“How are you feeling?”
This question, more than any other, typifies pop culture’s understanding of seeing a counselor. You talk, the counselor listens, the counselor asks you how you feel, you tell them, you leave feeling better.
Oh, if it were just that simple!
My baptized name is Moses. I’m dually licensed as professional counselor and drug & alcohol counselor, and in training to be a sex addiction therapist. I’m also an Orthodox Christian with a background in the Evangelical church.
My work is pretty interesting, and I get to hear the most amazing stories! Along the way, I have the dual obligation and privilege to study the many sides of humanity. At the core of my work and study is the interplay between emotion and thought.
Another stereotype about counselors is that they just want to talk about your feelings. This one….is actually pretty true…but with good reason!
Feelings…ah those pesky feelings.
For this discussion, I’ll use the words emotion, feelings and passions interchangeably. I’ll also use the terms thoughts, reason and cognition interchangeably.
How are we to understand our feelings? More pertinently, what are we to do with them?
Society certainly delivers some strong messages about our feelings. Women are expected to be governed by them and men are expected not to have them at all, except for anger. From an early age we are taught to hide our feelings, or else shown that we can escape them in a myriad of ways. We can distract ourselves from them with school, with work, with play, with screens, with sports. As we get older we discover we can drink alcohol, smoke nicotine and cannabis, snort coke, shoot meth, watch shows, watch porn, have sex, eat food, work late, work out hard, play even harder! Some of us even figure out how to use a vain and empty form of spiritual disciplines to avoid our emotions(and usually our problems) instead of actually dealing with them.
Misaligned relationships with our emotions, and poorly developed skills for coping with them, are key elements in many of the problems I see in the counseling office. A majority of interpersonal conflicts become conflated, exaggerated and otherwise excessively messy because one or both parties spirals out of rational thought into emotional reasoning. At its core, addiction of any kind is rooted in coping with or avoiding distress and feelings. Trauma is many things, and many very physical, but also a reaction to extreme fear, which is a feeling. Attunement and empathy hinge on being able to recognize one’s own…and someone else’s feelings. Attunement and empathy are essential in a counselor’s tool box, but even more essential for parents of young children! One of the greatest gifts a parent can give their infant is emotional attunement, and to do this, the parent must have a right relationship and understanding of their feelings.
Neuroscientist Dan Siegel describes our internal emotional world as “The Inner Sea.” In session, I often describe emotions as the ocean. Deep, evocative, ever changing, calm, raging, beautiful, thrilling, tempestuous, raging, overwhelming. Unstable, yet the driving force of life.
The fluid nature of emotions is countered by the firm nature of thoughts, which I describe as the rocks and boulders on a northern coastline. Solid, majestic, intricate, reliable, unyielding, rigid, merciless to anything crashing upon them. Harsh, yet the foundation upon which we build society.
Emotions and feelings are our modern words for the passions. We use terms like intellect, cognition and metacognition to describe reason.
Emotion and intellect, passion and reason. Ancient rivals having their way with us in the battle field of our brains.
Just what are we to do with our passions and reason? How are we to navigate their forceful interplay?
As with many dualities creating tension, responses can tend to land on the extreme end of a spectrum.
On the one hand, there are those who favor cognition and intellect, at times at the exclusion of emotion and passion, and even to the extent of condemning passion. Think of the Stoics. These folks can tend toward very linear, logical lives marked by consistency…which can dysfunctionally show itself as rigidity. An individual on this end of the spectrum can tend to feel disconnected from life, from others, even from themselves. A purely cognitive life, while well-ordered, can be lifeless, joyless, superficial and empty.
On the other hand, there are those who favor the passions and emotion, who happily throw off the bound of logic, reason and rationale, calling them restrictive. Think of the Hedonists. These folks can be spontaneous, vivacious, fill a room with their presence and move us to tears and action with the way they fully embrace and inhabit their lives. A life on this end of the spectrum can be a never ending series of adventures and epiphanies…which can dysfunctionally show itself as chaos, dysregulation, irregularity. An individual like this can be hyper-sensitive to the world around them, the inner lives of others, and can perceive their own inner world as overwhelming, even terrifying.
Referencing Siegel again, he speaks of healthy integration of cognition and emotion playing out in relationships – a balance of differentiating from others while still linking to them, while experiencing their own inner life as a balance of thoughts and feelings, a balance of rigidity and chaos, a synergy of inter-connected fluid thoughts and feelings flowing back and forth between individuals.
Essentially, the neuroscientist would say, a human needs both reason and passion to thrive.
Ask any competent trauma therapist, or physician and teacher Bessel Van Der Kolk, and they will tell you that recovery from trauma means integrating emotions, thoughts and body. In Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, a highly dysfunctional response to fear and threat, we cut ourselves off from our feelings, or certain memories, or even our very capacity to feel our own bodies. Healing means restoring the awareness of and connections between body, mind, and emotion.
Healing from mental illness, addiction and compulsion incorporates both passion and reason, all within the context of the body.
We need our thoughts to ground us in truth.
We need our emotions to motivate us to act on that truth.
We need our body to bring everything together and practice and experience the truth.
The ancient church fathers would agree. They would reference an even older metaphor used by the Greek philosophers, that of the rider of a horse-drawn chariot.
In this metaphor, the two stallions represent the passions and appetites, what we might today call emotions and drives. Meanwhile the driver represents the reason, what we might call the cognition.
Working together as a team, horse and rider are unstoppable and majestic in how they move. Without the horses, the rider is powerless. Without the rider to master the horses, the chariot spins into destruction.
