Practicing happiness 28

Contra mundum with a vengeance.

So it turns out I’m a villain.

In anime there’s the trope (presumably informed by Shinto beliefs) of a creature or spirit that becomes warped through suffering or injustice or its own negative emotion and becomes evil.

It always struck me as a little unfair, but it makes sense. Like the boar spirit at the beginning of Princess Mononoke, or any number of unhappy yokai in Natsume Yuujinchou. These spirits are often victims themselves, yet their bitterness or wrath turns them into something dangerous to others.

In the Abraham-Hicks teachings the cause of our suffering is our own resistance. When we focus on unwanted aspects of reality we experience friction or going against the flow of our own inner being, because our inner being only ever focuses on the wanted aspects of life.

Our negative emotions are our experience of this friction.

I’ve been working on letting go of resistance and feeling better. But it turns out my resistance was more extreme than I realised.

At some point in my life I got turned around. I took my negative experiences and extrapolated to life in general, the whole world, and existence itself.

I decided that life was not worth living, the world was pointless and broken, and existence was burdensome and futile.

Treating all of existence as unwanted felt pretty bad. But in a way it was a relief to reach that sweeping conclusion. It was more satisfying to turn against life than to try to find redeeming features amidst the misery.

It was also a form of vengeance against everyone and everything responsible for making life so burdensome in the first place. Like playing a game where the odds are stacked against you and the cost always outweighs the rewards, the obvious answer was to refuse to play.

Ironically that’s how I finally interpreted spiritual teachings too. Life is being crushed beneath the wheel of samsara, and it’s only refusing to buy-in that brings us true freedom.

If our thoughts and attitudes create our reality, what kind of reality does this contra mundum attitude create? Not the best.

If resisting the flow of life causes suffering and negative emotion, how about turning defiantly against the stream and saying “f*** you”?

Change of heart

My spiritual search was an attempt to find a way out or transformation of this hated reality. But the answer I have finally arrived at is that my hate is itself the problem.

If I want to feel better I have to learn to love the reality I’m in. If I love the reality I’m creating, then it will change to reflect this positive and satisfying and delightful attitude.

I can’t hate my way into a better-feeling life. No matter how justified my resentment might seem, or how comforting my scorn might feel, if I’d rather enjoy life then it’s time for them to go.

The hidden cost of suppressing anger

I grew up exposed to a lot of anger, resentment, and hostility of varying degrees, to the extent that I concluded the emotion of anger was inherently destructive, toxic, and undesirable.

Plenty of spiritual teachings support this view. An enlightened person is supposed to be beyond anger, and the Christian tradition is split on the question of whether anger is ever justified.

In my own circumstances expressing anger resulted in ridicule, shame, disapproval or escalation of conflict. So I learned at an early age that anger was not only unpleasant but also fruitless.

I’m in uncharted territory as I now learn that anger is in fact a normal part of our emotional landscape. Anger is an emotional defence-system. It guards against unfair treatment and protects us from abuse and injustice.

Seeing people use and express anger in dysfunctional ways, coupled with the inefficacy of my own anger, convinced me to disable, disregard, and suppress it. My solution was simply to avoid anything that might trigger anger, or require anger.

If I don’t like how I’m being treated, it’s up to me to change it, challenge it, or leave. What’s the point in adding anger to the mix? So I thought.

The hidden cost

Suppressing anger and avoiding triggers of anger comes with an enormous cost.

I had to become hyper-vigilant to possible external threats because I didn’t want to rely on my natural defences. It took a lot of mental energy to be aware of potential dangers and always prepared for them.

At the same time I was continually internally vigilant to my own actions and emotions, trying to avoid anything that might trigger anger, resentment, hostility or conflict.

The internal and external vigilance took a lot of energy, and kept me perpetually focused on negative scenarios.

But perhaps the biggest cost of disavowing anger is that I cordoned off whole sections of my own self, censoring aspects of my personality and feeling that might cause offense or conflict with others.

Borrowing an analogy from Chesterton: it’s like a playground near a cliff. If there’s a big strong fence by the cliff, the children will happily play right up to the edge. But if there’s no fence, the children won’t want to go anywhere near it.

For me anger was the cliff, and in the absence of a strong fence I’ve avoided going anywhere near it, avoiding even the possibility of conflict in my everyday life, vastly overestimating the likelihood of conflict and the risk of just being myself.

