Emotions as little gods

I like to think of literature and the creative writing process itself as a type of habitat for emotions. We can reserve a space of quiet, practice the discipline of gardeners, and protect our observational vantage points from those who might disturb the sanctuary.

But does anyone know where an emotion comes from or where it goes? Among the many common metaphors for emotion, I like weather and sky colors and river currents most. Emotions are constantly shifting, and sometimes can be predicted and planned for. Sometimes not.

While I’ve been listening to many different meditation teachers on Insight Timer lately to understand different practices, I noticed an observation in common: that emotions arise from a place of silence and depth. It’s profound, that experience. As part of a practice centered in compassion, this is necessary reflection. Emotions arise and fall away in all human hearts. They flow through us like clouds, like sunlight, like waves moving towards shore.

But then I think about overwhelming emotions, ones that even threaten whole nations and beyond. I have been thinking about this short piece by Roberto Calasso, shared this week on The New York Review of Books in memoriam.

Whenever their lives were set aflame, through desire or suffering, or even reflection, the Homeric heroes knew a god was at work. They endured the god, and observed him, but what actually happened as a result was a surprise most of all for themselves. Thus dispossessed of their emotion, their shame, and their glory too, they were more cautious than anybody when it came to attributing to themselves the origin of their actions.

From “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” by Roberto Calasso in NYRB April 22, 1993 issue

He went on to reflect on the nature of guilt as a result of this view, and I like his metaphor of guilt as boulders, which might obstruct the way or even roll upon and crush others who were perhaps innocent of the original emotion and actions. Think about the Dalai Lama’s observation about emotions and all their intrinsic emptiness, and you can’t help feeling the actual tragedy of humanity’s ongoing tragedy-making stage.


If you want to make… a poem

Continue to think about habitats for emotions, these little gods. What poems do they like to live in happily, or at least peacefully? Can you design a poem for a particularly unruly one?

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