The Secret of Emotions – ch. 1

The Secret of Emotions

We are all born with an innate longing for God – not a god with a long white beard who shakes his finger at us, but the Divine Creative Spirit that blessed the universe with breathtaking wonder and touched our hearts with limitless grace.

This God filled His creation with His most noble attributes—and then placed the potential for each of these qualities within the human heart. Our longing for God is not an intellectual longing. It is a spiritual longing. We approach God, not through theological study, but by being attracted to the attributes of God that are both reflected in creation and placed within our hearts. It is these attributes, then, such as love, beauty, honesty, forgiveness, patience, creativity and compassion that are the source of our longing for God.

Of all of the attributes that we long for, the one that pulls at our hearts most strongly is love. It is the one we sing songs about; the one we organize our lives around; the one that we are absolutely sure will solve all of our problems.

One would think, then, that over the course of thousands of years we would all have come to a clear understanding of what love is, how it feels in our hearts, and how true spiritual love differs from its more material counterparts of lust and passion. Yet we have not.

Almost no one has.

Our inability to understand and accurately identify love causes many of us to do things in the name of love that are anything but loving; things that take us farther from our goals instead of nearer to them; things that make us feel ashamed instead of noble; things that convince us that we are failures instead of the radiant children of God that we are.

If we are ever going to satisfy our longing for love, and live the lives we were meant to live, then we will need to find a way to accurately identify spiritual love when we experience it so that we can create more of it in our lives.

This is the golden ring.

This is what we all want.

But it is bigger than that.

In order to learn how to recognize one of God’s attributes, we must develop the understanding and skills needed to recognize all of them. God is not a grab-bag of isolated gifts, like faith, hope and love that you get to pick and choose. God is One. If you want to tap into God’s love, you have to be prepared to accept all of God’s bounties, and if you want to be able to recognize and create one virtue, you will need to develop the skills to recognize and create them all – not all at once, but as a lifelong process.

That process, I believe, begins by getting our hearts, our minds and our bodies all speaking the same language so that what we want, what we feel and what we know all fit together accurately and are in harmony with one another.

When our spiritual, physical and intellectual sides understand and respect each other, then we become whole. We are no longer divided against ourselves. We become the pilots of our own lives rather than being buffeted by needs, wants and sensations that confuse us, sabotage our best intentions and lead us astray.

You see, none of us wants a series of dysfunctional relationships. We don’t want to destroy our marriages, sit alone in dark rooms watching videos, fantasize about people who will never love us, or do any of the other things that cause us shame. And yet if that is what we find in our lives, that must be what we are pursuing. Why is it, then, that we spend time and energy trying to acquire something that isn’t what we really want?

What is it that we are looking for when we walk into that bar, pick up that phone, log onto that website, smile at that stranger or knock on that door?  

The answer is…

The answer ALWAYS is…


We are looking for God manifested in the world of creation.

We are looking for love, kindness, meaning, security, joy, hope, nobility, connection, and a myriad other virtues that God deposited within the human heart when He made it His home.

But if that is what we are looking for…

Why can’t we find it?

The answer, if you think about it, is pretty obvious: Because we don’t know what these qualities look like, or, more accurately, we don’t know what these qualities FEEL like when we encounter them. How could we know how to accurately identify the signs of God’s virtues, when everyone out there is as confused as we are? We mistake kindness for weakness, hope for naïveté, nobility for stuffiness, and love… well love is the most misidentified virtue of all. We have been given wildly inaccurate and misleading information about this most important of virtues by everyone – from our families, schools, and religious communities, to almost every single movie and pop song ever made. The feelings we mistake for love range from need and lust to pity, fear and shame.

I can say this because at different times in my life, I’ve mistaken each of these sensations for love, and I don’t think I’m alone. If you have your doubts, let me describe a few experiences and see if they sound familiar. Then I’ll describe what I have come to believe love really is and how it really feels. But first, the mistakes:

My Rosetta Stone

This is the story of how I became painfully aware that I had absolutely no idea of what my emotional sensations were trying to tell me.

During my last year of college, I was dating someone pretty seriously. She was an absolutely wonderful woman – one with whom I might have been happy my entire life. We had talked about marriage, but this was several years before her graduation so we hadn’t become “officially” engaged or set a date.

