Saturday, February 1, 2014

Managing the Passions

An old Cherokee legend illustrates for us the basic concept of how to manage one's passions.

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.

"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

In the first article, Fire of Passion, we examined what the passion are. In the second, The Passions in Christianity, we examined the Christian understanding of the passions, their origin and the main key to being able to manage them. If you've come to this article without having read those two, I highly recommend you do before proceeding on here.

Now we want to examine the various ways we can starve the bad passions and feed the good ones so we can effectively manage them.

How Do We Tell a Good Passion from a Bad One?

The easy answer is anytime a passion damages yourself and/or others, it is a passion you don't want to be enslaved to, but control. The longer answer is it can get a bit complicated at times.

There are two categories of bad passions. One is the inherently bad passion. Some passions are going to be destructive to you 99%+ of the times they are indulged. Many drugs fall into this category. The first time some use a drug like cocaine, they are immediately hooked. It would be a rare case indeed when even trying it once didn't end up causing a lot of pain for the addict and those around him.

The other is abused passions. Some passions are inherently positive and good. Hunger is an obvious one. If we don't eat, eventually we'll die. Hunger insures we don't go too long with needed food. It is a good passion that does help us to survive. But each good passion can be overdone, abused, to the point it becomes destructive rather than positive. Someone who overeats can cause diverse health problems and leave their families/loved ones without a father, mother, or friend before their time. If the passion of hunger is not managed, it can become a bad passion.

The trick, of course, is if a passion already has a pull on you, you don't tend to stop and consider the consequences, evaluate whether it is going to negatively affect you and/or others, and make a decision on whether to do it based on that evaluation. Why? Because here is a truth one needs to be aware of:

Passions motivate you to act. Reason lays the groundwork to support actions through the passions.

Reason doesn't motivate you to act. Reason can stir the passions within you to motivate you to act, but of itself, it is helpless to override one's passions. The stronger a passion is, the less that contradictory reasoning will be at reversing that passion and influencing a change of actions. This is exactly why someone who has become passionate about an affair relationship is not affected by some very logical and rational reasons to not go that route. Instead, they tend to use their reasoning to support what their passions are demanding to have.

However, reason is not helpless when coupled with the spiritual power I mentioned in the last article, and attempting to manipulate the passions through your mind, so that they change course. This is done by learning to feed the right wolf, the right passions. It is easiest to do this at the beginning of a passion's pull on you, but can be done at any stage. The following are tactics you can use to feed the right wolf.

1. Confession

If not to a priest or pastor, find a trustworthy friend who can hold you accountable. Tell them the story around the passions you are struggling with. By confessing it to someone you can talk to, you gain support and help in dealing with it. Confession is the first step toward conquering the passions. Once it is no longer your dark little secret, you are no longer emotionally blackmailed by it and have more freedom to fight against it.

2. Fasting

Based on Genesis 2, the first sin was a failure to fast from eating the fruit of a particular tree. God had told Adam not to eat from one tree. Yet, when push came to shove, he ate from it. When God questioned him on it, the first recorded instance of blameshifting occurs:

And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. (Gen 3:12 KJV)

When it comes to food, we're pretty spoiled.

The passion of hunger is a foundational passion. If we fail to control that one, we will not be able to control any of them. Many of us rarely tell ourselves no with food unless we're already stuffed or can't afford it. Usually the only people who say no than those two are people losing weight, and we know how many tend to fail at that. But if you can tell yourself no to eating a food, simply because you've decided that for a period of time you are not going to eat something, it provides support for saying no to yourself in other situations, like when someone lights your fire.

It is best to have someone else help you establish a regular rule of fasting. If not your religious community, become accountable to a trusted friend. Start off small and work your way up. Maybe you'll decide to fast from meat on Fridays. Then later, for a whole week. Then later, maybe you'll join others in doing so for the Lenten season, or other group fasting periods.

3. Align Your Will with Your Mind

The will tends to be highly influenced by your passions. But it is possible to just say no with your will and mean it. Our problem is we're really good at knowing we need to say no, so we say it, but don't mean it.

Let your no be no.

Shortly after Lenita started her second physical affair, she could see where it was headed and she knew she needed to break it off. So she met her affair partner at the gym and they sat in her car. She told him this had to end. Despite that declaration, within minutes they were hugging and kissing, and it didn't stop, obviously, or I'd not be writing this blog right now. Why was her no not no?

Surprise! Our passions lie to us.

 They convince our brain that we have to obtain this feeling if we are to survive. We become convinced if we pass this up, we'll regret it for the rest of our lives and be miserable. The truth? You'll live, you'll enjoy life. Even more so because that passion didn't win in getting you to do something destructive to yourself and those you love.

