Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today I speak with Robert Augustus Masters for part two of our conversation on emotional intimacy. Robert Augustus Masters is an integral psychotherapist, a relationship expert, and spiritual teacher whose work blends the psychological and physical with the spiritual, emphasizing embodiment, emotional literacy, and the development of relational maturity. He’s the author of thirteen books including: Transformation Through Intimacy, and Spiritual Bypassing. Available through Sounds True, Robert has released the audio learning series, Knowing Your Shadow: Becoming Intimate With All That You Are, and a new book called Emotional Intimacy: A Comprehensive Guide for Connecting With The Power of Your Emotions. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Robert and I spoke about the importance of mutual transparency in relationships and how our pre-verbal attachment styles can play out in committed relationship. We also talked about the difference between catharsis and what Robert calls “connected catharsis.” And finally, we talked about how to recognize when we’re engaged in avoiding emotional experience through spiritual bypassing and starting to identify and work with our own shadow material. Here’s part two of my conversation with Dr. Robert Augustus Masters on emotional intimacy.
TS: In part one of our conversation, Robert, you talked about turning towards our emotions, even emotions that are difficult and challenging—emotions like anger, and fear, and sadness—and I’m curious how you would talk to somebody who says, “I know that I have some emotion that is quite challenging in my experience right now, but I have a lot of resistance to turning towards it.” How do you suggest people work with that resistance when it comes up?
Dr. Robert Augustus Masters: What I usually would do in that situation is just have the person turn toward the resistance. This is after explaining to them that their resistance is not necessarily something wrong or bad or an obstacle to the process, it’s actually part of it. There’s a lot of energy trapped in the resistance. There’s a lot of potential growth in facing it. Then I would have them, with me, explore that resistance more—explore the roots of it. When they felt a similar type of resistance at other times in their life—in other words, we would get to know their so-called resistance and realize that this had an origin, there are reasons for it, and I’m not here to dismantle it or take it away. I’m here to help you explore it.
Once that resistance is explored, emotion will inevitably surface anyways and there’s no rush on that. If people sense that their resistance is being seen as something wrong or that shouldn’t be there, they’ll tighten up even more. So it’s really important to treat it as something worthy of respect, and I think everyone that is doing deep work has the desire to go into their depths and to heal and awaken. They also have resistance to doing it, so both need to be addressed.
TS: Now what if the resistance is experienced as a type of numbness or deadness? How do you work with that?
RM: Uhh, very skillfully. Again, by naming it, by explaining a bit about it, and by saying that everyone has certain areas of numbness at different times and that numbness usually has a lot of feeling underneath it and it has to be approached very, very caringly, skillfully, but it has to be approached. So I would create a context for working with numbness without shaming them at all for having any numbness, and then we start to take their attention into the numbness bit by bit through guided meditations, bodywork, some role playing, some psychotherapeutic direction, whatever works. Also, of course, including the origins of it. When that way of numbing oneself became a survival strategy, which is usually the case for many of us, it helped us survive some very difficult times in our early life. Once that’s happened, the emotions tend to flow freely anyways—the hurt, the anger, whatever is there—but that layer of numbness has to be treated with great care.
TS: Now, Robert, people have different kinds of resistance to the type of emotional intimacy—deep emotional intimacy—that you described in part one. For example, someone could eat a lot of a certain kind of food that helps deaden their sensitivity, or various other things that people do to deaden sensitivity. What’s your suggestion when someone admits this but says they’re admitting it while shoving the cupcakes in or whatever?
RM: Well, I’d want to get more information on that habit, or for a man it might be a pornographic habit and he’s been doing it a long time. And I would gradually have them sense what they are feeling. In other words, what are you feeling right before you go toward that habit and start to indulge it or act it out? What’s going on? Invariably some sort of hurt, loneliness, some sort of pain, and I’ll teach them how to stay with that painful sensation or feeling without saying that you shouldn’t be acting out—you should not be eating, you should not watching porn. It’s more like, let’s explore this. It’s a more skillful thing—let’s explore the pain.
So just spend five or ten minutes with it each time you have an urge to act out when you’re away from the therapeutic chambers. I have found that to be very successful. Because in that, they’re not shaming themselves for the habit and then taking off the edge of the shame by acting it out. They’re actually sitting with the original pain which goes back usually to their early years. When that pain is explored more deeply, they start to lose their charge for acting out. They have more excitement around exploring that pain because there is more growth there. There’s more healing. That begins with not shaming the person for their habit. You’re also not saying, “It’s okay, it’s a wonderful thing to do.” You’re saying, “Let’s focus on something that’s more central here. Let’s focus on what I would call a core wound that is kind of fueling this habit.” There’s a sense in the person in that situation, of wanting to get away from the original pain. What we’re doing in a therapeutic position is slowly but surely helping them turn toward the pain and supporting them in that.
TS: Now, it’s the second time that you’ve brought up men and pornography and I’m curious, do you have a sense from your work that when men turn to pornography that that is usually some avoidance of some deeper material?