To avoid causing offense I’ve tried to be as inoffensive as possible. It’s exhausting, and impossible anyway because we can’t control who we offend or how. And it’s come at a cost to the full expression of my personality, and been an enormous drain on my inner resources.

Relearning anger

I’m becoming familiar with anger now as the other half of my complete personality.

Not that I want or need to be angry, but I do want and need the freedom that comes from making peace with anger.

I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they draw a distinction between healthy and unhealthy expressions of anger; I’m also beginning to see how my early confusion came from witnessing people redirecting their anger inappropriately as well as expressing it destructively.

It’s okay to be angry, it’s normal and healthy. But anger is neither an excuse nor a justification for how you act when angry. And in fact the better we are at expressing anger in healthy and constructive ways, the less of a big deal anger becomes.

If you’ve grown up with parents whose anger translates into violent outbursts or simmering hostility or cold resentment, the whole concept of healthy anger might seem like a contradiction in terms.

It takes time and familiarity to relearn anger and see that in its essence it is not ugly or violent or dangerous.

In its essence anger is an advocate for your rights and a champion of the good you deserve. It exists to serve your own wholeness and integrity, and it can serve you in assertive actions and words more effectively than aggressive and destructive behaviours can.

Climate children: encouraging idealism without fear and anger

My latest article at MercatorNet looks at the phenomenon of fearful and angry children and young people taking part in climate change protests:

When it comes to the climate change indoctrination of children, it’s hard to fault the ideals that often go along with it. Children and adults who care about the environment, care about human life, and care about future generations are laudable.

But not so much the negative messaging that often accompanies climate change activism…

When it comes to children we should err on the side of happiness and hope and trust, because they are self-evidently what we all desire. Besides, nobody functions well mired in anxiety, fear, panic and despair. The activist notion that we need to “get angry” is a self-defeating message, and runs counter to the best examples of social change in our history.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/climate-children-encouraging-idealism-without-fear-and-anger/22568

The Emotional Guidance Scale

One of the most useful tools in the Abraham Hicks material is the EGS or Emotional Guidance Scale.

The idea is that our emotions provide guidance as to how well aligned our thoughts are with the perspective of our inner being.

In Christian terms, if we accept that God is love and God’s providence rules all things, then we will find love, peace, and joy growing within us as we embrace God’s loving will in our lives.

The EGS

In the Abraham Hicks system, our emotions exist on a scale or spectrum from despair, depression, fear, at the bottom, to joy, love, and appreciation at the top.

So far so good, but what makes the EGS especially valuable is that it plots other points in unexpected ways.

For example, insecurity is one step higher than fear and depression. Jealousy is another step higher, hatred or rage is above that.

If you worked your way up the scale starting at fear, you might go through hatred, revenge, anger, blame, worry, doubt, disappointment, all the way up to boredom, before arriving at the tipping point of contentment.

This is significant because many of us have been taught that these negative emotions are bad or wrong. We often find ourselves feeling fear, but resisting the shift into jealousy, hatred, anger, or blame even though they are higher up the scale.

That’s not to say that blame is a good place to be, but it’s a much better place than hatred or depression. Blaming others when you are depressed feels like relief.

But too often we get to something like anger and immediately shut it down, telling ourselves that anger is wrong, that it’s better to be depressed than angry.

Of course you’re not meant to go out and act on your jealousy, anger, revenge, or hatred any more than you should act on your fear and depression.

It’s enough to recognise that these unpleasant emotions are nonetheless a step in the right direction. Allow yourself to feel anger if that brings relief, and know that it’s not permanent.

Working with the EGS

We can use the EGS to identify where we are on any given subject, and then find thoughts that feel like relief, noticing how that relief takes us up the scale towards the more aligned emotions.

For example, if you feel depressed and powerless on the subject of not having a job, it’s because your thoughts on this subject are out of alignment with the providential, loving perspective of your inner being.

You might be thinking something like “I’ll never amount to anything” while your inner being is thinking something like “everything is working out perfectly”.

But it’s not easy to go from thinking “I’m useless” every day for twenty years to then thinking “everything is perfect” consistently.

That’s a big leap and not easy to maintain.

Instead you might go just one step higher to a thought like “I have no idea what I’m going to do”.