One weekend, I went home to visit friends. While there, my best friend, who was married, told me about a wonderful single woman who had recently joined the community. He encouraged me to check her out before making any final commitments to my girlfriend.

I went to visit her, and had one of the strangest experiences of my entire life. Sitting in her room, my entire body began to tingle. I felt like I had electricity running through my veins. I remember that when she left the room for a minute, I paced back and forth, shaking my arms and fingers, trying to fling the excess energy out of my body. I was sure that if I touched her, sparks would fly between us.

Surely, this was a sign from God.

My heart was beating, my body tingled from head to toe; this must be what love was supposed to feel like.

Even though I knew almost nothing about this woman, I went back to my girlfriend and confessed that I would not be able to commit to getting married to her until I had explored this new relationship. She looked me in the eye and said, “Get out.”

So I moved back home to see if I could turn sparks and tingles into a permanent relationship. As you might guess, over the next few months the sparks and tingles began to fade, and when I was offered a job in a different city, our relationship died a natural death.

I was befuddled. What had it all been about?

Fast forward almost exactly ten years. I am divorced, broke, depressed, alone and horny. I find myself in the middle of the night, standing in the parking lot of an adult video store. As I contemplate whether or not to go in, my body starts to tingle. I feel like I have electricity running through my veins. I start shaking my arms and fingers, trying to fling some of that excess energy out of my body.

I stop.

I remember this feeling.

But now it sure doesn’t feel like love.

What was it all about?

I now had two data points for one sensation. What did they have in common? It wasn’t love. It wasn’t sex (I hadn’t been contemplating sex with the woman I had just met). So what were my heart and body trying to tell my short-circuited brain?

Finally, after much time, prayer, journaling and therapy, I figured it out.

This is what intense shame feels like.

I was ashamed of myself for being untrue to my girlfriend.

I was ashamed of myself for thinking of buying pornography.

My body had been trying to tell me to turn around and run, and what I heard was, “This is really, really important. Stay and explore it.”

If I could so completely misidentify a message of shame as a message of love, what other sensations had I misidentified over the years?

I began to listen, and watch, and correlate sensations with the experiences that went with them.

I discovered that when I got weak in the knees, it didn’t mean I was in love. It meant that I was afraid that I would be blamed for breaking someone’s heart.

I discovered that when my heart was moved by a woman’s tears, it wasn’t love, but a desire to rescue someone.

Over time, I began to identify sensations that were so subtle that I couldn’t put a name to them, I could only identify them by the patterns they followed.

A certain tug on my heart let me know that women had been sexually abused.

A similar tug said that they were afraid of men.

Another told me that they were recently divorced with small children at home.

An uneasiness that at one time might have felt exciting now tells me that someone is not being completely honest.

At one point, all of these little emotional cues – whispers of the heart – would have been interpreted as, “God wants me to explore a relationship with this person.” Now these messages simply say, “This person reflects some aspect of my relationship to my original God-figure. Resolve that relationship, don’t enter into this one.”

Next week: Recalibrating our inner compass so that we can accurately identify the emotions we are experiencing.

Click here to order the entire book, either in hard copy or Kindle.

The Secret of Emotions

I will be posting my entire book, The Secret of Emotions here on my blog, a chapter at a time, starting with the introduction.

If following your heart has repeatedly gotten you into trouble,
but to follow your head feels like a kind of soul-death, then this
book will open up a whole new world of possibilities for you. It
will teach your head how to understand the language of your heart,
and teach your heart how to speak the language of God.

You see, I believe that our emotional sensations tell us about
the virtues we are experiencing, and that these virtues are reflections of the qualities of God in the world. Making the connection
between emotions and virtues gives us a whole new vocabulary
for understanding our feelings.

Since most people make their life-choices based on their feelings rather than reason, understanding the meaning of our emotions is the second-most important lesson we can learn in this life.

The most important lesson is that virtues are our path to the Transcendent. Whether you call it God, Higher Power, Creative Spirit,
or just your better self, we are all born with a longing to become
more than we are right now – to demonstrate that we are, indeed,
created in the image of the Divine.

So this book has the humble goal of helping you accurately
identify your feelings so that you can develop the virtues that will
help you become the best person possible. Along the way, you
will heal old wounds, overcome shame, learn the true meaning of
love, let go of compulsive behaviors, break unhealthy relationship
patterns and develop new, healthy habits that will make future
growth even easier.

