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inspiration psychology

Are You Stuck In Shades of Gray (And Black)?


Are you stuck in the land of sadness? Do you always come back to this all-too-familiar place, no matter what you do to get out?

Surprisingly, I’ve found very little in the annals of Psychology relating to prolonged periods of sadness besides labeling these states as some variation of depression. It may be called Clinical Depression, Major Depression, Schizophrenia, Anhedonia, or some other name neatly categorized in the manual of psychological diagnosis.

What if the primary cause of, let’s call it, “sadness for no reason,” was emotional “stuckness.” It’s like being stuck in first gear, or being emotionally tone deaf. It’s like feeling only grays and blacks instead of experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion. I like to think of the full spectrum as the colors of a rainbow.

What if there was a way to change emotional mono-tonality into a state of emotional multi-tonality?

What causes emotional mono-tonality? The most likely answer is fear of being hurt. The little boy or girl inside us needs protection from some form of emotional criticism, non-acceptance, or abuse. The subconscious response is to dampen or completely shut off the emotions. It’s a good strategy for a defenseless little boy or girl. However, it becomes a problem later in life when a void of emotions and the program cutting off feelings continues to run causing depression, limited capacity, and self-destructive behavior.

I can vividly remember the moment when I shut down my emotions. I was a thirteen-year-old boy standing in an open field outside my Junior High School. As I recall the experience, I’m struck with feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, and something I can only describe as the raw pain of existence rushing in. These feeling were overwhelming.

I reacted by flipping a mental switch to turn off the uncomfortable feelings. Maybe I was a Yogi in my past life. Who knows? I just did the deed, oblivious of the effect it was destined to have on my future self.

After a morning meditation yesterday, the idea hit me that prolonged, “unreasonable” periods of sadness can be the result of “frozen emotions.” Emotions are supposed to circulate rather than remain fixed. Could my constant effort to control my thoughts and emotions be the cause of the lingering sadness on the sea bed of my emotional psychosphere?

“Of course it can”, I told myself. A frozen emotional state is like a river or a lake frozen solid. Nothing moves.

No movement leads to stagnation. Picture a pond where the source of fresh water has been blocked. What does it look like eventually?

Emotional stagnation leads to sadness and depression. Constantly struggling to “stay positive” can easily lead to the opposite result. Fixing thoughts and emotions on a single desired state of feeling/being is the definition of “freezing.” We can wind up trapped in a state of grays and blacks.

The big question is where is the fine line between over-control and adequate control of thoughts and emotions. There is an interesting theory presented by Doctor David Burns in his famous book, “Feeling Good.” He says, basically, that thoughts determine emotions. I believe there is a fair amount of truth to this idea. In his book, Burns goes on to identify a series of self-defeating thought patterns that lead to sadness, depression, and unproductive behavior. All of this makes sense, and Burns claims to have had a significant success rate with his methods for reversing self-defeating thought patterns.

I’ve tried Burns’ method. It can help, especially in the short run, but I find it incomplete. Talking back to misconceptions becomes too mechanical and laborious after a while. And, it really doesn’t get to the root of the problem: the feelings themselves.

My personal experience teaches me that over-controlling thoughts and emotions can lead, ironically, to sadness and depression. Why? Because emotions need room to breathe. They need time and space to unwind and, if necessary, to heal.

It would be lovely to constantly walk around in a relaxed and released state of being. I’ve been advised to let go of my emotions and allow them to just “arise.” Sounds wonderful. I wish it worked for me.

Here’s the paradox. The demands of everyday life don’t provide us with enough time to allow our emotions to unwind, express, and heal. If you don’t have to work; if you aren’t in relationships; if you have no goals, then, by all means, go ahead and feel however the hell you want to. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself alone and homeless.

So what’s the answer? It’s obviously an individual thing. We’ve all heard and read that it’s necessary to carve out alone time to rest and recharge. It can be a long walk in nature. It can be painting a picture. It can be anything that helps you relax and enjoy. For me, it doesn’t stop there.

I’m currently using a psycho-spiritual approach to get my stuck emotions moving. With no intention of sounding overly dramatic, it’s also something I do to approach my “existential dilemma.”

What I’m about to say is not an attempt to advocate or promote anything. If it resonates, then fine. If not, we can still be friends.

My approach begins with regular meditation periods of about thirty minutes in the morning and just before bedtime. During these periods, I let my emotions out of their corral. In open fields, they can romp and kick without doing any damage to myself or any collateral damage to those around me. I do this meditation in conjunction with a tangible energy field that I tap into through my connection to the Trillium Awakening community of teachers and practitioners. I’m able to reach levels of peace, love and joy within myself aided by the Trillium energy transmission. I know. It sounds crazy, but it works for me.

One of the benefits of this practice is an activation of my emotional core. What gets stirred up isn’t always pleasant, but it’s movement, and, I believe, steps in the right direction.

I’ve also discovered an underlying program that affects my thoughts and emotions. It feels more like it is embedded in my body rather than in my mind. So, it is coming from the bottom up rather than the top down. The program needs to be understood and accepted. I might say “befriended.” Then, hopefully, it will unwind and lose its effect. Or transform into something more conducive to good feelings.

