Readings: John 8:12-20, 25-31, Divine Providence 224 (see below)
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Welcome to the third installment of our sermon series The Seven Types of Rest. I’ve drawn these seven types from the work of Saundra Dalton-Smith M.D. in her book Sacred Rest, and I invite you to check that out if you have any interest. Today, we will be talking about Emotional Rest.
These last couple of years, we have really been on an emotional roller-coaster. Between the pandemic and politics and world events, not to mention our own colorful lives, it is not at all surprising if we are feeling emotionally depleted.
Human beings have lots of feelings. It’s one of the wonderful (and terrible) things about us. We are both thinking and feeling creatures. Emotions are a natural part of our human experience and so, naturally, our emotional capacity is something that can become fatigued and need rest, just like our minds and our bodies. There are lots of ways that we can become emotionally fatigued, but let’s just lay out a few for us to think about.
The first way is by not acknowledging the feelings that we have to ourselves. Often times it seems like we need to ignore or squash our feelings in order to get on with our life. We might wonder, how could we possibly get anything done if we are always feeling our feelings? There is sometimes a fear that if we unleash them, our feelings will take over everything. Or perhaps we are ashamed of our feelings. We understand that some feelings are “bad” and so we want to pretend that we don’t have them. But ignoring or squashing our feelings creates its own special kind of fatigue. The feelings are still there, they are just unprocessed. And it takes energy for them to remain that way, just out of our sight.
The second way is by not acknowledging the feelings that we have to others. This often has a lot to do with meeting other people’s expectations. Perhaps we think that our feelings will not be acceptable to others, or we struggle with how to articulate them. Perhaps we have been socialized to hide our real feelings in certain situations, like at work, or with our family. This can be totally draining. It takes energy to put on a mask, to present ourselves inauthentically to others.
The third way is by being affected by the emotional state of the world in general and other people in particular. Human beings are social animals and emotions are contagious. We can all think of situations in which our emotions are affected by what is going on around us, and who is present with us. Think about the ways we consume the news and how that affects us, how much more connected the world is now and how quickly information can travel. We know so much more now about the challenges experienced in the entire world. Or on a more personal level, think about how we have all needed to show up for each other in new and different ways these last few years; that has been sacred but exhausting emotional work.
Now, all of these ways in which our emotional capacity gets fatigued actually originate in a kind of emotional superpower that has gotten out of balance. When working in balance, all of these emotional dynamics just listed are actually good things at their core.
In the first case, in not acknowledging our feelings to ourselves, this is an over-extension of our ability to separate our thinking and our feeling. It is a blessing that we can do this at all. We see toddlers learning this skill, to regulate their emotions, in real time as they grow and learn, as they figure out ways to feel their feelings that don’t always involve a complete meltdown when we won’t let them eat Cheerios out of the dogs mouth. Grown ups continue to learn and refine this skill as well. We learn when it is important to compartmentalize our emotions and just get things done. But, emotional fatigue arises if we continue to compartmentalize indefinitely. All feelings need to be felt and processed at some point.
In the second case, not acknowledging our feelings to others can actually be a blessing because it means that politeness and civility can exist. Emotions are chaotic, messy, raw and sometimes not nice. If everybody blew up at everyone else every time they felt a little bit frustrated, the world would be a really unpleasant place to live in. Social conventions can be protective; I might want to yell at the person who cut me off in traffic but not doing so is most often better than doing so, and sometimes our trained civilities give us the tiny pause we need to settle down and see things from another person’s perspective. At its best, civility is an act of care for our fellow human beings. At its worst, civility or social convention becomes heavy in the way that a suit of armor is heavy. It can protect but it can also distances us, and its burdens are not always distributed fairly. It can become tiring to have to carry that level of inauthenticity all the time.
In the third case, being affected by the emotional state of others is a blessing that allows us to feel empathy. Our brains are wired for this purpose. There are actual neurons, called mirror neurons, whose function is is mirror the emotions witnessed in others. Our brains are wired to feel in solidarity with other human beings. What a powerful design feature! What a blessed, connective gift from God. But, like any neural path, it can get tired. And this fact is complicated by the reality that, while we will often choose to use our gifts of empathy in service for another, by being present for them, witnessing and giving space and permission for them to feel what they need to feel, other times, our mirror neurons might just start firing in response to whoever we’re with, and we become affected by negative emotions unintentionally. Either way, if we don’t process these emotions that we are encountering through our mirror pathways, we will become emotionally fatigued.
And it is no fun to be emotionally fatigued. Whatever way you slice it, too much emotional inauthenticity is not good for us. Even if we do it “for the sake of others” we can’t stay out of our own emotional center for long. It pays to become acquainted with our emotional truths, and to get good at processing and accepting them.