RM: Yes, in every case I’ve ever seen there was something else going on that was not sexual at all. It was emotional. It was painful. And this became a solution to loneliness, fear, all kinds of things, and it’s a very unskillful solution. Most men I’ve worked with would agree that it’s very unskillful and they feel very driven and it becomes their default when they’re under tension or strain or they’re unhappy, there’s porn—just like it was when they were young teenagers. Here’s porn, and it’s their solution to something very painful. Of course, it makes them less and less capable of real intimacy with another person the more they pursue it. Another part of the solution for me is to have them humanize whatever they’re viewing in the porn. Most men will tell me that once they start to humanize whoever they’re watching act out sexual stuff in front of them, it’s harder for them to be turned on. They have less charge. They start to feel their heart more and it’s harder to just go into a pure genital release. There’s more of, “Oh my god, I can see her, I can see him.” They also start to see who they were before they ever got pornographic. Sometimes I’ll have them keep a picture of themselves as child close by. Take a good look at that picture and see if you still want to act out.
My part, too, is to help them go deeper and deeper into the emotional pain to where they actually become intimate with that pain, to where that emotion is no longer a problem. It doesn’t have to be fixed through going to porn or overeating or whatever. They can actually stay present with it. Of course, this is not something that happens in one session, but it is quite doable. And I do address this because I see pornography as an epidemic in our culture. With the Internet, it’s so widespread. I mean, not all men I work with have gotten caught in it, but an awful lot are still stuck in that web.
TS: I’d like to ask a couple more questions about it if that’s okay. It’s not an area that I know a lot about, but I could imagine somebody saying, “Isn’t engaging in porn as a way to release sexuality, isn’t that just fine and innocent and sexually liberated behavior?”
RM: I wouldn’t say sexually liberated. I’d say it’s fine for a young teenager. For an older man though, it’s a very unskillful approach. If he has a lot of tension or fear and anxiety, yes, it would take the edge off and so would masturbating without any imagery take the edge off. But I would say a more skillful way is to explore the emotion itself. Because a lot of times someone could have a lot of built up anxiety. A guy has a lot of built up anxiety and fear, maybe some anger and an ejaculation suddenly relieves him of that temporarily. There’s a temporary fix. It’s like, “Ahhh!” Pornography becomes the catalyst for that.
Now, he could do it even without pornography, but still it’s an isolated act, often lonely, and it strands a man from his capacity to be truly intimate, especially sexually, to where he cannot look at a woman he’s with as though she has to fit a certain ideal or a pornographic image he’s had in mind for a long time. He can actually see her as she truly is—the good, the bad, all of it, he can see it. He can connect with that. That’s made very difficult when pornography becomes a man’s sexual default.
I think the only way out of that, really, is to turn toward and work with the pain that animates the urge to be pornographic. Like if a man really craved, craved, craved being wanted by his parents when he was little and that wasn’t fulfilled, he’s going to have a negative charge of not being seen, not being loved, and that’s not sexual. It’s deeper than that. He gets older and he finds a way to eroticize that charge and suddenly he finds that if he sexualizes it, it takes the edge off it temporarily. Then, of course, a short time passes and he feels the same dark feelings and he turns to it again and again, and then suddenly he’s in an addictive loop. The good news is that there’s a way out, but that means, again, the difficult work of getting closer to what’s painful in us and treating it like it’s a distraught child or a hurt child rather than trying to get away from it through using sexual outlets or electronic outlets. There are so many ways we can get away from this and none of them really serve us in the long term.
TS: I guess the thing I want to just be clear about here, before we leave this topic of men and pornography, is that it sounds like you think that by addictive engagement with pornography, there’s an obstacle that becomes present in one’s intimate relationship—that it becomes harder to connect deeply in intimacy. I’d love to understand why you have that view.
RM: Well, I have it in part because I’ve seen it manifest in everyone I’ve worked with who’s been engaged thus, and I know when we work with couples to become closer, if the man has seen his partner through pornographic eyes when his sexual energy rises, he won’t be making love with her. He won’t be able to see her or feel her. The aphrodisiac will be his pornographic linkup between his mind and his genitals as opposed to the aphrodisiac being his connection with her. I think the deepest sex between partners is when the aphrodisiac is the connection, the intimacy, and the open-eyed mutuality. I think pornography tends to distract us from that in a very powerful way, especially when one is addicted to it.
TS: Now, I want to talk more about our relational life. In part one we talked about fear and what it means to turn towards fear—fear when one has a cancer diagnosis or fear when it comes up in the body—and I think one of the places where people feel a lot of fear is in intimate relationships, whether it’s the fear of being close, the fear of being abandoned, the fear of intimacy. So talk a little about that and how you can help people work with fear in their intimate relationships.
