Our emotional and consciousness instruments are mostly monophonic. Is there a way to increase polyphony ?
When we feel peace we sometimes have a hard time connecting with the feelings and thoughts of anger, despair or sadness that we have felt. We know in a distant way that we felt this or that the other day, but we cannot touch the feeling, understand it with our guts. It feels gone.
On the other hand, when we feel sad or worried, we have very little access to even the memory of joyful times. Even our thoughts and the ideas we have about things seem to be somehow tuned and locked to the particular emotions we are experiencing. We have tolerant thoughts one day and judgmental ones the next.
How come we forget ? Why is accessing previous emotional states so hard ?
There are two ideas at play here. The first one is that thoughts and memories are deeply linked to emotional states, as if they lived in boxes and the emotions are the keys to these boxes. This could explain why perfectly loving and respectful people end up doing horrible acts of torture when confronted to the despair and fear of war. The second idea is that we have a very hard time experiencing more then a single box at a time. When we are joyful, we do not understand despair and when we are down, we feel like joy cannot exist.
These two ideas combined have a very deep impact on our relation to ourself and to others. It can explain why we lack empathy for what others are experiencing. If we are enthusiastic and happy and someone suffers from depression, we don’t understand what their suffering is about. If we are depressed and someone is having a good time, we don’t feel empathic joy, we feel jealousy for this thing that we do not have. In either case, the emotions and thoughts of the other person are inaccessible to us.
But it’s not only other people that we don’t understand, it is also our past selves. Recovering from anger we despise ourselves for what we have said or done. Same goes for what we do under pressure or when feeling ill or sad or any monophonic emotional state.
If we can only access particular thoughts and memories by opening an emotional box, what if we could manage to keep the lid of all these boxes slightly open ? What if we could always have the “sadness box”, the “anger box”, the “joy box” be open ? Not totally but just a little bit so that we can remember. We do not want every instrument of the orchestra to play different songs very loud, but we want to have them all linger around so that we can hear them in the distance when we need to.
With emotional polyphony, we are connected to the fuller spectrum of what we are. This gives us increased emotional stability in case of life storms but it also helps us not forget. Memory is important because without it we judge people taking the route we took not so long ago and we keep falling in the same traps over and over again. If we enjoy novelty, we need to remember.
Atoms and organs
So how do we increase our inner polyphony ? Well there is good news, the boxes are only closed to a certain type of inner eye, the left brain’s favorite toy: our intellect and reason. This is amazing: the tool we thought was the most “abstracted away” from emotions is actually the one that is the most locked to these emotions. It is the one with greatest emotional inertia, the one that prevents us from recovering from trauma, the one part of us where fear stays and haunts us.
It does not feel as a huge surprise that the parts of ourselves that are most involved in “boxing” (making categories) like vision processing are also the ones that are deeply involved in “boxed emotions” like invasive traumatic memories: there is even PTSD treatment that uses eye movements to “unfreeze” this part of the brain called EMDR.
But we can experience that the boxes actually have no bottom or sides. There is just a lid with a label and a lock but we can always access their content from bellow, from the more ancient parts of ourselves. Our stomach always remembers sadness, our knees always remember pressure and joy can always be found in our bare feet. Maybe even our atoms have something to say about stellar dust if we can listen to their fait voices…
This is actually more profound then it looks. The emotional categories actually do not exist, they are just coarse labels for our language oriented brain. We need these labels to be efficient with our survival needs but happiness is not about survival and when it comes to this higher need, the labels are actually harming us by preventing access to the unboxed space of our emotions and memories.
In the end, this is what great art is all about: giving us an unboxed access to things, letting us feel beauty in despair, love in anger or sadness in joy.