In his excellent book Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships, Dr. John Amodeo explores the ways in which the spiritual life can either be an aid or a barrier to the sort of connections with others I have been exploring in my recent blog posts.
Amodeo describes ways in which he has seen his own spiritual path of Buddhism be practiced in a way in which people are taught to use their spirituality and religious faith to numb their sense of attachment to their emotions, distance themselves from the risk of painful feelings which true connections with other’s bring.
After giving several examples, her writes:
“Spiritual folks often repeat the mantra, ‘Don’t get too attached!’ We might appreciate how clinging and attachment are associated with pain and then make a virtue of shutting down our feelings. We might also try to narrowly live out the popular dictate that being in the now is ‘where it’s at.’ Unfortunately, such brilliant formulas do little to actually help us. Reducing suffering is largely a matter of accessing the non-rational structures of our brain rather than clinging to clichés. These parts of our being need gentle tending; they are not going to just lie down and die. The key to happiness and awakening is finding a way to accommodate our limbic brain,” the seat of many of our distressing emotions, “not lobotomize it.
“One enticing pitfall along the spiritual path is to become firmly attached to an image of being non-attached. Preoccupied with being spiritually correct and self-contained, we may minimize our need for connection. Shackled to a self-image of tranquility, we may fail to notice that our blood is boiling when our nervous system gets lit up, such as when we are unfairly criticized.
“Through some clever mental gymnastics, we may appear calm on the outside while seething underneath. We may think we are being unconditionally loving when our combative in-laws want to extend their visit, but perhaps we’ve dissociated from our feelings and our body. What we deem to be spiritual non-attachment may be emotional shut-down.
“We may try to hold our longing for connection at bay, but this fire cannot be contained by denying it power; it will quietly scream for attention until it is finally heard, perhaps through a psychological crisis or physical symptoms, such as headaches or back pain. We can find freedom only by hearing what our longing requires from us and dancing graceful to its music…”
This sense that true humanity can be found in denying who we are, pushing it aside, can be found outside Buddhism as well. In my own Christian journey, I remember playful ways I was taught growing up to deny my own pain and feelings. Every fall we would go to a church gathering at a conference center as a family, with other folks from the Adventist tradition in which I was raised. On the way, we would often look for people with the tell-tale green parking stickers for the gathering. As we did, we all learned to sing a song about being happy when you go to worship God, in which we sang “don’t be a grump at the feast”. It was playful and fun as a child, but looking back it was a part of a wider tendency for us to think that to be true to our faith, we must deny our own heartache and pain.
As a chaplain, I see this with individuals in deep pain who refuse to talk about their pain. “I don’t want to question God,” they say, thinking that to question, to struggle, to express pain was in some way to deny God. They felt it was somehow unfaithful.
Some strains of Christianity teach us to distrust even positive feelings. Growing up, I remember a number of the churches I attended reiterating the warning of the prophet Jeremiah that “the heart is deceitful above all things; and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (17:9) and of the sage who wrote “there is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Proverbs 16:25). These passages, together with Paul’s talk of battling in our souls between flesh and spirit, were used to argue that our hearts will lead us down the wrong paths. Our natural desires, dreams, and longings are so tainted by sin that even our pleasures, gifts, longings, and hopes that are positive are surely snares of the devil.
And so we have to learn to push away dreams and desires, not seeking delight either, focusing on a spirituality of duty.
This approach is well embodied in the writings of St. Augustine. He turns this approach to relating to God and the world into prayer in his Confessions, in which he prays
“But what do I love when I love you? Not the beauty of any body or the rhythm of time in its movement; not the radiance of light, so dear to our eyes; not the sweet melodies in the world of manifold sounds; not the perfume of flowers, ointments and spices; not manna and not honey; not the limbs to delightful to the body’s embraces: it is none of these things that I love when I love my God”.
Augustine finds the pleasure, joy, and wonder of life as just as much a set of feelings which can lead us astray from the spiritual life, just as these well-meaning early models of the Christian life.
Yet, as Amodeo suggests, trying to push aside our true feelings and desires does not work. This is why often people who at first seem so pious, selfless, and peaceful can end up becoming very passive-aggressive and judgmental when you get know them more deeply. Unless such peacefulness comes from truly making peace within their selves, those feelings of frustration, anxiety, hurt feelings will just bob their heads up again. Trying to push away who you are and how you feel is like playing the game of whack a mole at an arcade. Ultimately what you hit, only pops up in a more sneaky way elsewhere. To truly find such peace, one must begin with accepting and embracing who you are, what you desire, and what you feel.
Learning to let go of this is what began the journey for me of fully embracing my life as a place in which I could experience and share God’s presence with others. As I’ve talked about before on my blog, my spiritual life opened up to me for the first time in high school at a Christian club full of charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. I think the reason I opened up to a deeper spiritual life in which I discovered my own calling to ministry among charismatics is the way they traditionally make room for people confronting, feeling, and expressing your emotions in how they pray and worship. Don’t get me wrong. There are traditions of body shaming, mistrust of your feelings as wrong, and a damaging purity culture in some segments of the charismatic and Pentecostal movement. Yet in their highly expressive prayers, dancing, and singing people are invited to be fully present with their emotions, expressing them as a way of connecting with God. I remember how liberating it was to really be present with and feel my fear, my hope, my sadness, my joy and gratitude to God, and even feeling loved by God in a group in which through song, hand raising, tears, and dancing such feelings were fully expressed even in your own bodies. And in being told to talk to God freely, as open about my feelings as if I was speaking to my best friend, I found myself beginning a journey back to connecting with my deepest self.
Ultimately I found a need to move beyond the charismatic theology of my youth, but I am ever grateful it called me to open to depths of myself I had long forgotten.