Friday, January 22, 2010

The Dark Side of Emotions

I awoke this morning to an email with dreadful news. Someone I knew in New York (I'll call him Bill; I don't feel entirely comfortable using his real name) was found yesterday in his apartment, with his throat slit and multiple stab wounds (some of them on his hands, indicating that he tried to defend himself). His body was discovered beneath a pile of clothes and bedding that had been laid over him by the murderer to cover up the sight of his own crime.

Just a couple of months ago, I lost another friend from Los Angeles, Marco, who overdosed on drugs. Both of these friends died such needless, unnatural deaths -- which somehow makes the news of their loss even sadder. Death is seldom an easy experience for anyone, but the tragedy shocks us more deeply when people die in a gruesome or sudden, unexpected way.

Over the past two years I've spent quite a bit of time contemplating emotions, studying what Buddhism says about the nature of emotions and how to work skillfully with them. I've worked extensively on editing a book about emotions written by a Buddhist teacher. I've struggled with my own emotional earthquakes and aftershocks relating to the loss of a relationship in which I was heavily invested emotionally, and all of the lessons I've learned from that first-hand experience. And for the past three weeks, I've been engaged in an intensive retreat in which we've gone deeply into practicing mindfulness of body and emotions.

In short, emotions have been on my mind a lot. So, with this latest terrible news, my mind goes automatically beyond the facts and speculations printed in the newspaper -- police believe Bill was murdered by his recently acquired lover (I'll call him David, because he has not been convicted yet), a shady character who was down on his luck and homeless, and who had moved in with Bill temporarily -- and towards what I imagine to be the emotional story underlying this tragedy. Bill, according to friends, had been planning to ask David to move out of the apartment this week, and it's not difficult to imagine how that kind of emotional confrontation, in the hands of someone like David -- unstable, argumentative and "mean-spirited" (according to one neighbor who was "creeped out" by him) -- might end in violence.

Marco, too, was tormented by emotional demons, although he seemed to be more the type who swallowed his emotions. He shared some of his struggles with me in the brief time I knew him. It was those demons, and Marco's unsuccessful attempts to anaesthetize and escape and change his feelings, that led him so deeply into the habitual drug use that eventually killed him. (This is certainly an over-simplification of a human being's complex motives for self-destructive behavior, but knowing Marco as I did, I know too that there is some truth in it.)

Both of these tragedies underscore for me, in a personal way, the truly dangerous aspect of human emotions. Emotions not only can be painful psychologically, or hurt us indirectly -- they can actually kill us, and they can drive us to kill others. The traditional Buddhist term for emotion is the Sanskrit word, klesha, which is often translated into English as 'destructive' or 'afflictive' emotion. Our emotions -- especially the nasty, uncomfortable ones like anger and jealousy and hate -- agitate and disturb our minds and stir us towards a whole range of dysfunctional and destructive coping strategies. We stuff our emotions down and anaesthetize them; or we act them out and direct their full fury at the people who provoke them; or we vacillate between these two extremes.

Developing what Daniel Goleman termed "emotional intelligence" -- a realistic awareness of what we are feeling and the ability to experience and process emotional discomfort without repressing it or acting out on it -- is not a secondary consideration, or a minor part of the spiritual path. It is a life's work, and we ignore this work at the risk of our lives.

With the news of Bill's gruesome murder, I also find myself thinking about another topic that has been on my mind a lot in recent months: mindful speech. That's because in reflecting back on my memories of Bill, I cannot avoid recalling how often I bad-mouthed him to others. Bill and I were not close friends, but we were part of a group that met often, and we had a certain kind of bond based on that experience. Bill was by nature an extrovert and a very outgoing, talkative, loud, social and gregarious person; and he was almost relentlessly cheerful. By contrast, I was a bit of a loner, introverted and shy and quiet, even somber at times; it was like I was on some kind of mission to make everyone around me understand that life is serious business. I could see that Bill was a good-natured person with a light heart, and I liked him for those qualities; but his ebullience and talkativeness also rubbed me the wrong way at times.

One weekend about six years ago, I shared a very small room with Bill in a Fire Island beach house. Bill was at the peak of his powers of chattiness that weekend, and all my buttons were being pushed. On the first night we were there, I was shocked to find that he continued talking in his sleep -- even unconsciousness couldn't make him be quiet! Being a light sleeper myself, this irritated me even more. I vented my frustration by taking every opportunity I could to complain about Bill's behavior to other people in the house, and make jokes at his expense, behind his back.

The thing about bad-mouthing people is that it's so easy, and even seems like fun; but somewhere, in the back of the mind, there's always a still, quiet voice -- it has a name, by the way: it's called a conscience -- that says, "It isn't right, what you're saying. How would you feel if someone talked about you this way?" Of course the answer is that my feelings would be hurt if another person talked about me the way I talked about Bill sometimes; and I imagine that, if he had heard me complaining and making jokes about him, his feelings would have been hurt too.

The other thing about bad-mouthing people is that it's easy to pretend like there's no harm done, as long as they don't find out about it. But that pretense rings very hollow today, knowing what happened to Bill this week. I am filled with regret for the things that I said about him, and for the bad karmic connection my speech forged between us; I wish I could apologize in person, but now that I realize this, it is too late. It is further, humbling evidence (add it to the growing mountain of evidence) of just how far I still have to go in developing and practicing mindful speech. This, too, I've come to believe, is a life's work, and no less essential.

And I want to say in all fairness that, although he often pushed my buttons by being loud and talkative, I own my "buttons" -- my reactions to Bill were simply my reactions, and reflected my own issues. Bill was a deeply kind-hearted, warm, cheerful, and optimistic person whose presence in the world made it a better place. I never anticipated I would be saying this, but I will miss him profoundly now that he is gone (as will, I suspect, everyone else who knew him). I would happily put up with his talkativeness all day, every single day, for the rest of my life, if it would bring him back.

1 comment:

Muffy Sainte-Marie said...

How tragic. I'm so sorry. Thank you for the excellent insights - very helpful, and timely.