Jesus didn't come just to make us feel good. In fact, he had all kinds of unsettling messages like "Take up your cross and follow me" and "Turn the other cheek." Other directives were less startling but still a challenge: "Feed the hungry." "Visit the imprisoned." He wasn't kidding.
Positive spiritual emotions by their very nature bring us beyond ourselves to connect with God, other creatures and our wisest selves. If we seek positive emotions simply to benefit ourselves, we transform them into something very different. When we make it all about us we transform a flowing stream into a stagnant pool.
SPIRITUAL PRACTICE: SERVICE
We don’t generally think of emotions as having a purpose, but they do. Many prime us to take action. A painful sensation like fear prompts us to avoid a situation or throw up a defense, while loneliness stirs us to reach out to connect with other people.
Positive spiritual emotions like compassion and inspiration prepare us to take action to reach out and help, to make the world a better place. The emotions are bittersweet. On the one hand we are filled with a sense of the beauty of what might be, while at the same time being tugged by the undertow of sadness or even outrage at what is. We sense for a moment a world that makes sense and where everyone thrives, while at the same time having a heightened awareness of the suffering of the world as it is. We simultaneously experience deep joy and intense pain.
As I struggle to come to grips with our current situation I am aware of wanting to expose myself to practices, stories, conversations that bring me to balance. I want to be informed and aware of the terrifying reality unfolding around us, but not to the point where it paralyzes me. When my brain starts to spin into anxiety or despair, I pull out one of the spiritual practices we've discussed to help me get back to center.
But I am careful to not insulate myself too much. A healthy dose of reality creates the discomfort we need to do something. The world needs us, and we need to be in contribution. Like our other spiritual practices, service also has plenty of research verifying its positive impact on our wellbeing. We are wired to connect and to care.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
The difference? A sense of efficacy and control.
Part of our distress at this time is a feeling of helplessness. Like field soldiers in an extended conflict, we are at risk of losing the ability to think and to feel. Taking action gives us a sense of power, a knowledge that even though we can't fix the world we can make a difference in our corner.
One of our current losses is our old ways of being in contribution have disappeared, at least temporarily. Schools and social service agencies have closed; volunteers have been furloughed. For a time we have all been like deer in headlights, frozen in place, with little bandwidth available to think creatively beyond our own small circle. But the need is greater now than ever, and those of us with capacity and resources need to become creative in finding ways to be of actual practical support to others. We will benefit as deeply as they.
SPIRITUAL EMOTION: LOVE
Love can be a verb or it can be a choice. As an emotion love is a warm, joyful, momentary connection with another or good. We can legitimately love nature or music or our dog or our goofy neighbor or our president. Love in the moment is spontaneous, but we often have to till our soul's soil so those spontaneous moments can happen.
I've heard meditation described as a long, loving look at reality. I get it, although I can't do it all that well. I've also heard it described as a time when, "I look at God and God looks at me." When we place ourselves consciously in God's presence we enter into a deeper realm of love. We increase our own capacity to give and receive love, to notice when it pops up unexpectedly.
Jesus called us to do love and to experience love. When we partner with others to actively bring about good we encounter spontaneous moments of love. We may be surprised by the good-heartedness or wisdom of someone in the room; we may experience greater love for ourselves.
In the end it all comes down to love. If it's true that God is love, than love does literally make the world go 'round. We need to draw on all the means at our disposal to step on to that merry-go-round.
Top photo: Shawna Pierson, Flickr