Friday, September 18, 2009


Since I published the “public decency” post a few days ago, I’ve noticed that a number of other blogs, and the Daily Show, have picked up on the discussion of public civility. Coincidentally, I was watching a collection of old short films from approximately the 1930s to the 1950s the other day, and the last one in the set was about “emotional maturity”. While most 1950s informational films are hilarious (and this one was too), they made a valid point in the film about slowing down, stopping, and thinking before responding to an emotion.

Like all other human beings, I have my emotional ups and downs, and try to control them. Certainly in social settings, we are taught to control ourselves. It goes back to that basic idea of treating others as you would want them to treat you—no one likes someone who goes ballistic or really lays it on thick with the melodrama. But there are other cases where hiding your emotions can be a problem. For instance, when you’re upset about something and afraid to talk to your parent or spouse or close friend because you fear their reaction, it’s apt to break down the relationship. And let’s face it—emotions can hit you like a tsunami, especially when hormones are involved. Trying to fight them can be like trying to bail the water out of the ocean with a coffee cup; it’s better to go with the flow. But the question remains: where does one draw the line between having discipline in controlling their emotions and outright repression?

It’s a difficult question, but it seems to have something to do with awareness. First, awareness of your surroundings. The self-centered only think of their own wants and needs, and don’t consider anyone else’s. If you are interacting with someone, you will filter your communications with them in proportion to your experience with them. For instance—my father is a very conservative Republican, and I am not. I have very strong opinions about the Republicans these days. However, when I am talking to my father, I will be careful not to bring up political topics, or to belittle him for his point of view if they do come up, even if I think it’s absurd. It’s a matter of polite respect. There’s no point in arguing because I won’t change his mind—and he won’t change mine.

The second thing, interestingly enough, has to do with speed. No, not amphetamines, I mean the actual speed of your thoughts and your environment. In the Northeastern United States, we live a very fast-paced life. Because we are rushing from one thing to the next, something is apt to get lost along the way. As a consequence, we may act before we think. In this way, speed is connected to awareness.

I just read an interesting blog post about the relationship between belief and understanding. A study done by Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues in 1993 suggests, as Spinoza did in his philosophy, that in order to understand something, we must believe it. Even if our critical faculties are engaged later, and then we reject it, we initially assume belief. What I found interesting was the assertion “without time for reflection, people simply believed what they read.” Critical thinking does not happen when everything is moving fast.

So—the idea of slowing down, stopping, and thinking before reacting as a disciplined response is a good thing. Certainly we have flashes of intuition, and there are times when we’re forced to think on our feet. Instinctive reactions when there is danger are necessary to survival. But in most social interaction and our day-to-day routines, there is no need to rush our responses. In deep meditation, a state of very intense awareness, time slows down considerably.

This applies to the discipline/repression conundrum, because our emotions are usually the target of our repressions. We have a strong and immediate emotional response to something, and often we forgo critical thinking at those moments. We may be sorry for it later, especially if we hurt someone in the process.

Many gurus and masters have asserted that discipline leads to freedom, in spite of its apparent limitations. Discipline does not have to mean repression. If I get angry at a colleague at work, I can’t tell them off, as much as I would like to in my immediate emotional response. I have to remain polite, or avoid action. Later on, I can write about it (privately), or maybe vent about it to a friend. Frequently I satirize such conflicts—if I don’t take it too seriously, then it doesn’t have to be too serious. But in such a case I don’t repress my feelings; I express them through more productive channels. I would also submit that doing this allows you to think critically about your anger, and come up with the most reasonable response.

The Rumpus just ran an article suggesting that depression may actually help writers. It is now suggested that depressed individuals “dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.” A special depression receptor enhances focus, allowing “depressive rumination to continue uninterrupted with minimal neuronal damage.” (taken from Maud Newton’s blog). In short, they slow things down and look at them with awareness, and writing is often a method suggested for doing this. Neurologically it would make sense that instinctual reactions are generated more quickly than ones that require more thought. Depression often comes from feeling overwhelmed and out of control. It’s not a coincidence that it can be greatly improved by taking time out to slow down and think.

One last thought--Given all of the hysteria in our country these days over the healthcare debate, it wouldn’t hurt for people to slow down and pay attention.

If you got this far, congratulations. It shows that you slowed down enough to read this whole thing instead of giving up after the first two sentences.

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