Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD Spiritual Practices and Attitudes 1 – Listening to what is going on

Spiritual Practices and Attitudes 1 – Listening to what is going on

We can speak of emotion (feeling, affect) as a reaction that tends to move us in a certain way. It is reaction not response, a matter of reflex not choice – initially at least. The English word emotion comes from the Latin word movere meaning to move.

The movement involves the whole person, though it may be more focused in the body – eg as physical pain or satisfaction – or in the psyche – eg as anxiety or anger – or in the spirit – eg compunction or ecstasy. It is important to discern the source of the emotion. For example, “feeling depressed” might have its roots in the body, the psyche or the spirit.

Our experience is both universal and unique – eg I might describe my emotion as “anger” (universal) and “I feel trapped” (unique). It is important to discover the unique name, what you are actually experiencing.

Emotion, in so far as it exists, is good. It is a God-given capacity. The moral issues associated with human emotion are found in our free response. We have facilitative, not dictatorial, control of our emotions.

Emotion – among other things – carries wisdom and healing. It is important therefore that we pay attention and do what we can to facilitate the emotion in yielding its wisdom and bringing healing into our lives. Becoming aware of the emotion and facing the emotion – you may need the help of a professional – is a way of receiving the wisdom and healing of the emotion. It is also a path to wisdom and healing in our relationships with others.

We could sum up the life-giving response to emotion: Listen! Name it! Face it! Take responsibility for it! Submit to the truth of it! “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Emotion is a powerful source of energy, vitality, colour and creativity in our lives. It can connect us beautifully with God, ourselves, other people, events and things. Think of emotion as gift!

The ANS process

A for acknowledge – name the emotion quietly to yourself (eg “I am feeling anxious”); this will help you to take some distance from the emotion without disowning it – a good first step to listening and allowing the emotion to yield the wisdom and healing it holds for you.

N for non-judgmental – remind yourself that it is okay to feel this way; many of us have negative reactions to emotions such as depression, anger and anxiety (eg we can get depressed that we are depressed, angry that we are angry and so on); emotions are angels of light bearing wisdom and healing, not demons bent on our destruction; we need to instill a hospitable atmosphere within to replace that hostile one – put another message on the answering machine!

S for stay with it – listen to the emotion by asking open questions – don’t answer the questions, just listen (eg “What is this feeling I am calling ‘anxious’?” “What does it actually feel like?” “Is there some particular place in my body where it is manifesting itself?” “Does it remind me of anything?” “Are there any images associated with it?”); gently try on some different ways of naming and listen so that the emotion actually names itself.

Note: This is done internally, even as you are getting on with other things – like talking to somebody. If the emotion is overpowering or too intense, the “S” might stand for “Strategic Withdrawal” – acknowledge it, be non-judgmental but gently and firmly put it aside with the promise that you will listen to it later. Meantime focus your attention and energy on something else. Read Eugene Gendlin, Focusing, Bantam, 1982. Copies of this book are available from the parish office or Aquinas Academy.