It’s not a happy thought, but it’s a little better than “I’ll never amount to anything” because at least it admits uncertainty. So it might feel like insecurity rather than depression or despair.

With practice it’s possible to work up the scale quite quickly, though I have no idea how long it takes other people.

Our next thought that brings relief might be jealousy at all those people out there who have found their calling or easily arrived at enjoyable, fulfilling, or lucrative careers.

Don’t shoot down the jealousy. Accept it as a source of relief, of feeling “less bad” and then see if you can find another thought that brings further relief.

It won’t necessarily be hatred/rage, nor revenge. It’s okay to naturally skip some emotions.

Anger might be the next point of relief. You might find relief and energy in angry thoughts at the economy, the education system, your past choices. You might angrily think “this sucks, I hate this situation” and although it’s not a good feeling it’s already much better than insecurity or despair.

Blame

It feels good to blame others, but we’re frequently told it’s unhealthy and fruitless.

Well it is if we never move on from blame, but too often people never pass through blame on their own. They get to blame and then tell themselves (or are emphatically told) “stop blaming other people for your choices, take responsibility for your own life!”

But if you find some relief in blame, then blame your heart out. You could blame the economy for taking away your job or not offering more prospects. You can blame your education for not preparing you for the current workforce. You could blame your parents for undermining your youthful passions and hobbies. You could blame the government, blame your country, blame your third grade teacher, blame your family for holding you back.

Problems only arise when people act on blame, or when they refuse to take the next emotional step towards relief.

We’ve all met people who like to tell everyone about their blame. They blame their ex, their boss, their parents, their more-successful siblings and so on.

The problem isn’t the blame, the problem is that they refuse to move on.

What comes after blame?

It might be worry. Some people recount that after wallowing in blame for a while they realised that blaming others wasn’t making their life any better. Maybe they went into worry?

Or maybe we can move from blame into doubt? Doubting that it really was other people’s fault, doubting that we really know what made our life turn out the way it did, doubt that blaming people is getting you anywhere.

Again, moving from blame into doubt might seem counter-intuitive because blame offers certainty whereas doubt sounds very uncertain.

But that uncertainty is also more open to possibilities, less fixed in telling the same old story about how your evil step-sister screwed you out of your inheritance and that’s where your life took a wrong turn.

Or maybe even doubt that things are as bad as you thought. Maybe you meet people or hear of others in your exact circumstances who’ve made things work, or perhaps you notice that you have more to be thankful for than you first considered.

Follow relief, not the scale

In my opinion it’s not the best approach to try to feel everything on the scale. The whole point of the scale is to help us recognise that relief is taking us somewhere, and that is up the scale. It’s to reassure us that anger or jealousy or blame are not permanent locations but just a section of the path to appreciation and joy and feeling genuinely good.

If we keep looking for thoughts that bring relief we will eventually find ourselves closing the gap between how we see the world and the providential, loving perspective of our inner being.

At the heart of the Abraham Hicks material is the observation that whatever we desire, we desire it because we think we will feel better when we have it. But it is not having things that makes us feel better, it is alignment with our own inner being, God’s presence within us.

Yet life is not static, it is expanding. Our desires expand, and the perspective of our inner being expands with it. To stay in alignment is not an act of standing still or clinging to a single definitive answer.

If we find the answer, life will give us a new question. Alignment is therefore dynamic, and keeping up with it is the nature of the work.

Looking back at my own life, I thought alignment was static. I thought there was a single unchanging answer that I needed to find, and I grew despondent and discouraged as each time I found the answer turned out to be insufficient or temporary.

It’s like wanting to own the most powerful gaming computer available. You could do all your research, write down the specs, but if you wait too long before ordering it’ll no longer be cutting edge.

Our happiness is cutting edge, or leading edge in Abraham Hicks jargon. We have to keep up with it, and it’s said that the real satisfaction and joy lies precisely in the keeping up.

Alignment is a moving target, but hitting a moving target is more fun and more satisfying than hitting the same old target again and again.

 

Acceptance: spiritual and mundane

An immediate reaction to the spiritual practice of acceptance is to think of examples where people really shouldn’t accept their reality.

People in abusive relationships, victims of crime and mistreatment, exploitation, unhealthy situations generally.

We think of these examples because “acceptance” is often understood in a non-spiritual context to mean simply putting up with something, not resisting, not changing.