RM: First of all, by helping them see that on the one hand, everyone would love to have a really deeply intimate, truly nourishing relationship, but not so many of us want to pay the price of that or do the work that that entails to make that possible. So that means teasing out one’s fears of being close. Perhaps if being close as a child meant getting hurt in some way, we may associate being close with a lot of things that aren’t so pleasant. So when we get really close to a partner, not just sexually, suddenly we feel like we’re face-to-face, at a very deep level, with something very unpleasant that either is going to happen or is happening.
We may have, for example, a fear of being swallowed up by a partner, or being overwhelmed by him or her—revolving around that person, giving our power away, scrambling to meet their standards. I often see the power imbalance in couples in this regard. All of that makes it really difficult to be intimate. It makes it easy to be codependent, for the mutual neurosis of each to mesh together, but real intimacy is an art that combines being really, really close but maintaining just enough distance to keep the other in clear focus. When that happens, you don’t fuse with the other person; you also don’t stand back in kind of a detached separateness. You’re in really close and yet you are still in touch with you.
So the image I would have would be of two people, instead of collapsing their boundaries to become one, which characterizes typical romance, they would expand their boundaries to include the other. So they still are intact as a being. They still are in touch with themselves as a discreet being, but they’re also included in the other in the circle of their beingness. That’s real intimacy. You can’t do it as an automatic thing. There’s an ongoing sense of maintaining a certain focus and honoring each other’s integrity as a separate being, while at the same time, being really close and knowing each other really, really well and having a commitment to a very deep transparency, a mutual transparency.
TS: Now you’ve used that phrase a couple of times: “transparency and mutual transparency.” Can you tell me what you mean by that?
RM: Showing the other what’s going on. Letting the other know what’s going on and this has levels to it. Initially it’s just to not act like you’re not angry when you are or to not act like you’re not being defensive when you are. So if you’re transparent, it’s important, for example, if you’re defensive, to say to your partner, your friend, that you’re being defensive right now or being reactive or you’re embarrassed to say this, but here’s what’s going on. At deeper levels you might even expose your motivations. For example, someone might get very vulnerable with someone else in order to get something from that person. It’s like blowing the whistle on yourself and risking that. It’s an inherently vulnerable undertaking to show yourself that much to another person. That’s why it’s not very common. It sounds good on paper, but to expose your shame or when you’ve behaved in a way that does not feel like it fits with your current image of yourself, it’s so important to share that. Eventually you’ll say, “Here I am and here it is. I’m being reactive. I know what I’m saying just hurts you.” These are the same statements that you might be hesitant to, or you normally would withhold, and you are choosing to share them.
So I often to say to couples who have done a lot of deep work, what are you most afraid to let the other person know about you that still is important to know? Usually they’ll come forward with that and it almost always deepens the intimacy. Perhaps one of them has a secret mistrust of the other and they share the mistrust. In other words, they trust the other person with their mistrust and it’s usually well received and it creates more opening, more vulnerability. See, hand in hand with transparency is vulnerability—showing ourselves and finding a source of strength in that rather than feeling we’re somehow being weak or we’re caving in, in some way. Real vulnerability is not a submission—it’s a surrender.
TS: In the moment of being defensive, I mean, I’ve noticed times when I can tell I’m being defensive but I’m not at that place where I can admit it really, in that moment. Maybe I can admit it a day later or a few days later, but in the moment, obviously, that I’m being defensive—I’m being defensive!
RM: I’ll bet you could admit it earlier but it’s an interesting question to say, what’s stopping me or what would I feel if I was to only wait five or ten minutes rather than a day? You’d probably feel some shame. Here you are after all of this work on yourself and here you are being defensive with your partner or dear friend and that’s important to share too. You could even say, “I feel embarrassed to admit this. I can see that I was even talking as though I wasn’t being defensive. I’m being defensive about being defensive.”
It’s a willingness to take down the guard and, of course, not with everyone, but with certain people you’re really close to, I think it’s really important to practice doing that earlier, or you could even have a signal if you find it very hard to speak it—if you feel a little thickened in the throat or tongue-tied. You could hold up a hand in a certain position to signal that you know what you’re doing and it’s really hard to speak. Because some people literally cannot talk when they’re in the midst of being reactive. They get choked up and their words don’t come and it is a stretch. If you cut your time down between when you’re doing it and when you share it, you can see that as a sign of growth. If you cut it down from a day to half a day to an hour, that’s something worth celebrating, I think, because there are a lot of people who would never, ever admit they’re defensive, not even a day later. It could be a year.
TS: Now, Robert, in part one of our conversation we talked about how many of our conditioned responses in situations come from pre-verbal origins. When it comes to being in relationship, I know there’s a lot of research and teaching in psychotherapy recently on attachment styles and how as a very, very young person we attached or didn’t attach well in our family configuration. What’s your view of how attachment styles play out in terms of our emotional ability in relationships?
RM: I think it makes a huge, huge difference. If we didn’t have our early attachment needs met properly, we will probably carry that forward into almost all of our adult relationships if we don’t work on it. If we don’t understand that we really crave something, say from mother, and it didn’t happen, then as an adult we sexualize that and we find ourselves attracted to women who are like that—who are a little separate, a little cut-off from us and who don’t give us that and then we try and get them to give it to us.
