Wisdom//

What Our Emotions Can Teach Us If We Let Them

“Feelings of fear, worry, regret, disappointment, and grief are natural, wise teachers unto themselves”

Evgeny Atamanenko / Shutterstock
Evgeny Atamanenko / Shutterstock

Everyone born to this life is challenged to survive and thrive. Yet if we survive without thriving, what’s the point? When preoccupied with survival, we become pragmatists, pessimists, and even nihilists. When lost in the gears of existence, we’re always challenged to let in beauty while we’re suffering, to let in love while we’re struggling. What holds everything together, what releases resilience, and what renews us when we’re struggling is relationship. Relationship is the lifeblood of inner health.

But we are so battered at times by the tumult of survival that it sticks to us with its thick residue. And through that film, we can give rise to a nest of dark voices that will strangle our effort to be, voices of lack that can keep us from kissing the earth and lifting our face to the sun. When entangled this way, we can be misguided by the intensity of our fear and worry, by the piercing tones of regret and disappointment. Our vision can be discolored by the heavy veil of grief. 

Feelings of fear, worry, regret, disappointment, and grief are natural, wise teachers unto themselves, only debilitating when we refuse to let the rest of life in. I know. For I have been discolored by fear and debilitated by grief and pierced by the loss of those I thought I could count on. Yet this is all part of the ride, part of the expansion and contraction of being human. This is part of our walk in the world. Inevitably, we’re challenged to still our voices of lack, to calm the exaggeration of our fears, and to right-size our pain. This is a never-ending practice: to face the more difficult parts of our experience which, if unchecked, will create havoc in our soul and therefore in the world.

Still, each time we’re loved or broken open, what we keep tucked away merges with the ever-evolving world, making our heart expand till we are closer to things. After such moments, we’re more integrated and less capable of tucking things away, as the inner world and the outer world—which are really one world—alchemize within us. It seems that storms are meant to break our habits, until forced open by experience and soothed by love, we have no choice but to become students of what it means to be alive. 

Like all forms of life, we open and close constantly. In fact, we’re so practiced in sorting what comes our way that we often miss the lessons that come from what the sum of our experiences say when allowed to gather inside us. Normally, we make love, sleep, have breakfast, go to the dentist, and drive home in the rain, and these events have nothing to do with each other. But the other day, I couldn’t keep them separate and they led me to see what a good man my dentist is, because I was able to look at him with my lover’s eyes. It made me well up, realizing in that softened moment what a gift it is to feel at all.

Still, we’re overrun by urgency. Like everyone, I’ve spent too much time responding to alarms and crises, many of which—once on the scene—were not as urgent as they seemed. The truth is that unless someone is bleeding or can’t breathe, there is no urgency. For sure, the things we face are significant, and there are endless problems, and the bend of unexpected circumstance never goes away. But while much is important, very little is urgent. Understanding this is the threshold to peace. For while surviving demands a great deal from us to get from day to day, being alive asks nothing of us. Stripped of our urgency, being alive is its own reward. 

When in the hospital during my struggle with cancer, I lived with an underlying urgency that I couldn’t find and couldn’t let go of. In time, I realized that making every situation urgent was how I played cat and mouse with my fear of death. Finally, this constant sense of urgency exhausted me and I collapsed in the moment I was given. Then the moments I was given began to open around me. Once there, I began to drink from life. 

Since then, I’ve learned that when urgent, we constrict and life crashes against us. When exhausted or loved into a sense of surrender, we expand and life flows through us. Being human, we will always become urgent and constrict, and then in time surrender and expand. No one can escape this. But it helps to know that being urgent is like having a cramp in your heart or mind. It will pass.

In fact, on the other side of great pain or exhaustion, we’re often stalled enough to receive a strength of being from settling into things as they are. For underneath the turbulence of circumstance and the tide of emotion that comes from living, we’re challenged to put down the press of urgency that comes from all directions, so we might discover the authority of being that connects all living things. When touched by that common well of Spirit, we’re able to enter a stillness that lets us feel the foundation of existence under all our trouble.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the inner life is not a refuge in which to hide from experience but a practice ground from which to gather strength and clarity to enter the world.

The task of coming alive and staying alive is beautiful and endless. Every day, we’re asked to move at the pace of what is real, to take the risk to be wholehearted, and to have the courage to stay soft and strong and kind. These vows of authenticity allow us to thrive. In moments of thriving, we repair each other and illuminate the world.

Questions to Walk With

  • In your journal, begin a conversation between that in you which needs to survive and that in you which needs to thrive. How are these voices in you at odds with each other? How do they complement each other?
  • In conversation with a friend or loved one, tell the story of an urgency you are currently carrying and discuss what urgency feels like for you. Is the urgency you currently feel in proportion to what is being asked of you?
This excerpt is from Mark Nepo’s new book, The Book of Soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters (St. Martin’s Essentials, May 2020). For more information about Mark and his work, visit MarkNepo.com or ThreeIntentions.com.

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