In this mundane sense we can say that great leaders of social change like Gandhi or Martin Luther King were significant precisely because they did not accept the status quo, did not accept the received wisdom, and instead fought for change.

But in a spiritual context acceptance was the secret behind the success of the Indian independence movement and the civil rights movement. Gandhi in particular excelled because he first accepted the reality of British rule and the legitimacy of the British governance of India. He accepted that there was some truth to the British claim that India could not govern itself, that it lacked the political organisation, seriousness, and moral responsibility for self-governance. That is why he eschewed violent means of protest, because he wished to make the moral character of the Indian people an irrefutable reality.

This conflict between the mundane and spiritual aspects of acceptance arises because human beings are autonomous and reflective. We can choose how to act, and we can reflect on our actions, reactions, and intentions in a self-aware way.

This is important because when we come to accept reality, we need to realise that our reality includes not only the things in our environment, but also our reaction to that environment.

If I get angry at my home always being messy, the mundane form of acceptance would be to try to feel okay about my home being messy, to stop getting angry at this undesirable state of affairs. This is a mistake, because it ignores or rejects the reality of my pre-existing emotional, mental, and physiological response.

The spiritual form of acceptance begins with accepting both the messiness of my home, and my anger at this state of affairs. It means accepting the whole package, the whole experience, the whole reality.

If I do not accept my anger, then I am merely fighting with myself in denial of reality.

It’s the pride, stupid.

The other day I wrote about resentment in melancholics.

One of the problems with the melancholic temperament is that it can be hard to know exactly what you’re feeling. Resentment might appear as a kind of miserable heaviness hanging over everything all the time. It won’t necessarily come with little tags telling you the type, origin, and nature of the mood.

This is especially the case when the resentment becomes habitual – so deeply ingrained that it feels normal. I’m not talking about small resentments (though small ones are part of it). I’m talking about big, life-shaping and character-forming resentments. Resentments so formative that they don’t even feel like resentments anymore, just a part of your own story.

Stories like: being bad at everything, always having to move away from friends, having no sense of purpose, being unpopular, failing, poor, being clumsy or unathletic, or slow-witted or never getting the joke.

These common themes can translate into self-pity, bitterness, and resentment.

So what now?  Assuming you don’t actually want to live mired in a bitter and angry reaction to all the things that didn’t go your way, how do you find another way?

Resentment doesn’t hang in thin air. It has a very particular source.

I said last time that it comes from a perceived injustice – motivating anger, fear and disappointment. Anger is defined as a desire for vengeance or vindication, the desire to set right a perceived injustice, to ensure we get what we deserve, whether it be material wealth, opportunity, or due respect from others.

We get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic because we believe deep down that we deserve special consideration from others. We deserve to have a clean run to our destination. We interpret obstacles and inconveniences as slights – signs of disrespect.

At the heart of this anger, and hence resentment, is an inflated sense of what we are owed, what we deserve. This inflated sense of self-worth is called pride, and is defined as a love of one’s own excellence, real or imagined.

People resent life, their families, God, the universe, society, reality itself because these things have failed to meet the standards they feel they deserve.

Resentful people are proud people.

But the good news is that pride is itself a choice. And when you finally arrive at the point where your many resentments are making life unbearable, you might then be able to choose against pride.

At the moment I’m viewing it as an addictive substance – pride as a state of mind we indulge in for escapist pleasure. You don’t have to learn humility per se; in fact in seeking to be humble there’s a risk of merely turning ‘humility’ into a new goal or power-play for your proud self to accomplish. Instead I think it’s easier just to notice the delusion of pride whenever it arises. Noticing it will detract from its strength. Noticing it is implicitly a refusal to fully endorse it; and in that careful approach lies, I think, a way to simply desist from embracing pride any further.

I think in the past I tried to deal with pride by lowering my expectations relative to the norm. I knew the definition of humility was to see oneself truly, but I thought that meant I simply had to beat my pride down to size. But if pride is a love of your own excellence, it doesn’t really matter how excellent that excellence is relative to others. “I just want a normal life” can still be tremendously proud when the subtext is “…and I think I deserve it.”

We need instead to take questions of desert off the table completely, and that can be done by recognising pride as a mental function and refusing to assent to it.

Melancholic resentment

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One of the drawbacks of studying religion at an early age is lacking the maturity or the intelligence to distinguish between personal conditions and universal ones.