We don’t realize usually that we’re just acting on some really old stuff from our early days of not being handled properly in an attachment context. I think it’s really important to know that, because we all crave that. In deep relationship we’re all craving to be seen, but it doesn’t work to just have the other person be all available and just be the mother we never had. It’s more about us waking up to that early pattern and giving ourselves what we didn’t get then. Sometimes I’ll tell people to give themselves what they want others to give to them as a practice, so that we’re doing the healing ourselves. Otherwise, we always expect our partner to fulfill us and that will not work because we get a certain addictive leaning toward them and they become a surrogate parent rather than a true partner. The key there is to wake up to the early conditioning, wake up to it as fully as you can, and not let it run the show. Just because your mother never gave you what you wanted, we’re all capable of giving that to ourselves if we work at it. Then we don’t depend on the other person to be the supplier of that old need.
TS: Now in your book, Transformation through Intimacy, you seem to have a very strong—I mean, bias is not even really a strong enough word—position, that to do the kind of work you’re describing, monogamy is a required formation. I’m curious if you could talk about that a bit?
RM: Yes, that’s based in my experience and the experience of many other people I’ve known, that [monogamy] creates a safe enough container for the work. Even if two people were capable of bringing a third or fourth party into the relationship fully, it would take up so much time to keep things clear, clean, and work on it, that I don’t think it would be possible. I think most who are capable of that are not interested. It’s enough to be really close to one person and have deep, deep intimacy with them. I feel very strongly about it. I have not seen the other alternatives work, in my experience. So that’s why I stress it so strongly.
I see most monogamy as no healthier than multiple partnering or polyamory. I think what I call “awakened monogamy” or “mature monogamy” is actually a further stage. Perhaps one has already gone through immature monogamy, of course, and perhaps has also experimented. It’s not that one has to experiment but one perhaps knows that that is very hard to maintain—very hard to maintain. I remember Stephen and Andrea Levine being treated about this a long time ago and they felt the same way that I do. You just have to have that as the container. It may sound rigid. It may even sound too tightly moralistic, but it’s more like, here’s the most skillful thing you can do. Here’s a container for two that certainly can include other people in all kinds of ways, but not as lovers.
It just makes it too complex to me, and I think monogamy is a choice at the highest levels that does not limit us. It actually frees us. We find freedom through the very limitation of it. In other words, we can go very, very deep with one partner and we can find through that depth with that partner a kind of a communion with all other beings—if we go into it deeply enough so the two becomes a gateway to the one and the many without having to sexualize it.
TS: And if somebody said, “Come on, Robert, this is clearly what works for you, but, you know, different strokes for different folks.” There are just different breeds of humans out there and certain humans who are wired differently. Couldn’t you have a view that would include that?
RM: I would say that they’re conditioned differently. I don’t know about wired. Everyone I’ve worked with who’s done serious polyamory, serious multiple partnering, not just casual stuff, almost invariably it’s been a reflection of early life conditioning and they were doing it as a solution to that and they weren’t really that connected to the others. I haven’t seen it work. I mean, theoretically I could see it could work, but I think polyamory and regular monogamy are like two sides of the same coin. I think beyond that is a stage I would call “awakened monogamy,” and some have asked me the very questions you have and I feel it’s just my experience and it’s where I’ve taken my stand. If I see any other work I would certainly acknowledge that, but I haven’t. I haven’t and I’ve looked.
TS: And just to make sure that I’m clear, how are you differentiating between “regular” monogamy and “awakened” monogamy?
RM: Regular monogamy, in a nutshell, I would call a cult of two. It’s two people that have come together and their neuroses match up. A lot of it is classic codependence. It’s often very “me-centered.” It’s an arrangement that kind of suits them but there’s not much growth in it and it’s deadening. Most people who are doing that will find themselves deadened after a short time. They’re not really close. If the sex wears off, there’s not much else left. They’re not really close. They’re not intimate.
I think in awakened or mature monogamy the partners are in a radically different state. They’re very close. They’re very connected on many, many levels and they stay thus and they deepen.
In between the two, I see a stage I called “we-centered, co-independent,” not codependent but co-independent, where both parties have their autonomy as individuals. They’re not fused, they’re not codependent, and they’re a little too far apart to be deeply intimate, but they start to work on themselves and they start to sense that beyond where they are is a further stage of relationship and they’re leaning toward that. That’s how I see the basic structure of it unfolding.
TS: OK, so we’ve talked quite a bit about fear and about anger and how in your work with emotional intimacy, unlike the way many spiritual teachings look at fear and anger, you don’t see it as the job of the person who’s becoming emotionally intimate to be fearless or to never experience anger. So I’m with you. Now I want to turn to sadness, because often in spiritual teachings they’ll say, “Come on, cheer up! Lighten up! Let it go, just let it go! Don’t hold onto your sadness!” So what is your view of sadness?
