated and held up as ‘real spirituality’ is the summery, ‘What a friend I have in Jesus’ sort of spirituality, which comes in many theological variations but which is always celebrating the clear presence of spiritual ideals.

“There are summery Humanists who can hold on to the glories of the human spirit and its potential for unlimited growth even while watching the evening news. There are summery Transcendentalists who have never for a moment doubted that their lives were a part of a Great Plan. There are many among us who live in quiet faith that God is with them. But most UUs are doubters, clearer about what they don’t believe, aware that the ideals or beliefs they hold could be wrong, and experiencing God’s presence or surety of their ideals only in fleeting moments.

“Many people come to our congregations thinking that, since they don’t have an unending conversation with their friend Jesus, they must have no spiritual life at all—a painful thought. They come to us to see if here, by any chance, someone will point them to experiences of depth and wonder and meaningfulness, sans dogma; if something will bring tears to their eyes and strangely warm their hearts. They are hoping to be introduced to a spirituality for agnostics, theists, Transcendentalists, pagans, or liberal Christians that is not dependent on unending sunny days of the soul.

“Once here, they need some help in discerning how their wintry spirituality can feed them. Since they are unlikely to have had soul-shaking spiritual experiences, they need ways to discover the more subtle movings of the Spirit of Life. They need someone to elicit their story about the time the world stood still for them, or how one day, out of nowhere, on a bus, they were released from anxiety and freed to move ahead in their life, to hear those kinds of stories and say, ‘Wow, that sounds wonderful,’ and ‘Yeah, it went away; it does that, you know.’ They need to learn the rich history of wintery believers and faithful skeptics. They will be grateful and they will be able to say to themselves, ‘There’s not something wrong with me after all,’ and they will be healed of their shame.

“Until the healing happens, though, if there is one thing a person who has been shamed knows how to do, it is to shame others in return. That’s how it happens that, amongst Unitarian Universalists, the tools of scorn and shame are so often used to scare off any hints of spirituality.

“At a meeting of the worship committee, one member ventures the thought that she’d be a better worship leader if the group would spend some time talking about the spiritual aspects of worship. ‘I don’t know why you’d want THAT!’ someone says, his voice tinged with scorn. That was the end of that topic. He knew not what he did, and if he’d been called on it, he would have protested that he was just speaking the truth: He can’t imagine why anybody would want to talk about spirituality. If it had been a debate team or a science lab, this rational argument would have done no harm; it might even have provoked those who disagreed to work harder, but in a spiritual community, scorn is deadly.

“Our faith, our thinking about our faith, and our conversations with others about faith don’t do well around belligerent language, close questioning, and scorn. Very few people are willing to talk about their spiritual lives if they think they will be ridiculed or misunderstood.

“Imagine what may be going through a fellow church member’s mind: If I think you are going to laugh at me, ridicule me, or try to prove me wrong, I’m not going to say that when the congregation really gets to singing and clapping with the musicians, that’s when I feel the spirit move through the room. I’m certainly not going to tell you about that one precious time, when I was scraping the bottom of my barrel, I felt, for an infinitely sweet half hour, held in the palm of God’s hand, and that sometimes my longing for a repeat of that amazing few moments is so strong that I could just weep. I just can’t bring myself to say that aloud. I’ll just shut up and wait, if I don’t wander away, for someone to imagineer a place where it’s safe to speak about my tender, precious spiritual life.

“A shame-ridden people deal with pain by flaming every intimation of spirit.” And that’s it. That’s what I read in the Rev. Christine Robinson’s UU World article. Does it speak to your experience? She puts her finger on the shame that many of us can carry into this place because we were no good for the religion of our childhood, or it was no good for us, or because our wintry kind of spirituality seems so different from the sort that society celebrates and holds up as the real deal, or because we have a summery kind of spirituality that keeps on bumping up against obstacles in this home for the human spirit. The beauty of free religion trying to happen in our midst—the free flow of the Spirit of Life, trying to happen—but unless the four out of five of us (and in fact I would say the five out of five of us) learn how to face the shame, befriend it, work with it intelligently, then we will act it out against each other. We will hurt each other. We won’t be able to live up to our “speak the truth in love” principle. “If there is one thing a person who has been shamed knows how to do, it is to shame others in return.” Unconsciously, reflexively communicating belligerence, close questioning, scorn. We say with our lips that this environment is undogmatic and open, but because we are not seriously dealing with the emotional dimensions of our life together—don’t have emotional intelligence on an institutional level—the practical result is that we develop spiritual spores. We wall the unloved and unappreciated parts of our tender, precious spiritual lives away. Put ourselves on ice. But this is a survival strategy, and not a way of life. There can never be free religion, when emotionally we are unfree. Never. I don’t care how many advanced degrees there are in the room, what the collective IQ is in this place. Beauty, only when we together embrace the beast.

