Our emotions are often beautiful, but they can also be dangerous. They represent our spontaneity, and seem to speak to us of our freedom. And yet all contemporary studies — from neurology and psychology to marketing — prove that our emotions are the form of self-expression over which we have least control, that they are highly vulnerable and, basically, easily manipulated.
Advertising, music, atmospheres, subliminal messages and films can have an impact on our emotional life, and we cannot control it because we are not even conscious of it. The ‘army camp’ that coordinates the agencies of our brain is vulnerable, both in itself and from within. In effect, he who can know and master its functioning and psychology from outside can become twice its master.
The era of global communications is also the era of global emotions: from the death of Princess Diana to sporting events and even the devastating tsunami that struck Asia in December 2004, we have witnessed massive ritual gatherings in which millions of individuals were overwhelmed by tears, joy or communion of mourning.
Such planetary phenomena are unpredictable and uncontrolled, and sweep away and colonize our consciousness and our hearts: no one can predict which direction such popular tumult will take, or which gods the impassioned crowds will worship. We try to assess the risks posed by these new ‘ritual rallies’ of the uncontrolled at both the individual and the collective level: how can we control the emotions? Can we be spontaneous whilst still remaining rational?
Intimate tensions and inner conflicts (which oppose the mind and the body or, more prosaically, the amygdala and the neo-cortex) can result in a dangerous loss of self-control, or to a feeling of imbalance and unease. We find the same aspiration at the heart of the basic teachings of Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism: We must overcome the inner conflicts and imbalances that cause us to suffer and that bind both us and our humanity.
The natural state of the individual is to be ‘in tension’, to be torn between the demands of the conscious mind that strives to be in control, and the emotions and passions that take possession of the mind, the body and the heart. Spiritual healing involves a quest for inner harmony, introspection and self-liberation.
This immersion in the ‘self’ has several objectives. It involves introspection, attempting to distance ourselves from our immediate emotional reactions by trying to identify, observe and contemplate them so as to gain control over them. This ‘entry into oneself’ also reveals the essence of things, of presence in the world, and of the presence of the world.
Distancing ourselves from our selves whilst at the same time striving to achieve deep insight is therefore associated with elevating consciousness above the physical dimension of the elements with a view to understanding their metaphysical meaning and their inscription within the cosmos.
This dialogue between the intimate microcosm and the infinite cosmos reveals a third dimension that sheds light on the essence of the soul, the intelligence of the heart and the meaning of death. The initiation can be long and difficult, and the stages of these teachings are bound up with the understanding of the self and control over the emotions. That understanding and control represent a stage in the journey towards inner mastery and then ultimate transcendence (which brings both harmony and peace as the self fuses with the Whole).
This final stage may have the substance and form of an emotional disposition, but that disposition has been oriented by the conscious mind, educated by reason, and mastered and transcended during this initiation into being.
Our era appears to have deceived us by confusing certain emotional states with spiritual states: There can indeed be no spirituality without emotion but, whilst our emotions can turn us into ‘purely reactive objects’ or even slaves devoid of will power and freedom, spirituality requires us to become conscious subjects, and to seek the meaning of both the instant moment of impulse and the infinite cycles of fate.
Emotion is that dimension of the subject that is expressed in the being’s immediate reactivity; spirituality is what the subject discovers and expresses through mastered education of that being.
Our emotions imprison us, but spirituality is both an inspiration and a quest for freedom. The teachings of ancient spiritualities, modern psychologies, philosophies and religions are always the same; we have to become aware of how we function as individuals and communities, establish a critical distance between both ourselves and the world around us, learn to listen, and learn to speak and to communicate, and to understand at last our own complexity and that of the other.
It may seem strange and paradoxical to say so, but the first act of spiritual liberation lies in the initial attitude adopted by the subject. The lived experience of spirituality demands of the human subject three things that are implicit in all the traditions: The autonomy of the subject (as opposed to dependency on that which affects the subject), the conscious acceptance of responsibility (as opposed to the victim mentality), and an hopeful and constructive attitude (as opposed to despair, defeatism or the nihilism that does not believe in the possibility of change). Whilst emotion can be something we undergo, spirituality requires an initial (and determined) act of the will to assert our freedom, no matter where the individual finds himself. The individual must also assume a basic responsibility for his own transformation, and sustain the profound conviction that everything is possible … always, and for the better.
These are, as should be obvious, the three preconditions for self-confidence. How can we acquire this individual and collective self-confidence in an age characterized by fear and the obsession with security? Spirituality liberates and gives things meaning: it is based upon an initiation into and education in self-awareness, maturation, the acceptance of responsibility, and gradual transformations. Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticisms constantly remind us of the archetypal stages of this spiritual awakening: for the initiate, they are basically expressions of the most natural and banal experience of common mortals. When we are faced with external signals and stimuli that threaten to seize power inside our brains and/or hearts (and consciousness), we must be fore-armed if we wish to remain in control of our reactions. If we can do that, we remain free and human.
Educating the heart, the mind and the imagination in order to train ourselves to see better, hear better, smell better, taste better and touch better is one of the requirements of the autonomy and freedom that lie at the heart of modernity, of advanced technologies and of the globalization of the means of communication. In an age of global communications, anyone who has not been trained to be critical of information is a vulnerable fragile mind who is open to all kinds of potential manipulations. We also need the time to distance ourselves, to analyse situations and to evaluate critically what we perceive. Nothing is easy. This spiritual exercise is crucially important because it gives meaning to the most elementary actions in life: seeing, hearing, touching … and thinking, praying and creating. Spirituality consists in the added meaning that is inherent in even the simplest human actions. It may take the form of faith, thought, art or love, but it always involves a choice, and act of the free will, as opposed to emotion which is a passive reaction, imposed and sometimes uncontrolled: an ocean of difference between the two. Emotion is to spirituality what physical attraction is to love.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.