With an uptick in general stress levels, I’m seeing an increase both in the idea that emotions are uniformly to be despised and, on the flip side, that every emotion is worth sinking into in the name of self-care. Even here we find our society polarizing; ever was it thus! And, as ever, the truth — by which I mean the most helpful, actionable position — lies somewhere in the excluded middle.
Approaches from Stoicism to Christianity to Buddhism are often rallied to the claim that human emotions are somehow beneath the superior or spiritualizing individual. Vedanta and Yoga can also easily find themselves so abused. A close reading of the primary sources involved, however, finds much more nuance in their positions.
In the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius — one of the most important classics of Stoicism, and certainly the most influential for the average modern reader — we find numerous instances of the good emperor expressing a very deep experience of his own feelings and passions. While he seems to be of two minds on their value, he does not ignore them. A friend and self-described Stoic once opined to me that he found even Marcus’s desire to keep such a journal to be a sign of uncured vanity, and thus a failure of Marcus’s Stoicism. To me, this is a rather extravagant interpretation; philosophy should not make a person inhuman, but encourage the better parts of their humanity. It perhaps says more about the observer’s need to judge Marcus’s looking for a means to explore his own experiences while leaving his insights to posterity than it says about Marcus’s success or failure in his philosophical endeavor.
More in my wheelhouse, we have the common notion of detachment found in Yoga, Vedanta, Samkhya, Buddhism, and on and on; more or less every spiritually-oriented Indian philosophy, whether Hindu or otherwise, gives some attention to detachment. Those in the West who immediately embrace it tend to do so in the same spirit in which my friend misconstrued Stoicism; for them, detachment means apathy and apathy in the modern sense of simply not caring. A bit more charitably, many such individuals perhaps see repression as the only alternative to license.
Others, however, take detachment as license. This interpretation is founded in the relativistic notion that since nobody can know for sure what is a good or an evil action, any action may be performed by the mystic so long as it is done with detachment or “lack of ego”. The Karma-Yoga of Bhagavad Gita is often cited as support. Again, this is a misreading. Lord Krishna is only speaking of the performance of unpleasant duties in a spirit of surrender as a means to purify the mind; material consequences still accrue from actions taken in this way even if the psyche is made more free thereby. It is quite a stretch to take from this the idea that any and every fleeting emotion should therefore be indulged. An Avadhuta or Mahasiddha may act in any way they wish; for the rest of us, “Do what you will, but choose wisely!”
Emotions are emotions; feelings are feelings; thoughts are thoughts. There is neither inherent good nor inherent evil to them. They are functions of our bodies and minds. While changeable, they have purpose in survival as well as motivating a number of higher pursuits. They cannot be dismissed out of hand, and repressed emotions universally go septic as they churn in warm darkness below the surface of the psyche. Detachment is for the Yogi the healthiest angle of approach. The truth of detachment is simply that we recognize that emotions are emotions; feelings are feelings; thoughts are thoughts. We neither indulge nor repress them, but learn to observe. This way, we redirect the energy of our emotions into the very act of observation itself, not only gradually starving potentially distracting or destructive cycles of their motive force but also learning about what lies behind those processes in the first place.
Feeling our emotions and thinking our thoughts is not the problem. The problem is in letting them run away with us. They must be acknowledged just as bodily sensations must, and just the same they must be appropriately gauged for severity, diagnosed, and treated for what they signify rather than for what they look like on the surface. Here is much of the work of Yoga.