This paper holds the future of humanity within its words:
“Mindful emotion regulation: An integrative review,” by Richard Chambers, Eleonora Gullone, and Nicholas B. Allen.
(The PDF’s not posted for free public viewing, so if you don’t have an account to purchase research papers, you might want to visit your local university library and try their internet access.)
And when I talk about the fate of humanity, I’m dead serious.
As I see it, our future as a species depends mostly on our ability to:
- Work with our emotions constructively so that we stop waging war against our Egos, which only leads to dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors, that makes for extremely dysfunctional relationships and societies
- Work with our emotions constructively so that we don’t let our subconsciousness’ (e.g., Egos) govern our lives for the worse
- Work with our emotions constructively so that we can clear out our “issues”… so we can actually see the world and its constructs clearly… so that we can actually give a damn about how messed up much of the planet is… and how we are the change that needs to spread
What all this basically encompasses is a complete revolution in how we think about, feel about, perceive, experience, and yes work with… our emotions.
What I loved about the paper
Now, the review paper nailed one thing dead-on: it pointed out that the emotion regulation research out there needs to learn a thing or two from the mindfulness construct. (Check out this article for more on emotion regulation literature.)
Well, here’s what emotion regulation research has found so far:
- Suppressing the expression of your emotions doesn’t really work, and has many negative side-effects
- Changing your thoughts about a negative event… to change your perception… and thus, your emotional response — does have positive results
What this means is that we, humans, are stuck being human. And we best not try to tamper with our humanness — our emotions — by stuffing them down or trying to poof them into nonexistence.
What we can do instead is:
Get mindful about our thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations that underpin our emotions.
But — and now this is where it gets tricky — there’s a catch to the goodness of changing your thoughts, which is referred to in psychology as: (positive) reframing, reappraisal, or cognitive restructuring. (I’ll use “reframing,” since it’s my favorite.)
The catch is that you can sometimes use a reframe to indirectly avoid having to experience your negative, unpleasant, undesirable emotions. Meaning, a well-intentioned reframe might cause harm instead of good, if applied at the wrong time.
How did that one slip through?
Well, you have to keep in mind that while all of this research is great, there’s still a long, long way to go. The brain and it’s emotions are seriously complex! It’s easy for scientists to miss out on these finer grains of detail — because they really are that detailed.
Okay, so the paper understands this potential shortcoming of reframing, an important part of the emotion regulation construct. And it calls for reformation:
“… mindfulness holds that all mental (cognitive and emotional) phenomena are merely mental events, and thus do not need to be acted upon. A capacity to simply allow these mental events to come and go is systematically developed… thoughts and behaviors deemed useful are given energy, and those deemed unhelpful are simply not identified with, which is a distinct cognitive strategy from reapprisal [or reframing, as I'm referring to it in this article].”
What I disliked about the paper
The reformation part is great. Mindfulness, acceptance, and awareness, can greatly enhance the model of emotion regulation.
However, it’s how that reformation needs to occur, that I part with the authors on.
You’ll notice in the quote a rather abstract term: identification.
As in, identifying with thoughts and emotions.
You may also remember that one of the tenets in “The Robot Guide to Emotion” is to be wary of anyone using such abstraction when discussing important real-life matters — such as emotions and how to relate to them.
Well, here’s the million dollar question: What does it mean to identify with an emotion?
The phrase has been popping up in the papers I’ve been reading, and I will be looking deeper. For now, I can relay to you how the authors of this paper explained it:
“In the Buddhist literature, these three appraisal valences–attraction, aversion, and indifference–comprise what are referred to as ‘The Three Poisons’… referred to in this way because they arise as a result of the mistaken experience of the separation of perceiver, perceieved object, and the act of perception (which are understood to be, in reality, inseparable).”
So from the outset, take note — this referenced Buddhist literature condemns the human mind as being flawed and poisonous, simply because it evolved such a complex appraisal (thought-emotion) system.
(This short article provides a simple explanation of the appraisal system.)
Did you catch that negative judgment? It’s no different from condoning an act of violence against oneself, of declaring a Kill-Ego Crusade.
It may appear to be spiritual, with revelations about the nature of reality.
But it leaves out one big piece of the puzzle…
As long as an individual uses a human mind to experience (co-create) reality… then they cannot perceive “reality” beyond the constraints of a human mind.
Even an individual deep in meditation is still constrained by a human mind — they use their mind to meditate.
And at a baser level, even if reality has some unified fabric that we aren’t consciously aware of — it doesn’t change the fact that we are currently living as individual human beings in a physical world where things like boundaries and needs are very important to our survival and well-being.
The authors cite a version of reality where perceiver, perceived object, and the act of perception are inseparable. And where the human mind is poisoned by its limitations in understanding this.
They cite a version of reality that came from a human mind!
Don’t get me wrong here. The belief in unification can hold at a spiritual level. I’m critical of how that’s being applied to the physical level in a dysfunctional way.
Just because I believe that at a spiritual level, we all connected by the unified fabric of space-time does not mean I deny who I am right now, today — an individual human being living in a physical world where things like boundaries and needs are very important to my survival and well-being.
I don’t like how the authors use their nifty take on reality to somehow show that the human mind is inferior — and that its poisonous emotions are to be flushed from the system.
Emotions are beautiful things. They are useful, and powerful. They are a crucial part of being an individual human being living in a physical world. They give the universe meaning. They are messengers of meaning.
When Mindfulness Meets Emotion
All in all, I really appreciate this paper and the reformation it’s calling for.
If we hear the call in a balanced way — minus all that dysfunctional stuff — we can really change the world and our place in it, for the better. Where mindfulness is in fact meant to enhance our emotional experience to be the most constructive that it can be.
Our future depends upon it. Because it’s time for the human race to grow up and stop acting like it can get rid of its emotional heritage.
If we can grow up and start facing ourselves — start accepting ourselves as we are right now — we might have a chance of survival when the technological Singularity and the transhumanism tag-along comes to drastically change what it means to be human…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That article series won’t start up until after this one finishes early next year. :)