My approach may sound totally bonkers to you. No problem. Find your own way. Whatever you do, let’s discover pathways to breathing in and breathing out the full spectrum of human emotions. Let’s experience the rainbow.

Feature photo by Pop and Zebra on UnSplash.com

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Essays inspiration movies musings

Nominated to the Under-Appreciated Hall of Fame


"The Family Man" Copyright 2000 Universal Studios
Nicolas Cage and Don Cheadle in a scene from “The Family Man” Copyright 2000 Universal Studios

If there is a hall of fame for under-appreciated or misunderstood movies, then “The Family Man” belongs in it.

For the record, I have studied screenwriting at UCLA, have written three screenplays, and watch at least two to three movies a week.  I mention this only to point out that my opinion is not entirely uninformed (off the wall—maybe—uninformed—no.)

Despite this informed opinion, “The Family Man,” starring Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni, met with lukewarm reviews by critics and movie fans when it came out in 2000.

The story opens with a day in the life of Jack Campbell, a thirty-something, wealthy investment banker who captains a boutique investment firm on Wall Street.  Jack is intelligent, ambition consumed, bold, self-centered, and charming. Even though his life revolves around the pursuit of money and the pleasures of the flesh, he is hard not to like.  His appreciation of classical music and opera displayed in the opening scenes hints at the presence of a soul.

When this movie was made, Nick Cage was still at the height of his acting career.  I believe Jack Campbell is one of his more memorable roles.  All of the characters in the movie, for that matter, are finely drawn and acted.

After becoming acquainted with Jack Campbell and the world he inhabits, the screenwriters (David Diamond and David Weissman) waste no time in spinning the tale. Jack drops into a fast-food mart after work on Christmas Eve to buy eggnog and stumbles into an armed altercation between a disgruntled customer and the store owner.  Jack intervenes to prevent a violent incident by offering to buy a lottery ticket the owner claims is a fake.

In the aftermath, outside of the store, Jack speaks with the disgruntled customer, played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle happens to be an angel on a routine mission designed to teach the Chinese convenience store owner a lesson in racial tolerance.  The owner doesn’t learn his lesson, which puts the angel in a foul mood.  Unwittingly, Jack contributes to the angel’s frustration with the human condition by making a condescending remark indicative of his superior attitude.  The angel decides to teach Jack a lesson by sending him into an alternate reality that “might have been” if he had not deserted his college sweetheart to launch his career as an intern at an investment firm in England. The angel gives Jack a chance to get a “glimpse” into a life based on a completely different set of values than the values he now holds dear.

Tea Leoni and Nicolas Cage Copyright 2000 Universal Studios

A big dog slurping Jack’s face wakes him up in bed next to the woman he left cold “in real life.”  He is shocked and horrified when two young children pile on top him.  The kids are under the ridiculous impression that Jack, a lone wolf of Wall Street, is their father.

In “The Family Man” Jack’s disdain for middle class values slowly turns into respect, caring, and finally a deep concern for the people who surround him.  This synopsis really doesn’t do the movie justice.  I found almost every scene in the movie poignant.  Many of the scenes are multi-layered with subtle observations about human nature and social issues.  The dialogue and situations are clever and insightful without a hint of cliché.

The movie moved me to the point of tears in three or four scenes. One example involves Jack’s relationship with the little girl who would have been his daughter in his alternate life.  The little girl, Annie, senses Jack is not her “real father.” She concludes Jack is an alien and asks him where the mother ship is so she can get her father back.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, Jack and Annie frolic in the snow on Christmas morning.  By now, Jack has formed a bond with the child.  Jack falls down and Annie crawls onto his chest.  With a precious smile, she says, “I knew you’d come back.”

I lost it right there.

Many critics commented that the movie over-sentimentalized middle class life.  I disagree.  I feel the movie artfully portrayed the bumps and warts of middle-class existence, as well as the pitfalls and emptiness of Jack’s investment-banker life.  Neither of the two Jacks had it all.  Regardless, I found the lifestyle issue secondary.  The element of the movie that spoke to me the loudest was Jack’s transformation.

Makenzie Vega and Nicolas Cage Copyright 2000 Universal Studios

“The Family Man” isn’t the only movie I liked that critics and movie fans, in disturbing numbers, deemed “overly sentimental.” Either my sensibilities are inverted, or I’m incredibly sane. Whatever the case, I’m sticking to my guns.  I just want to point out that as the world grows more cynical and hardened, it appears good movies are becoming an endangered species.  I believe there is a direct connection here.  Think about it.

Fictional movies reflect our world while creating their own realities.  They are, by definition, abstractions.  However, good movies have the power to inspire us to rise above fears and other roadblocks in the way of a better life and a better world.  They teach us, often, to listen to our hearts.  This isn’t always easy.  One has to develop a relationship with one’s heart to hear it.

Feeling, I find, is a first step in cultivating a relationship with the heart.  I believe that cultivating a relationship with the heart is essential to leading a full life.  There is no one way to do it, but I feel strongly that the human heart needs to be cultivated, just like abs, biceps, WordPress blogs, and Facebook pages.

I liked the “The Family Man” because it made me feel.  I practice meditation every day to cultivate a relationship with my heart.  You might say the practice helps to “tenderize” my heart center. This movie reminded me that I have one.