RM: Well, I certainly don’t agree with what you just expressed as other people’s views on it. I think sadness is a really important emotion and I think when anyone is told what you just described there’s actually perhaps an unwitting shaming of the person for having sadness or needing to cry. I mean one can get lost in sadness, stuck in it and be depressed in it. One also can go to the core of it and just sense that sadness is loss taken to heart. Loss taken to heart. Crying real tears is an inherently healing process. There are endorphins in the tears. If you or I cut onions we start to get tears. Those are different tears chemically. Real tears are healing. The way the body moves when crying is uninhibited: the heaving, the shaking, and the undulating of the torso. A lot is released. It’s almost like having a really long good laugh, but it goes even deeper I think. Even deeper and it bothers me to see any pathologizing of sadness, like somehow it’s a lesser activity.
I would question those who are saying that, like when did you last cry other than just having a few tears during a tearjerker movie? When did you last really let it go? It’s all there. I mean there’s so much to feel grief around, and sadness at its extreme can is grief, which is a real passion. I think our whole world is full of clogged grief—blocked grief. We don’t grieve together very much. We don’t go to the heart of the matter and just feel how much pain there is here. I think the appropriate response to that is sometimes to cry or get angry. But to stay flat and impassive in the face of others suffering, to me, doesn’t really serve them.
TS: And how do you suggest somebody work with their grief? What is your view of that?
RM: Let it out. And find a place where you can let it out with dear friends, a good therapist. Just let it flow and don’t expect it to not be messy. When we work with people who are in deep, deep grief, it’s not just crying. There’s rage and fluids everywhere. It’s messy. It’s a bit like birth. It’s really messy and it’s very noisy sometimes but wow, what emerges is beautiful. Grief is not just heavy sadness. There’s spaciousness to it too, which has always astonished me and moved me. Where one grieves deeply, it shifts from my grief to our grief to the grief. It’s almost as if the sky opens up wider. There’s a sense of holding everyone’s sorrow at a certain time. I think grief can connect us deeply—deeply. People who are at war with each other; if they were to grieve together I think there would be a really strong healing. I’ve watched people grieve together who are quite separate and it became one heart after a while—one beautiful, melting heart. Not soppy or sentimental, just raw feeling or raw grief.
I personally find the expression of grief very, very beautiful. It’s chaotic. It doesn’t follow a set pattern. It’s very healing and I see people who’ve had major losses that come to us. I don’t waste a lot of time analyzing and talking about it. It’s more like, let’s get into it. We create a sanctuary, a feeling of sanctuary, and the tears come, the rage, the feeling, so bodywork with it, and there’s movement. There’s movement, and to keep that in … grief is so huge, it’s like rage—in the sense of its internal size—or deep lust or ecstasy and it needs to move. It needs to move. It doesn’t need to be quiet. So many people are trying to be quiet with their grief, trying to be strong for the family. That’s not strength, that’s weakness. I think the real strength is to really get past our inhibitions about being noisy and just let it flood. It’s a flood. A beautiful flow.
TS: Well, when you talk about grief that way and compare it to birth and the sobbing, the body fluids, the whole thing, I’m curious to know—emotional catharsis in general—what you think are the dos and don’ts, the pros and cons.
RM: I think, um, catharsis has gotten a bad name in many therapeutic circles, because it’s not always been handled well. Just catharsis for its own sake is not necessarily that good; it can be no more than emotional masturbation. Just blowing off some steam, which now and then can have value, but it’s not inherently this really wonderful thing to keep engaging in. The catharsis I advocate is what I call “connected catharsis”—that means whatever emotional expression is coming out in a full-bodied way is done while knowing the roots of it, while understanding what it’s connected to. So, you’re not just raging just because you built up a head of steam, you’re raging because you’re remembering something that happened that was really painful and difficult. You had to suppress your anger about it at the time and now you can really cut loose with it. In, perhaps, an environment where there’s really caring people there with you—friends, therapists, whatever. And, that catharsis is healing, it’s not just to release, there is a knowing that goes with it. So, I think catharsis has to be approached very skillfully. Just unto itself, it’s not necessarily a good thing, but it can be a wonderful, wonderful part of any deep therapy. Spiritual practice, too, it’s important to let it flow. I know one of Jack Kornfield’s teachers said, “Anyone who hasn’t cried deeply during meditation retreats hasn’t really practiced.”
TS: Now, when you’re describing “connected catharsis,” you’re talking about having to know inside what all of this emotion is related to? I have to have an awareness of that versus simply expressing the emotion?
