© 2018 by MADELINE MCNEILL

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A Spirituality of Emotional Agility


Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship service 8/11/19




I would like to sing an improvised vocalise on "ah" moving from one emotional state to another. The notes will change and the emotions will change, but the vowel, the "ah" will stay the same. As you listen, try and identify the emotions I'm expressing. *vocalise* I wasn't speaking words, but I was moving through a range of emotions with power and nuance. Singing is a complex practice, and for me has become a spiritual discipline to understand and train my emotions. Emotions are core muscle activities--exercises of the body, head to pelvis. Each emotion has a core posture, like a yoga pose or a dance pose for the core, and so as I move from one emotion to another, I move from one core posture to another, like an inner dance, so I can tango well with the world.

When you talk to me, you may be able to see, hear, and then accurately identify my emotional state. Oh that's anger, that's joy, that's sad. This reading of core postures happens in daily life and it happens when I sing for an audience. I invite an audience to move emotionally with me. When I sing, I efficiently breathe in and exhale with a spaciousness and control to express a wide range of emotions powerfully but also gracefully without losing authenticity. Singing has taught me that all emotions are on the table to be expressed, which means that all emotions are legitimate. Even the "bad" ones like anger can be beautiful and can feel amazing. How? How can anger feel good? I feel a pain, inhale, and exercise it out...moving the breath.

*demonstrate*

Well, what good does that do? Expressing anger can prevent muscle tension. Let's say I feel pain. Pain is a head to pelvis activity. If I touch a hot stove for example, the experience is out here, but the core responds reflexively with intense inner contraction. Holding the breath while in pain can make the pain worse. I feel the pain in the core, I hold my breath which creates more pain. So I breathe in, feeling the pain, and exhale, feeling the muscles contract and release, exercising out the inner activity. That can be good depending on the situation. Sometimes it's better to relax into the pain. Say if the situation could be dangerous, it's good to be able to feel the hit, relax through it and then think quick to figure out a good response. Breathe through the pain until it dissipates. Both are legitimate depending on the situation. Expressing the pain or relaxing into it. When we exhale it out and express it, the muscles can release through movement and also communicate our inner experience to other people with a power that says, "That hurt! This is how much it hurt. No more." And then...going deeper, anger also says "I am a body! And this body hurts right now."

Now I get more into spirituality. It is my perspective that I am a body. In my work, body philosophy, I have reclaimed the word "spirituality" as body practice. Spiritus means to breathe. And so for me, an exhalation of anger is spiritual. An exhalation of joy is spiritual. A peaceful breath without thought is spiritual. It's all breath experience that I train with a vocal art to eventually develop an agility of emotional movement which I exercise to maintain, sustain, communicate myself as a body.

My perspective that I am a body can conflict with other spiritualities...and I want to talk specifically about belief systems that say our essence is a spirit or soul or energy--a peaceful, blissful thing--that can exist after death and so is not subject to the pains of mortality. In my view, these kinds of spiritualities train a person to be peaceful by advocating for a hierarchy of emotions, with positive ones on top and negative ones on bottom. If I think the essence of me is peaceful and that essence will live forever, it's tempting to make my spiritual practice an effort to be in a peaceful state as much as possible.

Well, what's wrong with that?

It's kinda privileged.

There are many oppressed people in the world. Bodies in pain. Climate change is going be oppressing all of humanity in the near-ish future. It's a prediction of death, and when I think about it, I feel an inner pain, which is appropriate. The thought should be felt as pain in the body. And with that pain, there are options: relax into it, or exercise it out. Both can be helpful to figure out solutions to climate change, but first we have to think about it and feel the threat of it in the body.

Similarly people who are oppressed feel pain in their bodies and in order to empathize accurately, we have to feel pain in ours. How does that work? Ok. Example. We all feel pain. Let's say I have a friend and my friend is in pain, they may express it to me to exercise it out and communicate their inner experience. I hear it and contract inwardly mimicking their pain. This is a good way to exercise empathy, but it requires that I feel unpleasant sensations inside my core. Now a person in pain could not express it all. They could potentially relax it or stay tense inside. That might keep me more comfortable but ignorant of what they are experiencing. But it's not up to me to tell a person in pain how to move through their pain. In other words it's not cool to say to a person something like "Don't be so angry, You're making me uncomfortable." You've probably heard of this. It's called tone policing. Asking people in pain to tone down their anger because it makes me uncomfortable. But I want to take this a little further and bring in spirituality. Sometimes, the justification for the tone policing can be spiritual. Something to the effect of: "I am a peaceful being, my spirit essence is peaceful, and your anger is interrupting my spiritual practice. In other words, "Don't be a body. Be more spiritual. Inside, your true essence is a peaceful spirit. Embrace your true essence, and it will make everything better"....

I'm going to give a name to this: spiritual gaslighting. We can do it to ourselves. I'm supposed to be a peaceful, blissful being and this body experience is ruining it. Bad body. And we can do it to other people. I am supposed to be a peaceful, blissful being and you not managing your pain is affecting my spiritual path. Bad body. As someone who thinks that I am a body, for me, spiritual gaslighting is everywhere. On the deepest levels, people don't want to be bodies. We imagine ourselves as something other than a body and create a hierarchy of emotions and behaviors that diminish the expressions that would definitely prove that we are bodies--anger, vulnerability, sadness--then sometimes we culturally engage in competitions to see who can be the most bodyless, the most peaceful. This game, I would argue, maintains class, racial, economic divisions. In other words, when people value a hierarchy of emotions--"positive emotions" like warm peaceful love on top, and "negative emotions" like anger on bottom--it becomes easy to take a spiritual high road and look down on people who are continuously pushed into expressions of anger to defend themselves, protect themselves, and create change. Privileged people can declare peace/love etc...more of the time, NOT because they are spiritually superior, but because they are not being beaten down all the time because of race, gender, socioeconomic status and so on.

