03/09/2011 11:40 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Discovery of the Continent of Emotion

By Carol Smaldino, CSW

Commentary on David Brooks' op-ed "The New Humanism" in The New York Times on Monday, March 7, 2011.

According to David Brooks, if we synthesize the information coming to us from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics etc, we will come to a more humanistic view of our conflicts, our nature and how we see things. To read an article on the level of Brooks' Op-Ed in The New York Times is at once exciting and a bit off putting inasmuch as I find it kind of amusing or amazing that media people of his stature are just discovering what has been true for so long: the more we deny our emotions and shadows, the more we are doomed to act from them. My own writing of late has been occupied with how we might be capable of avoiding the emotional aspects of ecology and politics when it is so clear that we are motivated--and distracted--by powerful forces that pull us into black holes that, if we were more humanistically astute, we might have been able to avoid.

Of course, this raises a question about timing. Perhaps people simply haven't been ready to integrate knowledge of ancient wisdom, mythology much less developmental psychology. And since developmental psychologists or psychoanalysts of any shade have not exactly been politically astute, well, there has been all-quiet on the western front of emotional contributions to our lives and times for a good while.

So, really, why do we fight so much among ourselves? Why can't we get along and treat each other civilly, solving problems with varying degrees of cooperation? Why do so many books get published (and supposedly read), about the facts of our literal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and then go into the trash without the slightest shift in national consciousness? More to David Brook's point, exactly why do our schools so often bore instead of fascinate?

A reactionary might say there is some kind of satanic influence on the psyches of us all, or even some conspiracy to keep us down by the likes of Dick Cheney or oil suppliers or the military. At this point I would not be surprised by that much in the realm of such things. Yet, closer to the truth is that our socio-political-ecological entropy has more to do with our lack of readiness not only to embrace the idea of emotions as central to our being, but the readiness to embrace and integrate all of the emotions that are human.

Beyond this, there is the issue of admitting that, despite our grandiosity and sanctimony, we are all capable of anything and everything in terms of experience. In this realm that covers and fills our universe, none of us are exempt. Sure, we can be special in accomplishment and in talent, but we are not special in possessing one divine truth or one color of skin or one degree of wealth.

Perhaps Brooks' epiphany was the result of recent meditation. In my profession, emotions and the field of meditation are coming back to the fields of psychology since emotion and work on emotional trauma have been insufficient in helping people feel part of the larger field of human interaction and experience where flow and real breakthroughs are possible. Letting go of one's sense of exceptionalism requires a rather big shift for most of us. Psychiatrist Mark Epstein refers to our "affliction...of...psychological materialism," in his book Going to Pieces without Falling Apart as our emphasis on acquisitions, not of mutual funds, but of supplies of self-esteem, self-confidence, etc. In essence, Brooks seems to have stumbled upon our tendency to acquire an intelligence quotient, a resume, a set of homes, a record of good choices and certain political correctness without gaining any real security.

Emotions, and their rediscovery, are not about a new continent nor are they about any real "discovery" for which we would plant a flag, name a holiday or dedicate a ballfield. This particular field has been there and gone unseen, even more it has been unwelcome. To admit emotions is to feel the power they can have over and in us. To admit the insights of developmental psychology is to be forced to be humble in the face of others, students, patients, our children who come into their own autonomy and equal our capacity for insight and who become our teachers.

To admit to emotion is to equalize many of the playing fields of life and to give up the notion of being the benefactor, the conqueror and the exceptional. And if these aspects are brought to bear on our behavior, it would be to refrain from saying we are too busy to answer a phone call. And for those already creating their own psychological and/or political empires, it would be to realize that we are nothing without all the rest of the causes, the people, the aspects of being human.

This can be part of a beautiful concept I have referred to as the human climate, a part of all the other fields, that attends to what it would take to heal the schisms we have amongst ourselves, within ourselves--the forces that have kept and still keep us divided from ourselves and others. The freedom once can achieve in this arena is amazing if we have and get and create the supports it takes to live a life authentically and constructively, connected to what is at once inside and out.

As Brooks and many of the rest of us have begun to discover, it is way too lonely to live in the heart of emotion without anybody "home". Without people paying attention and giving attention in the thinking and feeling and meditating mind, there is just a lonely planet. This is a rediscovery if we get ready to truly explore the crevices, without party lines.