RM: Well, it can start off—sometimes for example —the tears come on really suddenly and they’re crying hard and we know that they’ve just lost someone dear to them. I’m going to bring that into it. That’s a pretty obvious example. But, to bring that in. So, I might say their name; let my arms reach toward that person, so I’m connecting the catharsis more and more with something specific. They’re not just blowing off steam; they’re actually sensing the root. It’s not like they’ve analyzed it and are thinking about it. It’s more like they just know. Or, I may remind them of it as they’re doing their release work, so that they stay connected. And, then they’re discharging a lot of the energies were actually stored in them from a long time ago. The anger they never dared express when they were little—to express that in context, in context, allows more of a healing. A deeper healing.
TS: Okay, so, we’ve talked some about sadness and now grief. What do you think of depression in the context of this conversation? Do you see depression as an emotion or as something else?
RM: No, no I don’t. I see depression as what it suggests in the form of the word—“depression.” It’s a pressing down of the self and a weighting down. And, it can look like sadness, it can contain sadness, but sadness isn’t necessarily just a sagging, a weighting down. Depression flattens us. I think we all get depressed sometimes, but sometimes it gets very intense or it becomes pathological and requires medication. But, I think, when I work with depression, and I’ve done it for a long time with clients, it’s always a matter of exploring what is not being expressed or is only being expressed partially. I think depression is kind of a pain that walls away a deeper pain. It doesn’t feel good, it’s unpleasant, but what’s underneath it is often scarier to face, so I think we in essence prefer the burden beast of depression to the monsters of the deep. And, depression kind of incarcerates us—it keeps us down.
Maybe we learn that very young—it’s a survival mechanism from when life was too difficult. We kind of flatten ourselves and settle down and numb ourselves just a little bit, there’s some numbness in it, too. And, once a person has tapped into the real hurt and anger beneath of all of it and that’s expressed, they’re not depressed anymore. They’re pissed off, they’re sad, they’re hurt, and they have more energy. Especially when the anger starts to move, they can mobilize themselves, they can start to workout, develop a meditative practice, start eating differently. Because depression tends to immobilize us and I think part of the art of working with this is to say, “Let’s mobilize this, let’s find a way we can do this,” without just telling you you should work out more, whatever. It’s more like, let’s work with the roots of it, what’s there? And, it can start very early. The extreme of it would be someone who’s depressed during birth—not emotionally, but physiologically. Because if they didn’t depress their vital signs, they would have died during the birthing process. So, whenever they’re faced with a very difficult situation, the default is to depress the vital signs, go flat. If that’s never exposed and worked with, they’ll probably have that pattern their entire life.
TS: Now Robert, in talking about your new book on emotional intimacy and creating a guidebook, really, to help people become more emotionally literate, part of what you’re doing is describing the emotions and the passions and then saying something like depression is not actually an emotion, it’s actually masking other emotions. I’m curious, in one person’s work that I’ve been exposed to in categorizing emotions, they talk about sexual feelings as an emotion--the feeling of being aroused. But, that’s not part of your emotional cartography.
RM: No, to me, I would classify that as sensation. Sensation and feeling often get conflated, but one can be profoundly aroused sexually and be completely shut off emotionally. The excitation can mask as an emotion, but I think we have to separate sensation from emotional feeling. Even though emotional feeling includes sensation in the body, there’s something quite different. Sexual arousal, as I said, can be present without much feeling going on. In fact, there can be almost a disconnection from the partner, but there can be a lot of lust, a lot of heat, but not much light.
TS: Now, what about jealousy and envy, are those emotions in your system?
RM: Yes, but they’re what I would call “compound emotions,” they’re secondary. They’re not, like, a pure emotion unto themselves. If you look at jealousy, there’s a whole mixture of things—there’s anger, there’s hurt, there’s the context of being replaced, rejected, cast aside. Very painful and worth getting to know very well, because many people have done pretty crazy things when caught up in jealousy. The solution isn’t to never be jealous, the solution, again, is—I sound like a broken record here—to get intimate with it, get to know it really. And, learn to love when you’re not being loved. That’s part of it, too, because one of jealousy’s deepest cries is, “how can you do this, you don’t love me.” Maybe that’s true, but if we lose our own heart because the other person has lost theirs, we’re going down a very dark hole. And, I think another key to working with jealousy is to get down to the hurt very quickly, cut through the righteousness, the urge to violate the other person who has done this to you. Get to the hurt. Then your actions will be more skillful. Jealousy can really, really hurt. Most people say that sexual jealousy is one of the most painful things they’ve ever experienced.
TS: And, then envy, you make a distinction with envy?
RM: Envy is more on the side. In jealousy, we feel like we’ve been separated from something that we think should be ours. In envy, we don’t often feel so righteous. It’s less moralistic. It’s more like, well, we see what the other person has and we wish we had it, but we’re not, we don’t have a sense of, “I should have that” and “how dare they have that.” It’s more passive, except when we really go through the core of it, I think it comes to inspiration. I mean, I’ve envied people in my life where I went deeper and suddenly I felt inspired by them. Suddenly the envy transmuted. I thought, “Wow, they can do it, maybe I can do that,” or “how lovely.” And, I would shift from envy to mudita, the Pali and Sanskrit term that means “sympathetic joy.” You know, another emotion that plays in here too, I was thinking, is one I love writing about, it’s called schadenfreude, it’s taking pleasure in other peoples’ misfortunes. It’s interesting, in English, we have no word for it. I guess because we’re kind of embarrassed to admit that we have it, but everyone seems to have it at some point in their life.