The promise applies to us collectively, and it applies to us personally. The anger in us, the gladness, the fear, the laughter, the sorrow, the shame all give us our sense of solidity in the world, our history, our integrity. Like nerve endings, they connect us to ourselves, and they connect us to the world. Through them, we know truly who we are, warts and all, and what we want. Says Sam Keen, “Until we pause to register how something feels, we have not digested our experience—we don’t know what it means. As long as I am only sensing a world around me, I have not taken a position in the middle of my own experience as a unique person with a particular set of memories and hopes.” The one life that is ours is wild and precious to the degree that it is Technicolor with emotion and we know how to hold all that dazzling, intimidating, burning Technicolor in the palm of our hands. We know how to tolerate it, think with it, relate to other people and to the world through it. Through the beast, beauty.

I want to say a little more about emotional intelligence—what’s involved—and then introduce our spiritual exercise for this month. Just as a bit of background: today’s sermon is the fourth in our “Planting Seeds of Soul” series, which draws from Warren Lee Cohen’s book entitled, Raising the Soul: Practical Exercises for Personal Development. In October, we planted the seed of self-knowledge; in November, it was the seed of clear thinking; and in December, it was willpower. All of them aim towards a certain quality of living I am calling soulfulness, characterized by self-awareness and enjoyment and perspective and non-anxiousness and compassion. Doing justice to the inner self so we can do justice in the outer world. That’s what the sermon series is all about.

But now: emotional intelligence. What exactly is it?

The phrase was originally coined by Yale psychologist Peter Salovey in the early 1990s to describe such things as awareness of one’s own feelings and the capacity to regulate them in a way that enhances living. Both give rise to yet a third important aspect of emotional intelligence: empathy for the feelings of others.

Take self-awareness. It’s about understanding how it is that, even as feelings are central to who we are, we can nevertheless be woefully unaware of them. Our emotions have Technicolor range and complexity, and yet so very often we experience them only in grays, or only greens and never reds. It’s a strange picture we get of our inner life. But why? Says Sam Keen, “No matter how wise and loving our parents, they could not have kept us innocent and spontaneous. Every child must explore, test limits, disobey in order to develop and independent personality.” And so we are forced out of the Garden of Eden forever. We grow up, the pain of growing up becomes unbearable, and we develop survival strategies to help us endure. We become experts in stopping the natural flow of emotion when we sense that it’s about to take us to a place that we’ve been taught is unlovable and unacceptable. We feel fear, which threatens to disrupt the “good soldier” survival strategy we’ve worked so hard to develop, and we stop the flow. We feel joy, which threatens to disrupt the “don’t expect too much out of life” survival strategy, the “get-with-the-life-is-miserable-and-then-you-die-gameplan” strategy, and we stop the flow. That’s right—sometimes the beast we face is joy. Sometimes the beast is enthusiasm, playfulness, generosity, gentleness. And so we stop it. We snuff it out. Each of us has a unique way of doing this. Finding something else to worry about. Workaholism. Drinking. We’ve already talked about how, when others threaten to uncover our spiritual shame, we can take on a scornful tone with them. Make fun of them, to stop the flow. But through self-awareness, we develop a mindfulness discipline where we watch exactly how we do this, and exactly when. We become students of ourselves, students of our own experience.

Besides self-awareness, there is a self-management aspect to emotional intelligence. How we hold all that Technicolor in our hands. And this is significantly impacted by the kind of beliefs we have about our emotions. Fill in the following blanks:

“I think of my grief or fear or despair as _____.”

“What my grief or fear or despair says about me is _____.”

“If I were to fully experience my grief or fear or despair, I would _____.”

