What is the good of yoga or any spiritual path if it does not support healthy connection to ourselves, our relationships or the welfare of society and the planet? What is the good of being able to meditate or pray or practice yoga or mantra when we can’t even connect to another human being when they tell us of their pain and suffering? What is the point of any of these practices or beliefs if they do not include emotional integrity?
Emotional integrity is the capacity we have to be self aware, to be able to connect with our true feelings and understand why we feel the way we do. It requires us to be completely honest about our feelings, listen to them and have the the maturity to understand the messages they are telling us about what we need. It is beginning to be more widely understood that anger is an emotion that combats threat; that it is there to protect us from injustice. Sadness is there because something or someone is lost; in other words it helps us to let go. Guilt serves us by helping us to see our own responsibilities. Worry tells us to plan in advance. Shame helps us to adapt our behaviour so that we can belong.
All of our emotions are there to serve us; to guide us towards wholeness and wellness within ourselves and in relationship to others. They give us feedback about what we need to feel safe, happy, connected and to belong. When we have emotional integrity, we have the maturity to be honest about our feelings, acknowledge them, listen to them, validate them and respond appropriately to them. We are able to listen to others’ feelings, and acknowledge, validate and respond appropriately to them also. We can self regulate better and we have better social skills.
Emotional integrity might come in the form of letting intolerably painful feelings of grief flow. It might come in the form of being honest about your personal needs and asserting boundaries. It might come in the form of insight that brings compassion, empathy, kindness or patience. Or it might come in the form of cultivating a ‘witnessing’ awareness so that we can take some distance and observe emotions in order to cope better. It might also require, in the case of trauma, shutting down and numbing emotional pain. But when that shutting down of our emotions begins to harm yourself or another deeply, then the integrity is lost.
Being able to hold space around our feelings, even when it is painfully intolerable, helps to lead us towards wholeness. Because when we give space to our feelings, we are listening to the needs that our feelings are pointing towards. Holding space stops us from being divided, fragmented, incoherent, incongruent and unintegrated. If we don’t listen to or respond with integrity to what has hurt us then our wounded inner warriors can continue to fight to protect us in fits of anger, passive aggression, bad behaviour, dis-regulated emotions and even nightmares.
Yet yoga and the spiritual, religious and political worlds - which we would expect to be governed by emotional integrity - are conversely wracked with dissociation, avoidance, violence, abuse and injustice. Which makes me ask, what is the point of yoga and spirituality if it compounds a lack of connection to ourselves and others?
Many of us are becoming familiar with pseudo spiritual beliefs that are far from intelligent and if anything, support the glossing over and smoke screening of what’s actually going on inside of us. Some of them sound so intelligent that it could be easy to just accept them. Such as forgiveness (of someone who has harmed you) being necessary in order to process, integrate and heal from trauma. Or another example that continues to be widely accepted is that the ego is bad. As I understand it, good clinical psychologists check that an individual’s ego is strong enough before beginning in depth trauma therapy. Good, strong, healthy egos are needed for us to be good, strong, healthy people. Somewhere along the line it seems that eastern philosophy has been misinterpreted by western minds. In order to live well in this world, we need to stop outcasting parts of ourselves because they feel bad, or because we believe them to be bad, or worse still: because a yoga or meditation teacher tells us they are bad.
The lack of emotional integrity in the yoga and spiritual world has drawn me towards trying to better understand the science behind connection and I have found some answers in psychology, neuroscience, polyvagal theory and attachment theory. Whilst Patanjali’s yoga sutras guide us towards wholeness, modern science backs it up.
Teaching yoga well is my form of activism against the spiritualisation of dissociation. Teaching yoga well is how I pray for the planet. And whilst cultivating a ‘witnessing awareness’ can be invaluable at times, I also believe that emotions are our superpower.
As Jeff Brown says, “If anything reflects your stage of development spiritually, it’s your behaviour. You can’t call yourself enlightened if you’re a self serving ass” (of which there are many in the yoga world).
I believe that whilst robots begin to take over our workplace, whilst the political world is taken over by selfish power crazy capitalists, whilst our yoga classes are run by teachers who spiritualise dissociation …. emotional integrity, which actually does the work of repair by moving us away from fragmentation towards integration, will become more valuable than ever.
I have absolutely no interest in enlightenment, gurus, yoga, spirituality or shaktipat if it does not include emotional integrity. The wellness of our society, our planet, politics, women, black and minority people - depend on the emotional integrity of us all.