If all of this seems too much to promise, I offer you this observation: simple awareness is often curative. Understanding the source and meaning of your emotions can literally change everything in a heartbeat.

The ABCs of Virtues

If we want people to understand the relationship between virtues and emotions, we will probably need to start young.  Toward that aim, I’m working on a new project – a Virtues Alphabet Refrigerator Magnet set.  I’ve decided that along with the 60 magnets – each of which contains a letter and a virtue that starts with that letter – I should offer my own parent-friendly definition of each virtue.  I welcome your comments.  (Since comments are moderated, they will not appear immediately, but I’ll post them as fast as I can.)
You already know what these virtues mean, but here are some helpful hints as to how to apply them to your children:

Call them active when they initiate activities other than watching TV or playing video games.

Call them adorable when they do something that melts your heart.

Call them attentive when they listen to what you are saying, even if there are lots of distractions.

Call them brave when they try something new or challenging.

Call them beautiful when they are a pleasure to be with.

Call them creative when they put things or ideas together in a new way.

Call them courteous when they say please and thank-you, or are polite in social situations.

Call them dependable when they do what they say they will.

Call them delightful when they make you smile.

Call them eager when they are excited about doing something.

Call them eloquent when they use words well for their age.

Call them energetic when their youthful energy is being channeled wisely.

Call them excellent when they achieve something at the top edge of their ability.

Call them forgiving when they let go of anger or disappointment with a friend.

Call them friendly when they make an effort to get along with their peers.

Call them generous when they share something of theirs with a friend or family member

Call them gentle when they handle small animals, babies or delicate items with care.

Call them helpful whenever they help you do something – even if you have to make up an artificial need so that they can practice this important virtue.

Call them happy when they are enjoying the many virtues that surround them.

Call them independent when they try something new on their own.

Call them intuitive when they express a thought or feeling about their environment that might not be obvious at first glance, or that they figured out through an emotional insight rather than through their rational understanding.

Call them idealistic when they express hopes and dreams for a better world.

Call them just when they choose to be fair, whether it is in a game, or when dividing treats.

Call them joyful when they take pleasure in their own growth.

Call them kind when they show concern for other people and animals.

Call them knowing or knowledgeable when they share with you something new they have learned.

Call them loving when they perform acts of kindness or service for those they love.

Call them loyal when they show support or say positive things about one friend or family member to another.

Call them mature when they behave in a way that is advanced for their age, or do NOT behave in a way that might be considered typical for their age.

Call them modest when they 1) dress and behave appropriately for their age and gender or 2) avoid bragging or boasting about their accomplishments.

Call them noble when they strive to be their very best.

Call them nurturing when they care for those weaker than themselves.

Call them observant when they notice something interesting and point it out to you.

Call them optimistic when they show a positive outlook towards some future endeavor.

Call them organized when they clean their room, compete a puzzle or successfully take on a task with multiple parts.

Call them patient when they wait for you.

Call them playful when they are having fun being silly.

Call them questioning when they want to know more.

Call them quiet when they are willing to moderate their noise level to match the situation.

Call them radiant when they are so full of life and love and enthusiasm that you can hardly stand it.

Call them respectful when they control their impulses in respect for the rights and feelings other people, or when they do thing that show that they value people and things other than themselves.

Call them strong when they put forth extraordinary effort, either physically or emotionally.

Call them sincere when they express how they really feel.

Call them truthful when they tell the truth – even if it is difficult.

Call them thankful when they express gratitude.

Call them unique when they do something that demonstrates their unique personality or way of thinking.

Call them unselfish when they give up something they want for someone else.

Call them unified when they successfully negotiate with other children or family members to do things together.

Call them vibrant when they approach a task full of energy and enthusiasm.

Call them virtuous when they demonstrate a combination of any of these virtues, but especially the kind, loving, selfless and generous ones.

Call them wise when they recognize the difference between what their impulses demand and what their virtues require.

Call them wonderful when you are amazed at how well they are practicing these virtues.

Call them expressive when they use words, gestures and emotions to communicate their experience.

Call them exuberant when their enthusiasm is so contagious that you catch it yourself.

