It was around the fall of 1980, and I had just begun working with the Louisiana Department of Education's Substance Abuse Prevention Education program. Part of our training was to participate in marathon encounter groups, as our program director wanted to be sure that we had every opportunity to deal with any effects of chemical dependency and family dysfunctionality in our lives. The group leader was an experienced counselor, who kept things on track and didn't mind confronting people when she sensed defensiveness or inauthenticity. And, man alive, she confronted me -- again and again, mostly because I was too much "in my head" and out of touch with my feelings.
This was all news to me! I had been seriously committed to the life of faith, prayer and service for many years, and thought myself to be a rather integrated and empathetic person. And I was correct -- at least in my own self-estimation, but not in reality. The truth is that I was psychologically and emotionally illiterate, but didn't even know it. For example, when asked how I felt about something, I'd respond that I was OK or not-OK, then proceeded to give a well thought-out opinion on the matter. This was being "in my head," I was told, and my pearls of wisdom weren't even discussed. In time, I became annoyed with the counselor and the group process, but wasn't even conscious of the feelings nor how I was demonstrating them. The group began to confront me, but I assured them I wasn't angry. "Do you always smile when you're angry?" the counselor inquired, but I was just stumped . . . no idea what she meant. Confused by it all, I asked a couple of co-workers during a break what they saw and they pointed out how my body language and tone of voice was signaling my feelings.
Back in group, I acknowledged that much of this was new to me, and that I wanted to learn more about feelings and how we express them. The counselor and group welcomed my openness, and so began a journey of inner inquiry and discovery that has been most rewarding and fruitful, though not always without painful experiences and realizations.
Spirit and Psyche
Early in this series, we reflected on the interaction between the human spirit and the psyche. Following the approach taken by Bernard Lonergan and those from his school of thought like Daniel Helminiak, I'm convinced that these are distinct levels of our human nature. Spirit, as we have emphasized all along, is experienced primarily as awareness, freedom and reason. Psyche, on the other hand, has to do with imagery, memories and emotions-- all of which we share with the higher mammals. Of course, just everything in our human nature is informed by spirit, and this includes the psyche, which is enspirited, as it were, and operates in the service of spirit while retaining its own realm of lawfulness.
What this all means is that the psyche and its operations help us to comprehend our own inner dispositions, and also provide a fabric of imagery and feeling to help us navigate the inner world. It also means that integration and wholeness entails coming to terms with one's own psyche, and how the psychological level of our nature influences our experiences of awareness, freedom and reason. Finally, we can even go so far as to affirm that the operations of the psyche can help us to tune in to the leadings of the Holy Spirit, Who sometimes speaks to us in dreams, images, artwork, memories, and feelings.
As with the past few chapters, I will point you to the resource on Pathways to Serenity. Chapter 10, on "Right Use of Feelings," goes into some detail concerning the disciplines of emotional awareness and the different ways we express feelings. As you will see, there are ethical issues involved here; the way we express our feelings brings us closer to others or it can drive them away. You will also find in that chapter a discussion on how feelings reveal to us our values and beliefs -- topics we will take up in more depth as we go along.
After a few years of counselor training and field practice, I decided to write a book detailing what I had learned as a kind of text on intrapersonal and interpersonal skills. Entitled Lessons in Loving, it enjoyed a good run of 12 years or so, and is now available online through shalomplace.com as an eBook. I offer it to you free of charge as another resource on dealing with feelings in the context of Christian spirituality. See:
Reflection and Discussion
1. What questions or comments do you have from this session and the resources?
2. Share experiences from your own life concerning the interplay of feeling and spiritual growth.
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