Emotions are an important part of the human experience, but also an aspect that is often either ignored or misunderstood. Many of us tend towards one of two extremes, both of which are equally problematic. The first extreme is when we allow our emotions to rule our decisions and cloud our thinking. Along these lines, we mistakenly believe that the goal of good decisions is to maximize our good and pleasant feelings while reducing to a minimal our bad feelings and discomforts (i.e. suffering). Such reasoning often leads to an indulgent and selfish personality which avoids anything that does not comfort and console the ego.
Against the perceived excesses of this form of indulgence, many of us embrace an opposite extreme which is equally problematic. Instead of indulging our emotions, we tend to repress and hide what we are feeling behind a veneer of calm and positive thinking. In this way, our interior life goes unacknowledged and hidden, and many times our emotions tend to surface in unpredictable ways, such as outbursts of anger.
The key is to neither indulge nor repress our emotions, but gently educate them by means of God’s grace, reason, and self-mastery. The first step in learning to come to this place of spiritual freedom is to realize that the different sensations which populate our interior life are in and of themselves neutral. While pleasant emotions and sensations are generally preferred, they may not always be helpful. In addition, while suffering is uncomfortable, it does not necessarily mean that we have done something wrong or that we have sinned.
Learning to do God’s will and to discern the correct action to take often means that we learn to respect our emotions, but also that we learn to look beyond them.
To learn how to do this, we must develop the habit of learning to see our interior life without judgment or condemnation. As we cultivate this habit, we start to discover what our emotions are telling us both about ourselves and our environment. This, in turn, helps us to discern how the Holy Spirit is working in our lives as we begin to see the different patterns that occur within. Thus, instead of emotions ruling our actions, they become one piece of information among many that help us to make an informed decision.
Ultimately, the goal in our path of asceticism and emotional maturity is to be intentional in our actions. As we learn to see and explore what is going on inside, instead of our actions being impulsive and unreflective, they begin to be the result of a process of self-discovery and discernment.