Lessons from the darkness

“A human being can be compared to a tree. Yes, like a tree, a human being has roots, a trunk and branches which bear leaves, flowers and fruit. The taller the tree, the deeper its roots; in other words, the higher a human being rises, the more his deep instinctive tendencies – sensuality, anger, pride, etc. – are likely to be aroused. […] There are ways of overcoming and controlling these forces and using them to obtain even greater inner achievements. That is what is known as spiritual alchemy.”
(O.M. Aïvanhov, The Powers of Thought)

One of the greatest things about training to be a psychotherapist is the intensive work you get to do on your own emotional self. Any serious psychotherapeutic training will involve an ongoing exposure to therapeutic interventions, be it on the delivering or on the receiving end of them, causing you to learn not only how to become a therapist but also what it feels like to be a client. The result is that after years undergoing this kind of training you become quite aware of your personal emotional baggage, as well as of your subjective strengths and weaknesses. You also improve your ability to make a good use, in life, of your strengths, and to develop healthy self-care mechanisms to protect your sensitive spots.

Because we are always changing and hopefully evolving as human beings, self knowledge is an endless enterprise. So even after having been on the psychotherapy road for a number of years I am still surprised at the things I learn about myself and about others with each new therapeutic encounter. The lessons are always being poured in, be it through empathetic means or personal experience, sometimes in a peaceful and gentle manner, other times quite abruptly and unpleasantly. The latter is usually the case when we find ourselves experiencing unexpected negative emotions triggered by a thought, a relationship or a context.

To use a brilliant expression I’ve heard from a friend, there are times when we feel a “stab of emotion” whose pain leaves no room for a normally functioning planned and rational response.

Lately, maybe as a consequence of my practical counselling training, I’ve been experiencing these “stabs” of difficult emotions more often on different occasions, especially when I open myself up as an individual client or as a participant of a therapeutic group, where we can either project or receive such emotions from someone else. So I thought I’d write a bit about them.

Sorrow, fear, impatience and anger are examples of sharp and mostly negative emotional states which often emerge from within ourselves and in our relationships. They rob our ability to function normally, driving us away from our goals in terms of who we want to be and what we want to achieve in life.

Negative emotions are powerful little creatures: they come about often unannounced, produce a trail of unpleasant physical sensations (such as accelerated heartbeat, a lump in the throat or a headache), and linger for a while, casting shadows on your consciousness before you can actually understand and control them. And to add to the problem, there is often a gap between how these emotions are subjectively felt and how they are objectified and expressed, leading to all sorts of complications in relationships due to poor emotional communication.

It often feels like it would be easier to forget about our negative emotions, but it is precisely in their unconscious nature that their immense power lies. Negative emotions should not be taken for granted!

In a psychotherapy context we allow ourselves to feel these emotions as they come, in a pretty raw state, firstly paying attention to what they do to us. Later, we step out of ourselves and look perspectively at them, trying to understand the role that they play in specific scenarios, or in the wider context of our lives. With perspective, we are more likely to feel empowered to act upon our undesired emotional states. Having good therapeutic company for undertaking this journey is helpful and recommended.

It takes a leap of courage to sincerely experience and expose our negative emotions. A lot of trust and safety is required to create the right atmosphere in which these emotions can be shared, accepted and challenged in a constructive way. A non judgmental attitude is essential. A slowly but surely approach seems to be the safest and most productive avenue to defuse the harmful forces that such emotions, when left untamed, unleash in and around us.

Healing negative emotions is not, therefore, denying their existence within us, but rather shedding a lot of light on them. Only in this way can they be understood and transformed into a fertile ground on which the seeds of wisdom will one day be able to flourish.


The fiery nature of a life worth living

Versão em Português

“Be who you are meant to be and you will set the world on fire.”

If you’ve ever experienced the feeling of being in tune with your deeper life project you will understand how much truth there is in this quote by Catherine of Siena. Some of us don’t ever come to understand what our purpose in life really is, because this kind of realisation requires a great deal of self observation, self honesty and courage to act in accordance to our inner aspirations. Not everyone likes the idea of facing the depths of self; and not everyone fancies the risks of the uncertain paths of creative living. For my part, I believe that a good degree of self awareness and courage to create one’s own destiny by taking risks and making (often difficult) decisions are two of the few things actually needed to be able to lead a good and worthwhile life.

Going back to de Siena’s quote, which is likely to be an adaptation of “If you are what you should be, you will set all of Italy ablaze!” (Letter T368), I’d go further to say that this fire that “ignites the world” stems from the incandenscence of the self-actualised being. In this process, “self” itself is “set alight”. Thinking in terms of energy fields, the sensation can even be physically felt: when you’re doing what you love doing and what you were born to do, your whole being trembles in excitement, as if it were on fire, but in a controlled, constructive and productive way. You feel lucid, tireless, aware and empowered. You feel the positive impact of your righteous actions on others and on your surroundings, and you are given great, unsolicited feedback. It is a most rewarding experience and when it happens, you know you’re on the right track to becoming happier as you move forward.

I am not a Catholic nor a believer in institutional sainthood, but this does not diminish the truthfulness of what de Siena said. It resonates with the psychological concept of self-actualisation and with the spiritual concept of self-realisation. Most importantly, it can be easily verified by lived experience.

It’s important to say that a life project is not necessarily a grandiose, notable enterprise. It can be something completely anonymous and simple, like being a good mother to your child. But in every case, it involves becoming someone better and helping others to do the same, in however small a scale it may be. There can be no genuine fulfilment in selfish or purely materialistic pursuits.

The unmistakable signs that you are accomplishing your mission in life – or living a good, worthwhile life – are peaceful contentment, a growing joy of living, and a need to share the love you feel with fellow living beings. There is a great, perennial source of Life, Wisdom, Love and Joy that surpasses our individual personalities and connects us all. Our mission, whatever shape or size it may have, will always involve clearing our inner channels to allow these divine waters to flow freely through ourselves towards the others.

This is why the most powerful change that one can make is the change in one’s own self. Getting rid of everything that diminishes and divides us – fear, doubt, hatred, intolerance, arrogance – and nurturing our higher selves – our ability to love, to trust, understand and care -, both in ourselves and in others, are the two keys to becoming who you are meant to be. And to set the world – yourself included – on an irresistible and captivating fire.

Rassouli Eternal Annexation

Image: Eternal Annexation (Rassouli)