Solutions!

Be a body YEAH! Be a body in all its beautiful, difficult, joyful, tragic glory. How do we do that? I would like to propose a model that values exploring the self as a body...that values emotional agility so we can plan well for ourselves and others as bodies. Where we make space for others to express their experiences as bodies. And learn to listen to and appreciate the entire palette of emotional expression.

I've boiled it down to three disciplines to cultivate as part of a spiritual practice. The three disciplines are: Art---Analysis---Healer It makes a little trinity for you ex-Catholics out there, all three disciplines supporting each other.

I'll describe how this works for me, but this is just my personal model. I imagine many variations of this model for practicing a body spirituality that could be supported within a larger community.

#1. Art, and for me, the vocal arts. The vocal arts have become a spiritual discipline for me through this opera thing, and that's my preference, but there are many styles of singing, and also acting and oration techniques train the breath and voice into emotional agility too. So it's ok if you can't carry a tune, there are many vocal arts out there with rich centuries old technique for how to breathe, how to express a diverse range of emotions, and there is already a huge repertoire of music, theater, oration that can be taken out of the professional context and used as spiritual meditations to explore and train different emotions. I sing this aria as a meditation on lament and sadness. I speak this monologue to explore anger. I improvise a wordless vocalise on ah to explore my "yes." I improvise a wordless vocalise on ah to explore my "no." It's like becoming an emotion athlete or an emotion dancer. I learn to move through a range of emotional states. I've also learned to become aware of subtle thought movement as well as how to relax peacefully into breath without thought. Vocal arts. Awesome. But, I don't think the vocal arts are enough to be a complete spiritual practice on their own, which leads me to:

#2. Analysis. Perhaps this is a familiar discipline to many of you. Gathering information for multilayered comprehension of an issue or idea. My particular intellectual focus is body philosophy, which I created. It is understanding emotions, mind, consciousness and the spiritual experience all as body processes where the core muscles are active in shaping those experiences. I also study a variety of current issues to keep myself up to date on what's going on. Being able to exercise disciplined analysis gives me a framework for making informed decisions about how to exercise my emotional palette, how to empathize and respond to others with an understanding of the issues they face, and how to plan well for myself and for other bodies. But, I still don't think Arts and Analysis are quite enough for a complete spiritual practice, which leads me to number 3.

#3. Cultivating a healing discipline to heal myself and heal other. This gets me in touch with my needs, limits, and vulnerabilities. My healing discipline is massage and the emotional work that comes with it. Healing work grounds me to care for my body and care for other bodies. It creates emotional connection and cultivates in me the ability to empathize, care, and plan for other bodies to maintain health. Ok, why do I need all three? Why not just do one?

Well, I'll just speak for myself and my own experience, and hopefully you'll be able to relate. If I'm just a singer in this culture, an opera singer in my case, I am often asked to participate in art work that I don't want to participate in. The opera stories are often patriarchal. The characters I am suited for are the ingenue, the coquettish girl. It's not me and I get frustrated that there are so many women who are amazing singers and they have to play roles where they don't have much power or depth, or in the more dramatic roles, they get murdered or raped or treated really badly. Meh. I don't want to participate in it. There are other stories out there that are more modern, but the industry is still very set in its ways. Same with religious institutions. As an opera singer I'm generally expected to sing religious music, the content of which, I don't agree with. As just a opera singer at this time in history, I am a vessel for the storytelling mostly of men through a patriarchal lens. And this is still true for many classical actors as well. Generally all the professional industries around the vocal arts are still patriarchal. So, it's been helpful for me to take the technique and repertoire out of its context and make it my own, or write my own. But in order to make it my own, I needed to do a lot of reflection and analysis.

Which brings me back to #2 analysis, the second part of my model. Similar to how I don't want to be just an opera singer, I also don't just want to be an intellectual. Why? If I'm just an intellectual in this culture, I feel an expectation to be emotionless as if reason and emotion don't belong to the same club. There is a concept of the mind I've noticed in our intellectual spaces...that the mind/brain is a calculating place and the body is generally a machine to taxi the mind around. I disagree with this conceptualization... In case you you didn't catch this already, I think humans are bodies, with all the fleshy emotional goodness and pains that come with it. So that's why the combo of Arts and Analysis are important to my spiritual practice. Arts cultivate a discipline of emotion. Analysis cultivates a discipline of thought. So we are not disembodied analysts. We are not unfeeling machines. We are bodies. With needs. With limits. We can be soft and vulnerable. Which brings me to the third part of the model. Working as a healer. I heal myself and heal others. Healing work gets us in touch with our limits, our fragilities, and vulnerabilities as bodies. But if I'm just a healer in this culture, I am often expected to be someone who brings people from a state of injury back into health so that they can continue to participate in an unhealthy system. We need new systems. In order to create new systems, I try to be a healer who makes an effort to intellectually analyze the systems causing so much injury, with the voice training and confidence to make myself heard.

So that's why I advocate for all three together. ---Arts, Analysis, Healer--They all support each other. It's a revolutionary model. And it's been working for me. It diversifies my income. I feel it's a good way forward especially as our economy changes from a materialistic, resource consuming economy to an economy that values human skills to care for each other as bodies. It's time to build new systems to provide care for bodies supported by philosophical and spiritual conceptualizations that humans are bodies.

I'll finish with some questions for reflection. What kinds of arts would you like to explore and cultivate in yourself? Is there something you want to heal in yourself? Is there a way you would enjoy giving healing work to others? What kind of group work would be exciting and fulfilling? How do you imagine bodies supporting each other, creating new systems, creating new ecomomies that care for humans as bodies?

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