Emotional Alchemy

Through a Glass Darkly from The Sun Magazine, by Miriam Greenspan

This too shall pass – and when it does, according to Miriam Greenspan, you might be a better, wiser person.

Greenspan talks about the ‘dark’ emotions, and how we shouldn’t see these as negative. As she explains it… “the dark emotions are inevitable. They are part of the universal human experience and are certainly worthy of our attention. They bring us important information about ourselves and the world and can be vehicles of profound transformation.


This profound transformation is what she calls emotional alchemy:

[F]irst we need to accept that we are broken. This initiates the “emotional alchemy.” If we can hang in there with grief, it changes from a feeling of being “hemmed in” by life to a feeling of expansion and opening. We will never get back to the way we were, but eventually we reach a new state of “normal”… [not] the mundane kind […] but the deeper kind, which is a process of remaking ourselves and how we live.

Grief is a teacher. It tells us that we are not alone; that we are interconnected; that what connects us also breaks our hearts — which is as it should be. Most people who allow themselves to grieve fully develop an increased sense of gratitude for their own lives. That’s the alchemy: from grief to gratitude. None of us wants to go through these experiences, but they do bring us these gifts.

The same is true for fear. We think of fear as an emotion that constricts us and keeps us from living fully. But I think it’s really the fear of fear that does this. When we are able to tolerate fear, and to experience it consciously, we learn not to be so afraid of it — and this gives us the freedom to live with courage and enjoy life more fully. This is the alchemy of fear to joy.”

So similar to Martha Nussbaum’s argument that emotions reveal a vulnerability to the world that we should embrace – a vulnerability that represents our goodness, our willingness to care about a world that we can’t fully control.

Greenspan talks about grief to gratitude, and fear to joy, but one thing I’d love to ask her is: anger to what? Is anger an emotion we should accept and embrace? To me, anger seems different because it is a dark emotion that can sometimes bring people into the ambit of our suffering in ways that aren’t entirely fair. Sometimes we lash out — we intentionally hurt — when we allow ourselves to be angry. This seems like a reason to try to suppress anger in ways we shouldn’t suppress fear or grief.

But then, Robert Solomon claims that anger is a justified reaction to the violation of one’s rights. Perhaps this isn’t always true, but in some cases it definitely is. In these cases, anger can be a call to empathy – a call to whoever we are angry with to stop and see the emotional reaction they have provoked in us. But an effective call to empathy can’t be expressed in an angry way, or it will raise the person’s defenses instead of inspiring that empathy that we are seeking. It seems like the process of emotional alchemy with anger is tricky, and depends on a few things: one, deciding whether or not our anger is really a reaction to the violation of our rights; two, deciding exactly which of our rights have been violated; and three, expressing that anger in as constructive a way as possible. Not easy when you’re in the middle of a flash of rage – but probably worth striving for. Greenspan again:

“Enlightenment for me is about growing in compassion, and compassion means ‘suffering with.’ Enlightenment has something to do with not running from our own pain or the pain of others. When we don’t turn away from pain, we open our hearts and are more able to connect to the best part of ourselves and others — because every human being knows pain. I’m not sure what enlightenment is, but I’m sure it has something to do with turning pain into love.”

~  Reilly


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