The rule of my heart is mine! And no other’s!

In the Patheos Hindu channel, Ambaa gives her perspective on Jedis and gnosticism, inspired by the same essay by Brother Humbert that prompted me to write “Emotional Weapons for a More Indifferent Age.” Ambaa explains that there’s a middle road between abandoning emotions and abandoning yourself to them. Quoth she:

I don’t think Hinduism calls for anyone, even ascetics, to not have emotions. But a practiced monk can see the emotions playing out over his psyche and know that they are shifting and temporary. He does not necessarily have to act on each emotion he feels, as most of us do. He knows that the emotions are a storm that the small self gets caught up in, but the true Self observes it without getting swept away in it.

The problem with Anakin was not that he felt love. Love is the cause of creation. What he felt was attachment. He had to own and possess and hold onto the object of his love. It twisted pure love into something dark because he had to take this woman and make her into a possession. Pure love is something that flows freely.

Krishna urges us in the Gita not to be attached to our actions and the same is true of our emotions. It’s fine to feel them, just remember to take them with a grain of salt, and to let them flow one to the next without trying to grab hold of an emotion we like and force it to stay.

Ambaa explains that we can experience strong feelings without getting locked into a feeling of possessiveness and need for control.  If she weren’t talking about emotions specifically, I might think she was cribbing from Christian ideas about stewardship.  Metaphors about stewards — people who have had property or responsibilities left in their care, to safeguard, but not enjoy, abound in Christ’s parables.

But it makes more intuitive sense for me to think about being the steward of physical objects or even of other people than it does to imagine having that kind of slightly removed attitude toward my own emotions.  Once I imagine emotions as something that simply happen to me and then pass away, I get a little confused about how much ‘me’ there is for them to happen to.

My character and my identity is defined by my thoughts, my habits, and my feelings.  I’m not defined permanently by these reactions; I can adjust and improve my disposition just as I could (entirely hypothetically) improve the muscle tone in my arms by doing push-ups.  But there’s some kind of continuity that links my previous reactions up to my current ones and I have a certain ability to direct my path.

And when I’m choosing, it’s always tempting to make things simpler.  I don’t get in charge of cleaning things as often since my friends noticed how much I cajole them to throw things out (“Do you really like having this object more than you like never having to think of cleaning it again?”).  Detachment can be a bit too attractive to me, since by making one choice for indifference, I can limit the amount of noise that distracts me while making future decisions.   But then I might also be choosing to give up a signal I don’t get from any other source.

It’s easier to talk about things to ignore (all data is a bit noisier than ideal!) than to come out and say what we do want to cleave to.  It’s little use in talking about cultivating proper distance from some feelings or philosophies unless we talk about what we do want to be ruled by.

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  • Ambaa

    And now this gets me thinking about how we define “self” and who we are. The stewardship comparison is really interesting. That’s a concept that I know almost nothing about!

  • Theodore Seeber

    One of the big signs of a rational religion to me, is this form of self control; it is what makes religion valuable to the creation of civilization in general.

  • grok

    “My character and my identity is defined by my thoughts, my habits, and my feelings. I’m not defined permanently by these reactions; I can adjust and improve my disposition just as I could (entirely hypothetically) improve the muscle tone in my arms by doing push-ups.”

    This quote from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile seems relevant:
    “Seen this way, Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”

    Today’s epistle (1 Peter) talks about the emotions of pride, humility and anxiety:
    “Beloved: Clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for:
    God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble.
    So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.
    Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you.”

    I think the important distinction for the Christian, is that while we can work/practice at having the right attitudes and emotions, it’s not really under our control. When we humble ourselves we humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand. When we let go of our worries it is because we know that God is in control and cares for us.

  • Leah

    This post from Fr. Stephen, an Orthodox Christian priest, touches on the topic of, “how much ‘me’ there is”.