“What I’d most like to do with my grief or fear or despair is _____.”

Don’t know about you, but I find it easy to fill in the blanks with negative stuff. Negative beliefs, that make it so hard to relax into the flow of emotion, trust it, have faith that ultimately it’s going to be all right. “Dealing with any [unpleasant] emotion,” says Sam Keen, “is like running the rapids in the Grand Canyon. In the turbulent Colorado River the greatest danger is getting thrown out of the boat and getting caught in a whirlpool or roller that sucks you down. If you struggle prematurely to get to the surface, you will likely drown. But if you go deeper, the action of the water will spit you out twenty feet downstream on the surface.” That’s what Sam Keen says. The only way out is through. And it’s so hard, since the emotions we’ve learned to stop have become truly scary. We’ve walled them off, and over time, they’ve become like poltergeists. What we repress festers. So easily they possess us, Exorcist-style. But to befriend such emotions, we’ve got to believe that friendship with them is both possible and desirable. In turn, belief paves the way for breathing into the unpleasant emotion, smiling at it with our hearts, building up tolerance so you can just hold it in your hand for a while, learn from it, allow the energy it represents to transform and become something different. Shame, turning into anger, anger turning into sadness and grief, sadness and grief turning into empathy for our parents and teachers and fellow congregants and others, empathy turning into compassion for a world in which Buddhism’s First Noble Truth is indisputable: how the suffering of birth, old age, sickness and death is unavoidable. Life, with all its changes, is suffering. And yet, through suffering, there is a path. There is a path running to enlightenment. Through the beast, beauty.

That’s emotional intelligence. And now, it’s time to present this month’s planting seeds of soul exercise. If you choose to join me in practicing it, please don’t forget about the others. Practice them as well. The system I am presenting is comprehensive and meant to develop our full personhood, our thinking-willing-feeling self. It’s an issue of balance.

Four basic steps.

Step one: Establish a baseline for your work on your emotions. Discover what you truly believe about them by completing the fill-in-the-blank questions I mentioned a moment ago. How might you adjust your beliefs or replace them so that you become more able to trust the flow of emotion even when it takes you into difficult places?

That’s step one. Step two is developing the parameters of a personal mindfulness discipline, where you become a student of your experience, a scientist who simply observes the flow of emotion without judgment or criticism. In developing the parameters, decide on a time every day during which you can set up your psychic laboratory and give your feelings the most concentrated attention you can without detriment to your daily responsibilities. Besides this, set the intention that you will be looking for two things in particular: the emotions which come easily for you, and the ones that you stop the instant they surface. How do you stop them? What strategies do you use?

Step one, step two, and now step three. During the actual time of the exercise, allow feelings to come in, and just observe. Watch your emotion as you would a bird alighting on a tree. Don’t scare it away with any sudden movements. If you feel jarred by the emotion, if it threatens to overpower you, soothe yourself with deep breathing. Breathe in and say, “I acknowledge this emotion and I breathe into it.” Then breathe out and say, “I acknowledge this emotion and I breathe it out.” Breathe in, breathe out. Smile as you breathe. Relax. Trust. Allow the whirlpool that has sucked you down to spit you back out. Let the emotion flow.

Finally, step four. This one has to do with times when you are outside the laboratory: here at church, or at work, or at home. When you sense that you’ve just stopped an emotion—when you’ve automatically scared away the bird in the tree—acknowledge that you just did that, acknowledge that this was part of survival growing up, and be thankful for that, but that was then and this is now. Now is a different time. So find appropriate opportunities to express the neglected emotion. Look for them. See what that’s like. Conversely, when an emotion flows freely, when it’s like a whole flock of birds descending upon the tree, as in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, take a deep breath. Try to consciously live with it for longer than usual. Someone in the social hall says something about spirituality (or politics, or anything else, really) that immediately strikes you as ridiculous, and you feel the irritation surging up, the aching desire to express scorn. Take a deep breath and press pause. Hold the feeling in your hands. I know it’s hard. I so know it. But if you do, the bird will change shape. The bird is mythological, magical. Perhaps you will see the shame that’s there, or something else. The bird is trying to tell you a story … about you. It’s coming home to roost. It’s your one wild, precious life singing to you, a songbird.

Beauty, only when we embrace the beast. Let’s plant the seed.