You'll have more respect for yourself because you were driven by compassion instead of passion.

Paul stated it this way:

This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. (Gal 5:16-17 KJV)

This is where the key from the last article comes into play. He can help us align our will with the mind and not according to our passions.

But how do we access that power? By being drill-sergeant strict with ourselves.

You see, Lenita's no was not followed up by the corresponding actions. If she was serious about her no, she would have immediately requested he leave her car and to not contact her again, or approach her in the gym. If he didn't immediately respond, she would have stepped out of her car until he left. But she failed to say no with her actions. Why? Because she had not aligned her will with her mind, it was still influenced by her passion for him. Consequently, her words said no, but her actions said yes.

When we say no, our passions start working to wiggle their way back to a yes. They will work like the devil to keep even the smallest foot in the door. To let your no be no, you have to decide to firmly close the door. How?

By doing two things. Identify the boundaries that amount to squeezing a foot in the door for that passion. They tend to feel innocent, but you know where it will lead. List them out on paper if need be.

Then convince yourself that you will now be strict with yourself about those boundaries. Tell yourself you don't care how much you'll feel like you want it, no matter how much begging your emotions will do to cross this one innocent boundary, agree within yourself that nothing will move you to do that, no matter how bad you want to. Divorce the will from the passion. When you get ultra strict with yourself, refusing to allow emotions to influence your behavior, you can start starving the bad wolf.

4. Distractions

The above is preparatory work. But what happens in the midst of temptation to give in? There is a rule that monks have been taught in overcoming the slavery to passions, especially those of a sexual nature.

Frontal assaults on the passions rarely work. Instead, they end up feeding the passions.

Why? Because the more attention you give a passion, the stronger it becomes. A drunk doesn't conquer alcoholism by visiting bars on a regular basis. He does it by avoiding alcohol, by not thinking about it. So it is for overcoming a temptation. The more you think about it, even to focus on not giving in, the harder it becomes to avoid giving in. Because giving a passion your attention feeds it.

Instead, when tempting thoughts come to cross boundariess you know would lead to a bad place, do these or varations on these ways of distracting yourself so as not to think about it.

Use pain. Lenita was instructed by our priest to wear a rubber band around her wrist. When she found herself thinking negative thoughts, focusing on the affair, thinking about her affair partners, she was to snap the rubber band to distract her mind from those thoughts with the sting of pain. For her, it was highly effective.

Use music. Collect some uplifting songs on your portable music player. When tempting thoughts arrive, listen to the music to distract your mind. Sing along with it if possible.

Use prayer. Or if not religious, a saying you can repeat over and over. For Christians, an old short prayer known as the Jesus Prayer can be repeated as many times as necessary until the temptation passes: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Or the shorter version, "Lord, have mercy." Most religions would have similar prayers/meditations. If you are not religious, a saying like "Que sara, sara," "Whatever will be, will be" can be used.

Use work or a hobby. Keeping your mind busy and your body working avoids a passion from getting a strong hold on your attention. This is one of the reasons why monks will stay busy either working or praying, for hours. Too much idleness leads to focusing on the passions. Invest yourself in a productive hobby or volunteer to help someone rather that sitting around thinking about what your body is saying it really wants to do.

Use your friends. Especially those you've made yourself accountable to. When temptation arrives, ignore it by calling a friend, or anyone really, and focus on them. If you have an online support group, go there and spill it all on a forum rather than on your mind.

In effect, when a bad passion attacks, you defeat it by ignoring it. Remind yourself that you don't care how much you want something, that desire is a lie, then use one of the above methods of distraction to turn your attention away from the passion, and starve it to death. Over a period of time, you'll begin to realize you didn't need that passion to live, because you've been hardly thinking about it and life is still great. Even better than before.

When we are afflicted with a passion, sometimes we slip and fall to it.

Often when that happens, we'll feel like we're back at square one, and feel like giving up because we don't seem to be overcoming it.

That is the wrong way to think of it. Rather, think of it more like you're working to beat your last record. If one time you last three days before you allow yourself to think about the affair partner, stop. Use the methods above, and see how far you can get this time. If you go a week, that's some success. As you continue to pick yourself up, and go again, the passion will get weaker and weaker as you ignore it for longer and longer. Then at some point it will dawn on you that its been months since you've given your affair partner a second thought.

Then as we train ourselves on how to say no and mean it, it will provide us freedom from the slavery to our passions. We learn to control them instead of them controlling us.

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