  • TomH

    ever since i started following leah’s conversion(i started reading blogs in nov 12)the thing that has most attracted me to her blog is her willingness to share herself, not just what’s going on between her ears. this may sound harsh, but so be it. – i notice regular comments from guys who are catholic and who comment pretty much on a daily basis or whenever leah posts. you make lots of comments, offer lots of insights, but it seems so abstract. my mental response to your unwillingness to share what’s in your hearts, which can come under the psychological or spiritual, is who cares? i don’t want to speak for leah. i know she has a powerful attachment to the cerebral, so perhaps she enjoys the responses since they are not offensive like some of the comments from unbelievers. but to me it seems unfair. because i know that honesty attracts honesty in the present not in some distant future, which is just a way to play safe.

  • “But it makes more intuitive sense for me to think about being the steward of physical objects or even of other people than it does to imagine having that kind of slightly removed attitude toward my own emotions. Once I imagine emotions as something that simply happen to me and then pass away, I get a little confused about how much ‘me’ there is for them to happen to.”

    I’m not sure you need to move from “emotions are something that happen to me” to “emotions are not part of me.” They are part of you, but they are part of you in a different way than consciousness or memory or action are. I sometimes think of myself as the surface of contact between impulse and control, not as actually one or the other. I might be wholly off on that, though.

  • Michael Barger

    One of the important things missing in thinking and writing about spirituality, and which is relevant to the present discussion, is an adequate understanding of human functioning in general and in concrete, individual personalities.

    The most complete account has been given by Silvan S. Tomkins (1911-1991), whose seminal thought is still too little known.

    Tomkins created a Copernican revolution in the understanding of human motivation. Up until he began to study the human affect system that paradigm was that humans are motivated primarily by reason working in the human cognitive system.

    Tomkins showed that affect is the primary motivating system. He asked the basic questions: What is affect? What are the primary affects? and What is the primary organ of affect?

    Tomkins discovered, or at the very least was the first to conceptualize, the biologally hard-wired affect system as co-equal with the cognitive system with which it stands in partly independent, partly dependent, and partly inter-dependent relationship.

    Tomkins’ first degree was in Philosophy and his dissertation on The Theory of Value. His second PhD was in psychology. He was extraordinarily well-equipped to take on the monumental task of explaining human functioning in all its dimensions.

    He worked primarily as an experimental psychologist. He proved that the face is the primary organ of affect and that affect is invariant and biologically hardwired across races and cultures.

    Tomkin’s magnum opus is the 4-volume Affect Imagery Consciousness in which he details the workings of both affect and cognitive systems and how they produce human behavior not only at the individual intra-psychic level, but the interpersonal, the societal, and the civilizational.

    He called what he was doing Human Being Theory and identified the same dynamics at work at every level of human functioning.

    Tomkins was a genius. I am convinced that his thought is so foundational that everything needs to be re-thought in light of it, particularly spirituality, philosophy, and theology.

    Without a complete account of human functioning we are pretty much fumbling around in the dark with some valid insights and understandings from various spiritual and psychological schools of thought but also a great deal of puzzlement.

    But the great challenges for us are suffering and death, which Tomkins observed we can neither master nor escape; and detachment, or non-attachment as some Buddhist sticklers insist on naming it, is the core of prayer and all other forms of practice.

    I will expand on this a bit in a further comment.

  • turmarion

    In many ways, what Ambaa says is very much like the philosophy of the Jesuits. Their motto is “Ad maiorem gloriam Dei,” that is, “To the greater glory of God.” The idea is that everything one does is for God’s greater glory–one ought not prefer poverty to wealth, fame to obscurity, or any particular state in life as long as one is, to to the best of one’s ability, striving ad maiorem gloriam Dei. In short, one tries to be detached in the sense of being prepared to change one’s lifestyle, priorities, and so on, if one is so called by God.

