Monday, April 28, 2008

Spiritual Mastery

On Friday, in a post titled Creating Emotions, I wrote: "The question is whether you can approach the dissertation and all its problems in a way that will allow you to finish without becoming bitter."

Via e-mail I received the following questions:
"You're asking us to think about approaching the dissertation in a way that will keep us from being bitter, but what if we're already bitter before we even arrive at the dissertation? I have heard the same thing from countless grad students. Many are already angry, bitter, frustrated, invalidated even before writing, so how can we not approach the dissertation with that bitterness when it's part of our context? How do we transform that relationship when we can't change the past relationship with our graduate experiences?"

The writer had a partial answer:
"I have this little affirmation by Louise Hay by my desk, 'I am willing to release old, negative beliefs. They are only thoughts that stand in my way. My new thoughts are positive and fulfilling.' I keep it there because I have to remind myself that the negative self-talk that arises when I write or think about my own abilities is just 'talk', thoughts, and beliefs that get in my way of writing. Sometimes when I'm stuck in my writing, I hear negative phrases that I heard or interpreted from the experiences in classes and with peers. Sometimes the thoughts are so strong I feel weighted down, helpless and hopeless. I have to be willing to approach the talk the way I approach thoughts in meditation -- just witness, don't judge, don't become attached. It's actually quite challenging to do once those messages have been buried deep inside."

Challenging, indeed. This is, perhaps, a form of a great challenge for the human psyche. This is one of the archetypal issues in pretty much every spiritual tradition that I have familiarity with. It is for this reason that I have titled this post "Spiritual Mastery." It is to this that the Book of Job in the old testament speaks. It is something most of us will struggle with, even if we work on it.

I wish I had an easy answer. I wish I had a certain answer. Not to be flippant, but if I had an easy or certain answer to how to get over emotional hurt, I would be a very rich and powerful man. I could divert billions that are now going to the makers of anti-depressants. I don't have a certain answer, but there is strong empirical evidence that Cognitive-Behavioral techniques (broadly speaking) are effective in improving mental health. For example, the work of Robert Emmons, which I wrote about in March, suggests that cognitive behavioral techniques centered on gratitude are effective in various ways.

Emmons talks about focusing on the things that we do have rather than those we don't--and being grateful for those we have. So, let's say you haven't gotten good support from your professors, and let's say that you have been poorly treated by vicious and competitive peers, even so, Emmons might say that a gratitude exercise would help you appreciate the fact that you're attending graduate school--an opportunity that many would love to have. There are good things out there, if we look for them.

Those are general responses coming from the angle of emotion and emotional growth. I also have a response coming from the perspective of planning and managing a project.

Let us taken as a given the strong negative emotional content. Let us not make any light of that--but let us assume that this emotional state has not totally incapacitated us. What can we do? We make a plan, and we do our best to carry it out; we try to learn as we go; we try to overcome the obstacles that present themselves. To say this seems to trivialize the emotional content, but what else can we do? We make a plan of action; we do our best to realize it; we chase our dreams as best we can.

We can't change the past. There is, as my mother used to tell me, no use crying over spilled milk. A more sophisticated view might say, we have to accept the loss and the grief. We can't change the past, but we can make choices about how we act now. In those choices we can recognize our emotional difficulties and plan accordingly. And we can recognize that pain fades with time-the sooner, I would imagine, the more we are able to create new and positive things in our lives.

There is no easy answer that I know of. And yet, it seems to me that despite the difficulty of the path to spiritual mastery, the basic steps are simple enough, and virtually obvious. It is easy to say we will let go of the pain. It is easy to see that this is an admirable goal. The role of, for example, a gratitude exercise in this letting go of pain, is not hard to see: we focus on the good things, not the bad.

For my part, I find that it is a constant practice: my negative voices challenge me constantly, and constantly I struggle to let go of them and put my energy elsewhere. Some days it works out better than others. But I see it as a practice: by working at it regularly, I hope to get better at it.

On a more pragmatic level: if you have bitterness from your past experiences, try to create new working environments that use the best of your past, and explore new options. Find the people who supported you and work with them. Don't work with people who cut you down (to the extent that this can be avoided--some difficult professors can't be avoided). Find new people who can help. and most of all try to keep your eye on the desired outcome; if you weren't hoping for something, you wouldn't be doing this. Remember what it is you're hoping for.

Phew. I hope that helps.

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