So, I succeeded in reading Miriam Greenspan’s Healing Through the Dark Emotions, but the homework I’d set myself - to really follow the “Seven Steps of Emotional Alchemy” (in the midst of a busy summer vacation) - was easier said than done. Don’t despair (hee, hee)…I will still attempt to shed some more light on the process!
First of all, be mindful of Greenspan’s proviso (not mentioned until page 266) that “this is an entirely fluid, nonlinear, heart-centred process, not a static system or set of standardized steps that you follow in an orderly progression…Do some, skip others; by all means, play around with them!” I didn’t really need her permission, but it does feel freeing to have it.
If I were to pick just 3 of the steps, they would be: Step 1 – to set an intention to get familiar with an emotion (decide to accept and attend to whatever is coming up); Step 3 – to get to know how different emotions feel in my body and to practice consciously soothing them; Step 5 – to practice tolerating difficult emotions (the way of non-action).
In the weeks that I dedicated to practicing this more consciously, the dark emotions of fear, despair and grief were not front and centre. Good news, you might say. Well, yes, though the more prosaic emotions that I was aware of – annoyance, irritability, low-level anxiety – seem not to lend themselves as well to a more heightened sense of being “in something”, which makes staying with them long enough to tune into the steps feel that much harder.
The book culminates in Thirty-Three Emotional Exercises, which could be a good way to practice emotional alchemy in more bite-sized chunks. I will run-down a few choice nuggets:
This work is about slowing down, not speeding up, Greenspan reminds us, so it is like carving out time for exercise during your busy week but with the opposite intention – do less, be more.
Telling your core-defect story (with compassion)– by answering the question “What do you think is your deepest, most intolerable flaw?” Start with “What’s wrong with me is…” Greenspan suggests writing it down. I have 20 or so years of personal journals that are probably full of core-defect stories (fodder for more blogs…!), but it helps to call it that to create a bit more distance. I’d add that sometimes we perceive core-defects in different contexts. When I was a teacher, I often imagined my core-defect to be that “I don’t know enough”. Even though I fundamentally disagreed with the idea that teaching is about how much you know or “filling students’ heads with knowledge”, this feeling was persistent. What is the point of the exercise? To bring compassion to this story and to see it in a wider context. So, the pressure I felt to “know enough” was probably shaped by being the youngest child in a family of four and the perception (possibly reinforced) that they always knew more than me (here is where the compassion comes in, for this young part). And we live in a culture where “good teachers” are supposed to be the ones that seem to have all the answers, which is a very male-defined value that, we know, does not really help students learn better. etc. etc.
Emotional alchemy is about making meaning out of dark emotions. But not just ANY meaning will do, says Greenspan. “Whatever meaning I make out of suffering, I want it to be one that makes me feel more open to life, not less; more authentic, more loving, and more compassionate. I want it to build, not diminish, my integrity. If the story helps me do these things, it’s a good story. If it doesn’t, then I must go back and keep walking the old existential ground till another meaning story emerges.”
Simple emotion meditation: “Allow your awareness to befriend the emotion – whether it is sorrow, fear, despair, anger, some combination…or any other emotional state. See what happens when you bring your awareness to emotional energy…Does the emotion intensify? Calm down? Does it change in any way? Watch as the emotion comes and goes…Witness…the difference between the feeling itself and your mind’s chatter about it…Here I am sad again. What a drag! I’ll never get over this. Try to discern…the difference between the energy of the emotion in your body and your reaction to it: the panic, desire to run away, to eat, to drink, etc. Notice these reactions without judgment…”
There are many psychotherapy models that foster what Greenspan refers to as “endless analytic self-scrutiny”. Like many of us, I have done my fair share of that, on my own and in therapy. Greenspan's work provides useful tools to deepen my awareness as I consciously integrate psychotherapy practice that enables growth through direct experiencing.
If you would like to learn more about what that might look like for you, I invite you to call or email me for a free consultation.