    I tend to agree with her take on Annakin Skywalker. Tellingly, in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan tells Annakin that Jedi aren’t supposed to give up love, just because they’re celibate; rather, this is supposed to free them to love universally so they can serve all without distinction. Later, when Annakin is talking to Amidala, and she says something about how Jedi aren’t supposed to get involved, Annakin says, “But my master says Jedi are supposed to love!” Of course, he quotes Obi-Wan selectively! Even then, I don’t think he was totally out of bounds–he could have learned to sublimate his love for Amidala, and remained a Jedi; or he could have said to the council, “Look, I just can’t live up to the demands of the Order–I want to leave honorably to get married.” (It would be interesting to know if the Jedi had a method of “laicization”) However, he wanted the power and prestige of being a Jedi and, in a somewhat selfish way, the love of Amidala, without making the sacrifices necessary to do this, or being honest to either side. This was his first step on his trip to the Dark Side.

    Having a strong tendency towards Platonism and Gnosticism myself, I can relate to where you’re coming from, Leah. It’s an ongoing struggle–sometimes, in the name of rejecting world-denying Gnostic views, I’ve gone too far the other way; on the other hand, detachment can become a way of avoiding one’s less pleasant aspects. After twenty-three years as a Catholic, I find that there’s still no easy answer, but it is an interesting process, and I think the dialectic is sometimes the main point, since the path never ends in this life. It’s just a matter of keeping the faith and acting in good faith as much as one can.

  • grok87


  • adrianratnapala

    Once I imagine emotions as something that simply happen to me and then pass away,

    This “imagining” is an observation and not theory. During meditation, thoughts and really look like external waves; after you go back to normal life, you can see the same things.

    I get a little confused about how much ‘me’ there is for them to happen to.

    And this is why Hindus think “you” are not fundamentally distinct from the Cosmos which is God. (And why Buddhists say exactly the same thing, but drop the God).

    I’m not defined permanently by these reactions; … But there’s some kind of continuity that links my previous reactions up to my current ones and I have a certain ability to
    direct my path.

    Err yes. And the Hindus, Buddhist etc. are cajoling you to exercise that ability. And it is pretty hard to see how you can do it *without* what can be described as a “slightly removed attitude toward [your] own emotions”.

  • LeahLibresco

    wloch3 had trouble commenting and so I’m posting this for him:

    Perhaps Leah conflates detachment with indifference? TS Eliot remarked that these are distinct, as life is from death.

    “There are three conditions which often look alike
    Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
    Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
    From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
    Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
    Being between two lives—unflowering, between
    The live and the dead nettle.”

    —TS Eliot, Little Gidding

    • Randy Gritter

      I am not sure. Detachment and indifference are not the same thing when we talk about objects. I can be detached from my cup of coffee. That is if I spill my coffee I will not go into a major life crisis. That does not mean I don’t care about my coffee. I want it to be a good cup of coffee. It is just an appropriate wanting.

      Leah’s point is different (no pun intended). That you can’t be detached from yourself. At some point you are not detaching but you are amputating. I am not sure how valid it is. Jesus talks about us being willing to cut off limbs and pluck out eyes to avoid sin. Hyperbole to be sure but it suggests that nothing is too personal or too much a part of me to be under the lordship of Christ. But is the language of detachment still right. Not sure.

      Sometimes when I take a philosophy deep in my heart I can make it off limits even to God. I can just not imagine any other way of thinking. I was that way with protestantism. Some are that way with alcoholism or feminism. Thinking that becomes so ingrained it becomes impossible not just to separate yourself from it but even to imagine God separating your from it. Like you would not longer be you without it.

      The trouble is that is that is typically a lie. I not sure I can say always but all the examples I can think of it is not really true. It requires opening yourself up God’s grace at a very intimate level. Letting God dig up your heart’s foundations and reform everything. It is terrifying. It is painful. It is slow. Still we know God is trustworthy.

      It is what Catholics call formation of conscience. Letting God form not just your creed but also your moral and metaphysical feelings and instincts.