Why do we suffer emotional disturbance, and what can be done about it? Also, one might ask, what can be done with it, because it is a lawful phenomenon, and can lawfully be put to conscious use.
Every impression has a certain impact, although sometimes the impact is so minute as to be unnoticeable. As I see it, the chief problem with emotional disturbance arises when the impact is intrusive and unwanted. This means that an impression or series of impressions has “sounded,” so to speak, inside us, and the reverberation of that sound is still continuing. There are other issues, such as the use of fine energies which we want for other purposes, but even that can be folded into the main issue. But for now the salient observation is that emotional disturbance can be usefully compared to striking a gong: the gong reverberates, louder or not so loud, longer or not so long. And in us, there are mechanisms which can, and often do, “revive” so to speak, the striking of the gong. Sometimes it seems that what should be a small matter simply remains with us for longer than, on any sane calculation, it should.
What can be done in such a situation? It seems to me that it is possible to redirect the force going into our ongoing reactions into another and higher direction, by joining the “reverberations” with our aim, and with positive emotions, so that now our feeling centre is filled with something constructive, and with a future. However, the aim is not simply to blot out the disturbance, it is to use it to come to a higher state of consciousness, to have a more stable and higher feeling active within me.
That is, while it is true that one emotion can be driven our by another, we want more than this. So, if I am suffering from anxiety, I can drive that out by becoming identified with an action movie, or with something else. If I cut my finger, all else is forgotten, even if only briefly. But we need not settle for driving out one identification with another on the same level.
I shall take one example. I came across a person who makes a huge fuss about the smallest matter. He hangs everything he has on getting his way in the minute item which is obsessing him at the moment. If you cross him in that, and I did cross him in one, he complains to everyone, long, loud, and vehemently. The issue in itself is so small it is laughable. But because he invests his self-will and self-assertion in it, he raises the stakes, so to speak, so that people in my situation find themselves asking whether the deeper issue is really whether I will allow him to dominate me in a situation where I am correct.
When he confronted me, I told him why I had done what I did. He kept on exploding and saying the silliest things: that it was not right, and often, just “No!” or “You can’t say that!” yet everything I tried to explain was fair and clear, Realising I could not converse him, I stated the matter as I saw it (and I think I see much more clearly than he can) and walked away. The entire confrontation took between 60 and 90 seconds.
There was a little emotional disturbance in me: not that he had verbally attacked me, or been rude, or even that he was speaking to other people, but mainly that he could be so unreasonable and might go on to make an even more public fuss on another occasion. Of course, he alone would be responsible for this, but who likes to be part of this?
Intellectually, I had clarity, and I saw that in me there was something which just did not want to be dominated by such an unlovable person. But emotionally, there was something slight but ongoing.
I shall not describe the inner work in detail, some of it is quite personal, but involved linking this incident to my wish for conscious development, for true feeling (and that has values for me which I shall not enter into here). But having made that connection, I invoked a positive feeling: pity (compassion) for someone else, and my role in what had happened with that dear person. This feeling so much more powerful than the emotions associated with the self-asserting man, that they drove the others quite into the distant background. As a result, I begin to appear, or at least some feeling which is closer to I is present, and fills the breast, bringing a sense of reality, fullness, even of light, etc.
I could liken it to a reverberation from a small gong which was being echoed by a few smaller gongs also present in that room. The response was to sound the orchestra. Then the sound of the small gong serves as a prompt to play music, and not listen to cacophony.
There are some other lessons. The reverberation strikes us emotionally because our feeling is such a sensitive instrument. If you strike a gong, it vibrates more or less depending on how it has been fashioned. Strike a granite mountain, and you get no vibrations you can hear, no echoes, because it is too dense. Precisely because our emotions are a fine instrument they can be sounded in such a way, and cause ongoing disturbance. But what makes them liable to this cacophony makes them good instruments for harmonious music.
The illustration is from Triptych of the Virtue of Petience by Bernard van Orley (c.1487-1541)