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A Hidden Lever and Emotional Control (Part 3)

The two experiences explored in the previous two posts proved to me that we have the potential for a degree of mental and emotional control that I previously regarded as a myth.


Now that the character of these experiences and this capacity have been explored, the last thing to do is tie them to the “bigger picture”. Namely, what could these capacities be based upon? What is their moral significance? What is their spiritual significance? And what could they say about human nature?


Some basic basis: Imagination.


The first thing say is that these experiences are an of-shoot of a bigger conversation or topic that I have been approaching for the last two years. This is to do with what I would call mental “Mechanisation” and, amongst other things, is connected to spirituality, contemplative prayer, autism, 3-dimensional logical thinking, imagination, learning, emotional control, relationships, and peace. This is a puzzle, the pieces of which are starting to be presented by these blog posts. Some sense of them and their connection will be given here, but by no means fully.


Another thing that seems to be primary is the connection between the mental-emotional exercises and imagination. When speaking about the plasticity of the brain, Doidge explained that mental realities tend to start within and be parametrised by imagination and imagination itself can exercise the brain; shaping it, and forming new connections. Hence, if we constantly think fearful thoughts we gradually, physically, become more fearful beings. It’s even possible to exercise new physical skills and build connections with motor neurons by imagining ourselves doing these activities.


It’s interesting because these experiences that I’ve referred to can be described as particularly lucid imaginative exercises…


“I’m afraid.”

“Then calm down.”

“How do I calm down!?”

“Have you ever been calm before?”

“Yes.”

“Can you imagine what it feels like?”

“Yes.”

“When you imagine it, can you re-create the feeling in yourself? When you imagine the feeling, can you also feel it?”

“Yes.”

“Then do that.”


Of course, imagining happiness whilst submerged in despair is easier said than done, and imagining happiness is usually less intense than experiencing it in real-life. Yet, it remains true that we activate “happy connections” (or at least de-activate “sad connections”) in our brain when we imagine being happy; when, by the exercise of imagination, we actually place ourselves in that state of being. I see no reason why this can’t be applied to other things… want to feel more peaceful? Then clearly imagine what it’s like to be peaceful and be in that state more. Perhaps the same goes for faith, hope, courage and altruistic love.


Hence, the first consideration is that these experiences and capacities seem to be connected to a de-mechanisation of the mind, and to a fuller appreciation of the exercise of imagination.


I think, in practical terms, developing the capacity of emotional control begins in the imagination, and it begins something like this:


  • First, there is no imagined connection between the exercise of will and controlling emotions – this capacity has no existence in the mind.

  • Second, a person realises that there is a connection between emotion and will. As just one example, they realise that they can imagine feeling certain emotions and that this very act of imagination conjures the emotion in mind and body.

  • Third, the general principle that the imagination can conjure emotional states or diminish emotional states (by conjuring the opposite state) is established.

  • Fourth, the potential for this capacity starts as something very small and subtle.

  • Fifth, once the capacity begins to be embraced and applied, the mental connections between will, imagination and emotional control are fortified, developing as a real skill in the subject.


Moral and Spiritual Significance


The next question is the potential place of these capacities in the moral and spiritual life. After all, peace is one of the Christian virtues. “Fear not” is a commandment. And if these principle of practice apply more generally to other virtues as they relate to mental-emotional patterns and states of being, the capacity of emotional control could have a direct impact on our moral life and even our life of prayer.


I wondered, for a short while, whether this train of thought is potentially sacrilegious, although I’ve come to think not. The line of thinking was something like this: peace is something that ultimately comes from God and results from our life of prayer with Him. Therefore, if we simply make things like peace a practice, then we seem to counterfeit it, and remove its existence from our relationship with Him, just as a glutton severs the pleasure of food from its proper purpose of human health.


Yet, this strikes me as just another false-binary that the devil so often seeks to slip us into. Instead of choosing peace on the one hand, and receiving it from God on the other, perhaps the very conscious exercise of peace and emotional control is something that God wants from us to develop our own spiritual, emotional and moral capacities in our own right.


Another niggling thought was the idea that if we attach such things to a physical-emotional connection, in which we can navigate things like peace, fear, courage and cowardice by bodily sensations, we cheapen the spiritual life by reducing it to something physical. But that’s another false-binary. Nothing in finding these spiritual, emotional, mental and bodily links reduces one to the other but simply connects them more explicitly and allows us to put them in proper relation to each other. Besides, it’s not like physicality itself is bad, and spirituality good. If there was no important link between physicality and spirituality, we would never be recommended to fast.


And so, it’s not like we have two exclusive paths to peace: a purely spiritual one with God, or a purely practical one chosen by ourselves; instead, a more complete path can include a conscious, active choosing of something good, in co-operation with God’s Will. And if we find the practice of this virtue, not only in the body, but in mind, body and soul all at once, then it is a God-given opportunity to harmonise all three facets of our being at once, to be the full kind of self-controlled humans that God created us to be.


With all that in hand, such exercises of our emotional capacities do not become distractions from the spiritual life but compliments to it. How much clearer and more crystalline is prayer when we are devoid of fear?


Secrets of God and Nature


Finally, I want to comment on how the existence of emotional-control capacities might speak to something bigger about nature and the scope of our abilities.


I would like to re-emphasise the point that there can be something distinctly physical about emotional control. Each time I have tried it, it has entailed a bodily sensation of some kind, even if that sensation is felt near and around the head (although in most cases, especially after practice, emotional control can be felt throughout the head and torso). It feels like it entails some mastery of the body, as if psychology is turning around and grabbing hold of the biology, instead of letting it call the shots.


This may be only one instance of the mind over matter phenomena that most of us would have heard of, and it crops-up in a number of ways. In his work on martial arts, my friend Giuseppe Filotto has written about conscious, wilful control over the autonomic nervous system – a part of our physiology that most people assume is under lock-and-key against our conscious will. We get similar reports and apparent scientific proofs from people like Wim Hoff about his wilful control over his immune system and bodily response to extreme climate (skills which he has taught to other people).


Yet, the story that particularly comes to mind is one that I read in the work of C.S. Lewis…


I believe it was in The Problem of Suffering, where he dedicates an unusual chapter to a discussion about what the first humans might have been like. The crux of the issue is that he describes a being that, before losing original grace, had full mastery over its entire being. He describes how such a being could choose everything from the route of its thoughts, to the rhythm of its heartbeat, and even choose whether it would be hungry or not at any given moment. Now, before you think I’ve gone wonky quoting martial arts, ice-mystics and Protestants, please consider that I heard this very same idea from the mouth of a traditional Catholic priest: during his sermon, this priest explained how Adam would have been able to stand in front of a cake and not only could he choose to eat or not, but he could have actually chosen whether to even desire it or not at any given moment. The whole theme of this sermon was man’s desires; his passions, and his regulation of them. He emphasised the before the Fall, all of our desires were under-wraps; subjugated to the proper moral and spiritual order in which God and reason were the Kings of our being. Yet, with original Sin our passions became scattered and unruly, like a stampede of wild horses, tearing us asunder into still greater and greater sin.


This is what I think might be at the root of the moral and spiritual significance of emotional control. It is a direct exercise of re-subjugating the passions to will, reason and ultimately, God.

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