This is where I want to introduce you to the Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach. She outlines a process called RAIN, which helps to identify, accept and assimilate whatever we might be feeling. The first letter R stands for Recognize. We are invited to take a moment to simply recognize whatever feeling we are feeling, to give it a name and quality. The A stands for Allow. This is the point where we stop pretending or squashing or judging the emotion and give it the space to be there. Tara invites us to tell the emotion that it belongs. The I stands for Investigate. This is the point where we start to ask some gentle questions about our feeling. Where am I feeling this in my body? What is this feeling asking for in response? Is there a need associated with this feeling? And finally, the N stands for Nurture. From our larger sense of self, we offer care to whatever vulnerable or fearful or grieving states have been uncovered by our gentle questioning and attention. This process invites a shift away from ignoring or fearing our emotions towards a compassionate acceptance of them. (1)
But aha, you might say! What about emotions that are typically labeled as bad? What about anger, jealousy, pride, fear etc? If I “accept” that I have these emotions, isn’t that excusing them, won’t they then run away with me? It’s important to note that there isn’t a letter in RAIN that stands for letting our emotions call the shots in our actions. The truth is, when we see our emotions clearly, and accept their presence, then we are in true freedom to make a decision about that to do with them. Many times, it is when we try to stuff our emotions down, or pretend that they don’t exist, that we end up unconsciously or unintentionally acting out from them. Picture a tired parent finally losing it after a long day of trying to be “the grown up.” Accepting the presence of any feeling is not the same thing as letting that feeling guide our choices, and in fact acceptance is an integral part of moving beyond our feelings, if we need to.
And so, getting emotional rest and renewal can certainly be about putting down the emotional burdens that are tiring us out, but also, it is just as much about doing the work of processing the emotions that we have. This is a good skill to cultivate because we will always have emotions, this part of what makes us human.
But interestingly, we won’t always have the ability to hide them. Our Swedenborg reading for today talks about the spiritual realm as a place where inner things are no longer hidden. There is no hypocrisy in the spiritual world, what we think and feel is always apparent. Now, our earthly reaction to this might be “oh no, that sounds terrible!” How embarrassing that our true feelings will always be shining forth! But on the other hand, what freedom! I’m not sure our earthly minds can truly appreciate what it would mean to lay down our natural duplicity. To be at one with oneself, so truly authentic and whole, with no translation from our inner landscape to our outer? What a relief to lay down that burden! And as uncomfortable as the idea might make us feel, I’m quite sure that every angel surrounding us would be an expert practitioner of the RAIN method, especially the Nurture part, for themselves and others. When compassion is the order of the day, authenticity starts to feel more possible.
This is of course what God wants for us: to be whole, to be truly ourselves. The only way to get there is to be honest and compassionate with our emotions, and to unflinchingly seek out essential self-knowledge. Jesus modeled that for us in our reading from the gospel of John:
13 The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going.
25 “Who are you?” they asked. “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning,” Jesus replied…“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
(1) Tara Brach, Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness, p100-101
John 8:12-20, 25-31
12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. 16 But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. 17 In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. 18 I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.” 19 Then they asked him, “Where is your father?” “You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 He spoke these words while teaching in the temple courts near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.
25 “Who are you?” they asked. “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning,” Jesus replied. 26 “I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is trustworthy, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.” 27 They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. 28 So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” 30 Even as he spoke, many believed in him. 31 To the Judeans who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Divine Providence 224
Can anyone fail to see that it is the inner level [of a human being] from which the outer level arises and that the outer level therefore derives its essence from the inner level? Surely everyone knows from experience that the outer level can appear in a guise that differs from the essence that it derives from what lies within. This is obvious in the case of hypocrites, flatterers, and con artists…I mention this because we too can put on pretenses in our civic and moral dealings as well as in our spiritual ones. We know that many people do.
 …What is hidden shows through…very clearly in the spiritual world, because when we move from this physical world into the spiritual world, which happens when we die, then we leave behind those outward appearances along with our bodies, but keep the inner qualities that were hidden away in our spirits…
 Let me also add that in the spiritual world there is a sharing of feelings and consequent thoughts, which means that none of us can say anything except what we are actually thinking. Also, our faces change there and become images of our feelings, so others can see from our faces what we are really like. Hypocrites are sometimes allowed to say what they are not thinking, but their tone of voice sounds discordant because of their deeper thoughts, and they can be recognized by this discord. So we can tell that the inner nature is hidden within the tone, the language, the expression, and the gestures of the outer, and that while people in the physical world are not sensitive to this, it is obvious to angels in the spiritual world.