TS: And, what would you recommend in moments when schadenfreude shows up?
RM: Acknowledge it and really allow yourself to explore mudita. That’s a great antidote—do whatever it takes to access joy for other people’s successes. Prior to going to mudita fully, one has to feel schadenfreude and stop shaming ourselves for having it. Everyone who sees someone take a spill that we perhaps didn’t really like in the first place, there can be a certain pleasure in it. A lot of movies play off of that, you know, when the hero is humiliated and humiliated and finally he goes and takes vengeance on the enemy. Many people feel a gratification in that instance. It’s vicarious, but it’s very strong. I think the key to schadenfreude is to admit that it’s here and also share the embarrassment and shame and say, “Hey, I actually liked seeing that person take a spill.” A lot of humor is based on that. But a healthy dose of mudita is what really helps.
TS: Can you, uh, just illuminate just a little further what you mean by mudita and how to develop that?
RM: Well, mudita is a Pali or Sanskrit term that means sympathetic joy. That means feeling good for other people’s successes and breakthroughs and triumphs. And, I think to get there, we have to first of all acknowledge our schadenfreude, our envy, our jealousy of these others, let that be there, and then there’s a sense of sensing the other people as beings that are struggling like us. They’re having a success now, they could fall down tomorrow, they could be dead tomorrow. And, just opening ourselves to their fullness of being, their suffering, all of that. And, I think, when we get intimate with our emotions, we become more capable of feeling other people’s feelings. Our empathy levels deepen and widen. We sense their pain, their suffering. So, basically, it’s about opening ourselves to others’ emotional whereabouts.
TS: Now, Robert, at this point, we’ve talked about a lot of different emotional experiences and I’m curious to know as you were writing the book, Emotional Intimacy, if you encountered, “this is the emotion that is really the hardest one for me, this is the one where I really get stuck.”
RM: I felt that probably spread over all of the emotions. Where I get stuck is not going deeper with them, because I already know them really well. And, I think for me in writing it, what happened to me, which was perhaps more interesting, was that I softened as I wrote it more. I felt something inside me widen and deepen. I felt more and more compassion for other people’s emotional difficulties and for my own, especially when I was younger. And I felt my emotional reactivity lessen to where I became more capable of saying more quickly when I was having a hard time. Not something secondary that blamed a situation or was angry at something else. I would go to the core very quickly and just feel the hurt of it really quickly, the wound of it, and stay with that, breathe with it. I found myself developing that capacity more and more as I wrote about this, because the whole topic is intimacy with emotion. And, I was very affected by writing the book. It mushroomed from a fairly small piece of writing to something quite major for me. I worked it and I had great editorial help—I reworked it and reworked it. And, I opened up to emotions. I remember working on joy, the chapter on joy, and just going deeper and deeper into what is joy? What are the types of joy? What is the shadow of joy? All of it. And, I was delighted to be “forced” to explore all of these emotions and to try and make sense of them and to bring forward everything that I’d learned from thirty-plus years of working with emotions with many, many people and to bring that into written form. That was growthful for me.
TS: Now, as we come to the end of this two-part conversation, Robert, I want to end by talking with you about spiritual bypassing and the emotions. Because I know that you’ve written on the topic of spiritual bypassing quite extensively. And, I’m curious to know how might somebody know when they’re engaged in spiritual bypassing and not turning toward an emotional experience? Is there a way that we can learn to suss this out and sniff this out in ourselves?
RM: Well, one way would be, if we label any emotions as negative, I think we’re already perhaps on that path. And, if we are overly enamored of positivity, things being positive and optimistic and upbeat, that can be a sign. Perhaps a clearer sign is that we may not feel that grounded, we may get feedback from others that we’re not that grounded. And, we also may be overly enamored of so-called high states, exalted states, nondual this, nondual that. Another way it shows up big time to me is when people stay in the shallows of relationship. There’s too much “this is all perfect”—the negation of anger. And, the relational part gets overlooked very easily when we’re spiritually bypassing. Sometimes those signs can be very subtle, but they’re there. And, overall, someone who is caught up in it big time is going to be cut off in a relational sense, they won’t be grounded, they’re overly enamored of being in higher states, and not very vulnerable. And, probably defensive without looking defensive. And, also, perhaps, being what I would call, “blindly compassionate,” like putting up with a lot of stuff that is really abusive and framing it as somehow a great teaching or something they should bow down to.
TS: Now, sometimes when I see spiritual bypassing in somebody else, I want to call it out. And, I’m not convinced that I always do this as skillfully as I could and I’m curious what you have to say about that.