Modern neuro-science now recognizes distinct regions of the brain that match the old Greek metaphor. The driver is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for connection, planning, organization, abstract thought and imagination. The horses are the limbic system, tasked with running the body, powering the emotions, and activating the fight-flight-freeze response. The cortex can contemplate what is pleasing to God. The limbic system just wants to keep you alive for the next 10 seconds.
Ancient church fathers resolved the balance of passion and reason by adopting a hierarchy. Reason must always win, must always be master of the chariot, master of the mind. The passions, the horses, must be mastered, even if they must be beaten. But they themselves are not evil. According to the teaching of the Church, both passion and reason must be valued and welcomed for they are both parts of us given by God. This is so, similarly to how humans are body and souls, material and immaterial. Both parts good, valuable, and in the image of God, but the immaterial soul must always be recognized as the primary facet of the human being.
What implications does this reality have for how we live? How do we practice good integration of passion and reason? How do our bodies play into our daily spiritual lives?
The Orthodox Church supplies us with several key disciplines for mastering one’s self by integrating passion, reason and body in a properly organized whole. Of the Christian disicplines, the most well-known are Prayer, Fasting, and Alms-Giving.
Prayer is a cognitive discipline. We govern our minds and take our thoughts captive by directing them to follow a Prayer Rule, an established set of words, ideas and rhythms. A typical Orthodox prayer rule incorporates Scripture and the prayers of the ancient fathers. Perhaps the most accessible and beloved of Orthodox prayer rules is the Jesus Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
With this prayer, men and women have fought the devil, tamed the passions, and cultivated the inner stillness for centuries.
How does this work? Well, remember that sea and those rocks. When the sea is heaving and unpredictable, you can still find the rocks, even anchor something to them. Similarly, when our emotions are high, when we’re stressed, scared, angry, despairing, we can anchor ourselves to a cognitive, verbal truth. This could be an idea we develop on our own, but sometimes the ideas coming from outside of us are even more powerful.
Here the metaphor breaks down because our thoughts themselves can also run wild. Ask any individual in recovery about cravings and using thoughts, and they will tell you just how exhausting can be the battle with one’s own mind! But here again, having a prayer rule, such as the Jesus Prayer, offers a point of cognitive stability. A thought anchor, if you will, to keep you from getting lost.
Psychologists and counselors also employ various tools to tame the mind. Most famous is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT) which highlights the connection between Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions. Our thoughts arise out of our deepest, instinctively held beliefs, and create emotional responses to our experiences, which prompt us to take Actions which then impact our experiences which in turn reinforce our beliefs.
Ultimately, our deepest beliefs are born from experiences, particularly those experiences of the body. The Orthodox Church recognizes this and thus seeks to engage the whole body with experience.
In Liturgy, all the senses are activated. We see the Icons, Smell the Incense, and Taste Holy Communion. We touch the prayer rope and feel ourselves making the sign of the cross. We hear the words of Scripture sung. Aside from the sacramental way that in Liturgy, we step into Heaven, this type of environment is ideal for creating full-body experiences, which then condition and tame the mind.
Similarly, and perhaps more dramatically, the discipline of Fasting engages body and emotion. We are forced to pay attention to ourselves in a most peculiar way when we avoid the feeling of full satiation. Fasting centers us; the feeling of hunger keeps us grounded in our body, especially(dare I say only?) when coupled with prayer.
Minding those who live with eating disorders, I will make clear that the Orthodox Christian never fasts without also praying.
Just as prayer tames the intellect, fasting tames the passions, or the emotionally and physically driven desires. In hunger, we tell our body No, and exercise mastery over ourselves. When we learn to master our hunger for food, we gradually become stronger at saying No to anger, jealousy, just, greed, and other passions.
Alms-Giving too is a vital Christian discipline. A practice of generosity forces us to consider the needs and experience of another person, as well as to engage our person in their life. Doing this well means developing a high tolerance for our own experience, especially our areas of weakness and vulnerability, because these are the areas most tested when we enter another person’s experience, especially what that other person’s experience is marked by suffering.
Alms-Giving also deals a death blow to many of the passions because it means letting go of our most precious resources of money, time and energy.
A proper Orthodox understanding of the passions regards them as created by God and neutral forces needing proper training. In a similar way, a modern Emotion Focused Therapy practitioner would say that all emotion is adaptive; it belongs in our experience; each emotion is a message to us from ourselves, saying something about what we need in the moment. And in that regard, I think the Orthodox would agree. To be angry about injustice and be moved to take corrective action is a good thing! To be sad about loss and be moved to seek connection with others is a good thing! To be able to instantly recognize when a loved one is in danger and be fearfully moved to rush to their aid is a very good thing! Thus we can recognize that God has created our emotions(our passions) and that they are in His image just like the rest of us.
But just like the rest of us, our passions are susceptible to corruption and can be misguided. Passions and emotions in particular are susceptible to the forces of our reason and thoughts, which are likewise made by God and can also be corrupted. Both passion and reason are dramatically influenced by the experiences we have in the body, the most powerful of which are experiences of relationship.
Thus I will close by mentioning perhaps the most vital discipline of the Christian life, that being the Divine Liturgy, by which I mean to emphasize the community!
Christians are saved in the church. The Church is likened to Noah’s Ark. Crowded, dirty and disorganized, but the vessel through which we are saved. We must by physically present in Church, and participating bodily in the sacraments in order to be saved. If we are to be healed from our former lives, learn to tame the passions, learn to rightly govern our minds, and grow in holiness, our whole selves need to be transformed, right down to our limbic instincts. This is impossible to accomplish on our own. But with Christ, as experienced in the Church, all things are possible.
O Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, You have said, “Without Me you can do nothing.” In faith, I embrace your words, O Lord, and bow before your goodness. Help me complete the work You have set before me for your own glory, for blessed art thou unto ages ages, amen.