clearing the air

Swami Radhananda sheds light on the emotional landscape.

The atmosphere in the room was tense and charged. Two people at our meeting were having a heated exchange, their voices loud and full of emotion. Both said that something had been building between them for a while but it hadnt been discussed. This blow-up was set off by a simple comment, but this comment opened up the storm. We've all been in similar dramatic situations that are like living though a thunderstorm with clouds rolling in overhead. We can feel the shift in the atmosphere, then see the lightning and hear the thunder.

The pressure that brings atmospheric change comes when actions and speech are incongruent. The tension in our meeting grew because speaking up was being avoided at all costs. But when the atmosphere in a room changes like this, the power of speech, thought and emotion become evident. The undercurrents of unspoken thoughts or spoken jibes and jabs have an incredible force to affect the environment in which we work and live. Often these undercurrents build and become stress, burnout or illness. Tensions need to be brought to light in order to clear the air.

We rarely know the extent of our mind and its workings and we know even less about the mind of another person. So as we enter into a situation with another person it is as if we are entering a minefield where an explosion can be triggered by almost anything. Who knows what will set off an emotional response? A person may start to withdraw and appear unhappy. When approached, the person says, "I am fine. I'm doing my best." We have learned to silently cope rather than to address an emotional or unknown situation.

Undercurrents thrive because many people fear facing someone who could be extremely emotional or judgemental. Usually this is because there has been some shattering experience in our lives. For example, many people from alcoholic families remember unpredictable disturbances and want protection and order. Others remember situations in which they were teased, criticized, bullied, abused or ignored, making them cautious about entering into anything emotional. When you are not on firm ground, doubt comes in. A storm of thoughts starts up: I won't be listened to; I don't do anything right; no one is receptive to my ideas; they can do it their own way.

If we want to live together in an atmosphere that supports honest work on ourselves, then we have to start by looking straight on at our fears, beliefs and preferences. It is through exploring our own mind that we have the opportunity to grow and trust, instead of being stuck in an old response or habit. Building up habits in the mind is like piling junk in the environment we live in. When we litter the landscape – our backyards, highways, parks – everyone can see it. When we litter our living or working space with negativity, others can sense it. We are more porous than we realize. We do affect and are affected by those around us. So we need to develop the courage to clear the air; we need a daily practice to keep the environment clean and healthy and vibrant.

Spiritual practice allows us access to our own minds. Observation and reflection become essential. There are always ups and downs in us, in others, in life because life is like a wave – it is not straight and logical. This constant change brings tension and pent-up energy that can go in any direction. The energy is neutral, but allowed to run wild it can destroy. Gathered and directed, it can be managed and creative. Your personal world has to be controlled. A fit of anger can destroy what you claimed as friendship. We don't have the power to change the entire world, but we can begin to change our own mental world, which we are continuously creating.

Airing our feelings can bring a bigger picture to the stormy situation. Sometimes just asking a question is a way to release the pressure. What is happening? Gathering the facts reroutes the imagination into a more realistic picture of what is taking place. The two people in our meeting began reflecting and talking openly about the incident that had occurred. They came to see the causes and tensions and began rebuilding ways they could relate to each other. To find resolution is often simple and liberating. Carrying around underlying tensions is much more painful.

The reality of the changing atmosphere we live in is that it brings fogginess, cloudiness and sometimes builds to a thundering roar. Our spiritual practice becomes the way we live through these interactions, refining and clearing a space for the higher qualities of gratitude, loyalty, humility and respect for all life.
Swami Radhananda is president and spiritual director of Yasodhara Ashram in British Columbia, Canada.

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