Say “you are being yourself” when they express a personal opinion or do something that makes you want to smile because it is just so “them.”

Say they are yearning when they want something good for them or the world with all of their heart.

Say they have zeal when they express commitment and enthusiasm for achieving a goal.

Call them zestful when their natural joy of life bubbles over.


Finding an Alternative to “Better, Special and Right”

I spent much of my life trying to be better, special, and right. The only alternative I could imagine was to be worse, ordinary and wrong and no one wants to be that.
Now I’m trying to teach myself (and my kids) that it is possible to be unique, valuable and connected instead. It is difficult to overcome years of conditioning. I still want to be best. I still want to be right. I still long to be special. But all of those adjectives create barriers between me and others.  They keep me in a state of comparison instead of a state of compassion.

Unique is not special.  We are all unique.  Paradoxically, it is one of the many qualities we have in common with every human on earth.  Our ability to recognize our own and other’s uniqueness helps us to connect with others as sovereign identities.  Being unique is one of the things that gives us value.  Even if every link in a chain appears identical, it is unique, and it plays its unique role in life.  No other person – no other link in the chain of life – can take another’s place.

But for that uniqueness to have an effect, it must be connected.  Without a connection to the rest of humanity, a person’s unique contribution to the world will be lost.  It doesn’t have to be the best contribution, a “special” contribution, or even the right contribution.  It just has to be that person’s contribution.

I came to understand that participation is more important than being right when I realized that Aristotle was wrong about almost everything he said. Seriously.  He had some crazy ideas. But the fact that he was willing to share his ideas and explore them with others made him a valuable contributor to the world of ideas.

Like Aristotle, I can offer unique and valuable insights – even if they turn out to be completely wrong.  I can offer unique and valuable service – even if it is not perfect; even if it’s not better than the guy’s beside me.  It is my desire to be of service, my willingness to contribute and my whole-hearted participation that defines who I am, not whether I am better, special or right.

Even if the only thing I can do is to be the person that someone else practices their patience and compassion on, that is still a link in the chain and it serves a valuable purpose.

This is a real challenge to smart, talented and/or beautiful people – to truly be able to believe that they would still have value if they were slow, untalented and ugly.  Humility is not about seeing yourself as low, but about understanding that EVERY person on earth is just as valuable as you are, no matter how un-special and wrong they may be.

I tell myself this.  I try to believe it, but it goes against 57 years of conditioning. I pray to God that – as I grow old and weak and forgetful and needy – I can hold onto this belief and begin to internalize it enough that I can be at peace when even the dream of being better, special and right is beyond me.

This is what it means to pray for humility.

Thanksgiving Part 2 – Gratitude and Happiness Research

If the idea that practicing virtues like gratitude can make us happy sounds more spiritual than scientific, you may be surprised to learn that the Positive Psychology Movement has some hard research to back up this claim.

The best-known research is described in the book Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. In his groundbreaking study, Seligman asked volunteers to do one of five different tasks.  At the beginning of the study, and for six months after, they also took an online happiness/depression assessment to measure their state of mind.

Of the five tasks, one was supposed to be an “inert” or “placebo” activity.  As expected, it had a small and short-lived effect on the participant’s happiness. One of the other initial activities also had a small effect that lasted slightly longer.

Three activities, however, had a significant effect on the participant’s happiness that lasted longer than expected.

In the one that had the strongest immediate effect, participants were given a week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude – in person – to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked.  These people’s happiness went up dramatically right after the exercise, and then slowly returned to normal over a six month period.  (I describe the other exercises in The Secret of Emotions).

Gratitude, of course, is a core virtue, so it should not surprise anyone that such an intense expression of it would have a positive effect on a person’s feelings, but that this positive effect could last up to six months gives us reason for encouragement in our own lives.

Perhaps before this Thanksgiving, each of us should set aside some time to not only think about what we are grateful for this year, but actually write it down.  Think ahead to all of the people you expect to see at your Thanksgiving feast, and try to remember something nice they have done, or some character quality that you particularly admire, and then write it down on a card.  When it comes around to your turn to tell people what you are grateful for, instead of stumbling through a last-minute list of half-remembered, half-sincere appreciations, you can share with each person at the table exactly how much they mean to you.

I guarantee you that the time you spend on this will be remembered by both you and your family much longer than your candied yams.