Thursday, November 19, 2009

Emotions, Awareness, and Creativity

I've been thinking a lot these days about the role of emotions in creative work--writing, in my case. When I am in a no-nonsense, practical frame of mind, it is very difficult for me to write fiction. I can force myself to write in such a state of mind, but when I re-read what I've written later, it seems very inauthentic. I have to be able to empathize, or at least sympathize, with my characters in order for them to come across as believable. And many of my characters present extreme emotional states or disturbed states of mind.

Emotions are tricky. It is the emotional downs--and ups--that lead us to unhappiness. People have often wondered over and over again whether or not it's better to withdraw, and to avoid emotional conflict. But to do so is to avoid playing the game (i.e. life. And I mean your real life, not the board game Life). You never can really avoid emotions anyway, unless you are a master of meditation, and those are few and far between. Many of us can successfully repress our feelings, but that's not the same as not having them. We tend to gravitate towards pleasurable feelings and avoid painful ones. I've noticed that there's a thin line between pleasure and pain, and the price of having a pleasurable experience is dealing with the pain afterwards. I imagine it's like drug addiction--there is that ecstatic high followed by a severe drop into depression. We want to encounter the highs over and over again, but life is cyclical--what goes up must come down. This is why Eastern religions promote the idea of "detachment". This is not the same as repression--detachment acknowledges the highs and lows, but observes them without getting caught up in them. To follow the cyclical metaphor--you sit in the still place in the middle of the wheel, you don't ride on it.

While extensive meditative practice can lead to this ideal detachment, many of us just don't have time for extensive meditation. My own practices are inconsistent, as I have so much going on, and the best meditations I know require at least 45 minutes of quiet time with no eating, drinking, or talking. Before work is the ideal time for this, but if I've gotten in from my evening job at 11:00 in the evening, and have to get up at 4:00 in the morning, I'm not likely to meditate when I get up, and I'm too tired and hungry by the time I get home.

So, we struggle imperfectly with our feelings. But like all things, it's not that things happen to us, it's how we respond to those things. I am a very deeply emotional person, though you might not know it from the surface presentation. I can't avoid the fact that I'm emotional. I can get angry, depressed, and anxious, and at those times I don't think very clearly or I tend to see things in a very negative light. What I've learned to do is take those irrational feelings and put them into writing. If I have an idea for a character that is experiencing an emotional disturbance of some sort, being in an irrational mood helps me to think the way the character might think. If I'm not in that frame of mind, it's more difficult to have any identification with the character. If I can do this, it becomes an opportunity rather than a liability.

There is some evidence in general that depression is not something we have to beat down with drugs, legal or illegal. A recent study by an Australian psychologist suggests that depression enables people to think clearly, communicate more effectively, and make fewer mistakes. In short, it increases awareness. I've often heard the expression, mainly from Buddhists, that sorrow is transformative. If depression leads to awareness, then it's easy to see how this could be true. But humans by their very survival instinct try to avoid pain, though the stronger ones have a higher pain threshold. We live in a culture that has no tolerance for pain, and consequently strives to avoid the challenges of life. Beyond the basic avoidance of pain, I'm not sure why this is. I could attribute it to the whole "self-esteem" movement that was big about 15-20 years ago, though that wouldn't account for all of it. The consequences of trying to make people constantly "feel good" has been the avoidance of responsibility, unfortunately. You hear a lot about entitlement and lack of accountability, and this comes out of a lack of self-awareness or self-examination. Lord knows we might not be perfect, and that's a depressing thought. And we certainly don't want to be depressed. And so it goes. I know a lot of people who suffer from perpetual victim syndrome, and my usual tactic with these people is to challenge their victimhood. Some people think I'm unfeeling or cruel for doing that, but I don't think so--to be 50 years old and still pouting because someone mistreated you in the 3rd grade--really now, time to get over it. You might make some of those friends you've wanted all these years if you did. Everyone suffers--not everyone is crippled by it. As I've mentioned in an earlier posting--the highest cure rates for mental diseases that involve a lack of an "emotional skin" like Borderline Personality Disorder came from treatments that involved forcing the person to deal with life situations and not blot them out with drugs.

As if reading my mind this morning, the Onion has come out with a brilliant article on awareness. Tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but right on the money.

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