Book teaches how to heal through 'Dark Emotions'

Posted: Friday, August 26, 2005

Hospice and Home CareBy Mary Cook

In her book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair, author Miriam Greenspan writes:

"When it comes to primary human emotions like love and anger, fear and joy, grief and gratitude, despair and hope - what is, is. We all want to sit at the happiness banquet and feast on the bread of contentment, the wine of joy. We'd rather skip the emotional food that doesn't go down so well. In life's many meals, not everything is equally palatable; but it all needs to be digested. We can't laugh heartily unless we know how to cry. We can't be fearless unless we know the taste of fear. We can't be happy if we're afraid to feel sad. Our faith is not faith until it's tested. To be at peace, we have to be at home with all our emotions, to get comfortable with vulnerability."

Using stories from her own life and from the patients in her practice, Greenspan, an internationally known psychotherapist, illustrates how by fully experiencing our feelings we can successfully navigate the stormy seas of grief, despair and fear.

In part one, "Emotion-phobia," the author looks at how we are trained by our culture to avoid difficult or painful emotions. She explains how the denial of these emotions can so often lead to depression, addiction, chronic anxiety and psychic numbing.

In part two, the concept of emotional alchemy is introduced. Emotional alchemy is the process of transforming pain and suffering into spiritual wisdom and power. In this section, Green-span outlines her three basic skills for attaining emotional alchemy: Attending, Befriending and Surrendering (ABS). The author believes that in order to attend to the dark emotions we must first learn to listen to them, to sense them in our bodies and to accurately name them.

After we learn to identify our emotions, we can attempt to befriend them by building tolerance for that which makes us feel uncomfortable. It may seem counterintuitive to lean into our despair, but it is the only way we can fully integrate our emotional experiences. Little by little, we come to trust that the darkness will not annihilate us. Surrendering is about allowing emotional energy to flow through to its natural conclusion; it is a deep acceptance of what is, rather than a feeling of resignation.

Part three, "'Emotional Ecology, enlarges the frame of reference, moving the focus from individual journeys of healing to the larger social and global contexts of the dark emotions in our time."

The author's intention "is to break through the characteristic splits of our civilization - between head and heart, mind and body, self and world - and to arrive at a model of healing that embraces the connection between the self and the world. This part of the book invites you to look into the pain of the world and see how your dark emotions are connected to larger global currents."

The final chapter is dedicated to thirty-three emotional exercises that were designed to help us practice the ABS skills described in chapter four. While acknowledging that the alchemy of the dark emotions is a "nonlinear and creatively chaotic process," the author outlines seven steps we can follow to achieve transformation: intention, affirmation, bodily sensation, contextualization, the way of non-action, the way of action and the way of surrender.

I saw many pieces of my own spiritual journey in this beautifully written book. I know I will return to it again and again, because on each page I found that most luminous of precious gems: hopefulness.

"Transformation is always possible. We can transform pain to joy by keeping our hearts open. Keeping an open heart in hell, we learn the art of vulnerability, the power of no protection. This is a spiritual power, not an egoic conquest. To learn its secret alchemy, we must be willing to accept suffering and vulnerability as a normal part of life. Because we are vulnerable, life hurts. We are not here to be free of pain. We are here to have our hearts broken by life. To learn to live with vulnerability and to turn pain into love. "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart," said Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk. The world breaks our hearts wide open; and it is the openness itself that makes us whole. The open heart is the doorway, inviting the angels in, revealing that the world - even in the pit of hell - is charged with the sacred.'"

Healing Through the Dark Emotions is published by Shambhala Publications and is available at Hearthside Books.

• Mary Cook is a volunteer with Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service.

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