For instance, all the religious traditions of which I am aware are pessimistic about worldly goals and prospects. Whether it’s being crushed beneath the wheel of samsara or being dashed to pieces in the shipwreck of worldly desires and cares, our religious traditions use pessimism to encourage us to find the permanent, unchanging spiritual centre of all existence.

We are not supposed to take this pessimistic view as a justification for resentment, a sardonic defence against feeling let-down by life or the people in it.

Resentment is a particular risk for Melancholics. As Conrad Hock writes:

The melancholic who gives way to sad moods, falls into many faults against charity and becomes a real burden to his fellow men.

a) He easily loses confidence in his fellow men, (especially Superiors, Confessors), because of slight defects which he discovers in them, or on account of corrections in small matters.

b) He is vehemently exasperated and provoked by disorder or injustice. The cause of his exasperation is often justifiable, but rarely to the degree felt.

c) He can hardly forgive offences. The first offense he ignores quite easily. But renewed offenses penetrate deeply into the soul and can hardly be forgotten. Strong aversion easily takes root in his heart against persons from whom he has suffered, or in whom he finds this or that fault. This aversion becomes so strong that he can hardly see these persons without new excitement, that he does not want to speak to them and is exasperated by the very thought of them. Usually this aversion is abandoned only after the melancholic is separated from persons who incurred his displeasure and at times only after months or even years.

d) He is very suspicious. He rarely trusts people and is always afraid that others have a grudge against him. Thus he often and without cause entertains uncharitable and unjust suspicion about his neighbor, conjectures evil intentions, and fears dangers which do not exist at all.

e) He sees everything from the dark side. He is peevish, always draws attention to the serious side of affairs, complains regularly about the perversion of people, bad times, downfall of morals, etc. His motto is: things grow worse all along. Offenses, mishaps, obstacles he always considers much worse than they really are. The consequence is often excessive sadness, unfounded vexation about others, brooding for weeks and weeks on account of real or imaginary insults. Melancholic persons who give way to this disposition to look at everything through a dark glass, gradually become pessimists, that is, persons who always expect a bad result; hypochondriacs, that is, persons who complain continually of insignificant ailments and constantly fear grave sickness; misanthropes, that is, persons who suffer from fear and hatred of men.

I’ve been looking into resentment recently and the definition I like best so far is that:

Resentment is a mixture of disappointment, anger, and fear.

At times any one element of the mixture might predominate, but the heart of the resentment is ultimately a sense of injustice – persistent and far-reaching enough to cause not only anger but disappointment and fear.

Failure breeds resentment when it not only feels unjust but also has implications for future hopes and prospects. Failure makes us angry at ourselves or others, it also disappoints us when we realise that the hoped-for success will not come, and it makes us afraid of future failures, or of the missed opportunity to succeed. It’s much harder to feel resentment if the failure doesn’t really hurt our future prospects.

The danger in becoming a pessimist is that we may roll all our small resentments into one big resentment against the world, God, or life itself. This is problematic partly because such a large and all-encompassing resentment is hard to bear and hard to escape or forget. But also because pessimism is often couched as a ‘realist’ perspective. Believing that one’s large, all-encompassing resentment is objectively valid only makes it harder to let go.

So what can we do about this resentment?

The best advice I have found so far (and it came easily, despite my pessimism) is that we need to recognise resentment as a form of addiction, that is, a compulsive activity we indulge in order to escape other feelings or experiences.

Resentment is addictive because it gives us a cheap sense of self-righteousness and vindication, or as the article puts it, an illusion of strength. After all, the anger component of resentment is classically defined as a desire for vengeance: that is, a desire to set right the perceived injustice perpetrated against us.

So long as we hold on to either anger or resentment, we feel that our cause is not lost. The perceived injustice might be decades old, but we can still feel that we are achieving some measure of vindication by remaining angry, where ‘forgive and forget’ feels too much like letting the guilty party off the hook.

Yet for that same reason, resentment is incredibly weak. It’s like saying to your oppressor “See? I’m still suffering for what you did to me!”  The emotional logic is childish: you made me feel bad, and I shall keep feeling bad until you realise your mistake. Naturally, it’s childish because most of us begin resenting people and situations in childhood, the same place we learn all our primary emotional responses.

It’s hard to remain resentful when you realise that you’re engaging in an adult form of sulking.