RM: I’d say do it anyways. Because you’ll probably clean it up fairly quickly. I think it’s better to voice it than not in most cases. And, sometimes it’s very hard to talk to someone who’s caught up in it. Especially if they’re very verbally skilled and have lots of spiritual states to back them up, it can be very difficult to get through. I find the way that I’ve gotten through is when someone has some pain and we can address the pain and we can look at the root to say, “here’s the solution.” Someone else may use a different method than spirituality, but in your case you would use spirituality. And, we’ve all done things to get away from our pain—every one of us—and all of us on the spiritual path have done spiritual bypassing at different times, it just goes with the territory. So, here we are. Let’s just sit back and take a good look at it. I would approach that person with compassion, but I also wouldn’t be too soft. I’d want to penetrate a little bit and if things were really bothering me, I’d probably make a bit of a fuss, just to address it, especially if they were close to me. I feel like I would be doing more of a service to them by stepping into them, than by sitting back on the sidelines and staying quiet.
TS: I love it! You’re saying just what I want to hear.
RM: Alright! I’m saying yes to the bluntness you can probably manifest.
TS: Now, with Sounds True you’ve created a program called Knowing Your Shadow, and yet, if material is in our own shadow, how are we going to discover it? Because, by nature, it’s in our shadow because we don’t want to see it.
RM: You discover it through other people’s feedback and through relationship. Because you may not know it, but when you’re in relationship and you keep doing the same crazy thing with a partner over and over again, that’s a sign of shadow material. It’s anything that’s been unilluminated in us, any part of our conditioning that we have not dealt with. And, it’s so worth doing. I don’t call my work shadow work, but most of the work I’m doing is shadow work. I’m dealing with what’s been pushed aside or rejected in people or ostracized, disowned. I was listening to one disc right before you and I talked. I pretended it wasn’t even me doing the disc—it was disc two on reactivity—I did all the practices and I thought, “wow, I really like this,” I like listening to something that guides me to this place that’s a little dark in me. I’ve done a lot of this, of course, already, but I found that I can still go deeper and it feels so good. And, I’m so grateful, actually, to you at Sounds True that I was actually able to put together this program on shadow. I’ve had great feedback so far and it was hard work putting it together, but boy I’m glad I did it.
TS: But, you said that the best way to get to know our shadow is relationally, but here people are working on their own with guided meditations. Can we really get to know our shadow on our own through meditative practices?
RM: To some degree. It is relational in another sense—you’re relating to yourself. Instead of relating from, say, your reactivity or your shame or guilt or whatever it is, I’m teaching people how to relate to it. So, we identify it and people can usually follow that. How do you relate to your reactivity? We all get reactive, so this tool says: here’s what it is, here’s how to relate to it, and here’s a practice relating to it. So, it is relational in that sense. And, of course, once you learn that, then you can perhaps look at your relationships with other people and go, “oh my god, here I am about to step into automatic, I don’t have to be on automatic.”
And, it’s such a liberating sense when we realize that we can wake up in the midst of our reactivity. It’s like we’re having a dream at night, you don’t know you’re dreaming, then suddenly you realize, this is a dream—how liberating. Same with reactivity. It’s like a daytime trance. We wake up in the middle of it and lo and behold, we have a lot more options, humor returns, we connect more with the other person. It’s beautiful, but it requires that that we step out of automatic. And, usually the thing, unfortunately, that does that for us is our suffering. Our suffering kind of puts us in the position where we need to step out of it, we don’t want to keep hurting.
TS: Would you say there are any telltale signs that one’s shadow is in charge?
RM: I’d say reactivity is a sign—a clear sign. When we’re being reactive, there’s always some shadow material that’s being activated. I’d say reactivity is the dramatization of shadow material that’s been activated. Or, we have a disproportionate reaction to something—shadow. We have a really rigid us vs. them mentality around other people or cultures. We have an over-the-top emotional reaction to something that is relatively innocuous. All signs the shadow is probably kicking in. Whenever we behave automatically or say the same old things over and over again to another person, same old behaviors—shadow.
TS: So, Robert, here’s my very final, final question, which is, our program’s called Insights at the Edge and I’m always curious to know what the edge is that somebody’s working on in their own life, in their own journey.
RM: I’d say my edge is becoming even more intimate with all that I am and becoming more and more curious about what is still in the dark in me. And, exploring that with myself and with Diane. I love doing that. And, that’s my edge. Implicit in that is just going deeper and deeper and opening to the mystery of it all more and more fully. My edge really is, in a nutshell, deeper surrender to what’s required. I know it’s a fairly vague way to say it, but that’s how it is for me. It’s like opening more and more deeply and being close to my own death makes that all the more easy to do.
TS: Robert Augustus Masters, a true lover of the depths and the darkness. I thank you so much for being with us.
RM: My pleasure.
TS: With Sounds True, Robert has published a new book called Emotional Intimacy: A Comprehensive Guide for Connecting with the Power of Your Emotions and a six-session audio series called Knowing Your Shadow: Becoming Intimate with All that You Are.
SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.