Having just returned from a yoga and meditation retreat, I am noticing how different philosophies respond to the effort we make to manage our emotional states. From moment to moment right up to from decade to decade, we are planning how to ensure that we will be happy or at least satisfied with our lives. Many systems of thought have designed ways of gaining some internal space such that we need not be overwhelmed by the feelings that are constantly being generated.
Mostly it seems that the useful tools are about recognizing that feelings and thoughts get generated. There is a logic to mental associations, so those feelings and thoughts are generated for a reason, but not always the reason we think. Becoming freer internally is about taking ourselves seriously, considering what our minds are generating, and then recognizing that whatever is happening internally is transient and not necessarily some kind of ultimate definition of who we are.
In other words, there is a lot of internal noise, and then there is a me who is observing and acting on that internal state. This means there is an agency in me that is making choices. Hopefully these are reflective choices. Between the voluminous generated experience of my mind and a choosy me, there is some space. When I notice that, it makes the impact of all that emotion and thought just slightly less dominating. And this gives me an internal freedom which is only available if I recognize and use it.
There are many routes toward developing a capacity for inner space. At the retreat, for example, meditation was one of the ways to observe the internal dynamic. In most systems of thought, however, there has to be an external person to provide an outsider’s view and to hold the space for us when we forget. Even in Eastern philosophies that emphasize meditation, there is a teacher. Sometimes this person is a teacher, and sometimes a guide, and sometimes a wise counselor.
Ultimately, by creating some external space in our lives to reflect, learn, and act on what we understand, we make it possible to increasingly experience an inner space that is less conflicted, less overwhelming,and less alienated. We can come to know ourselves in a deep way and bring together the many pieces of our inner life that we have rejected or disparaged. Finally we find ourselves a whole person with no parts unaccepted and no aversion to the full experience of who we are.