By Arnold Siegel
This post by Arnold Siegel is adapted from his piece “Feeling Moody Again?” on autonomyandlife.com.
Do you ever feel moody?
This is not much of a question. Everyone experiences moodiness from time to time. We are conditioned to expect moodiness, to take it as a non-negotiable outcome of our lived experience in an unpredictable, unstable world.
Of course, humans are adept at rationalizing the moody blues. We may see moodiness as a gateway to profundity. Or a convenient explanation for romantic anger. Or a sign of emotional depth and alluring mystery. Or a natural, even inevitable, response to the injustices of an imperfect world.
But these rationalizations are misguided. The simple fact is this: Moodiness need not be permanent. It is an example of conditional suffering that we can overcome, albeit with some difficulty.
“I mean each post to help you with the challenges you face internally and externally, really, with shaping your future.” —Arnold Siegel
As humans, we subjectively experience feelings in the moment, in the immediate here and now. Some subjective experiences seem physical in nature—for instance, the loss of a close friend or family member strikes us as a blow to the gut or chest.
Other subjective experiences are less “bodily” in nature. These experiences are best described as intellectual, cognitive or known. We appreciate them, or sense them, or intuit them, sometimes without fully realizing that we are doing so.
Our ability to interpret our emotions serves us well in many contexts; however, when applied to experiences that we perceive as negative or unpleasant, this ability is a potential handicap. It leads us to feel emotions like disappointment, outrage, inhibition, emptiness, bitterness, jealousy, resentment and other qualitatively negative sentiments. (At the same time, it empowers us to feel qualitatively positive emotions: optimism, fulfillment, joy.)
The quality of each impression is unique to the individual and specific to a particular time and place, and the nature of the emotion may not be warranted by the circumstance at hand. An example: When we focus on addressing an emergency, any previously felt moody impression dissipates. The impression returns only following the passing of the acute demand on our attention, at which point we may feel blue again.
Moodiness is unfortunate because it compels us to retreat to a metaphysical “parallel universe” in our own minds. This realm perpetuates the psychologistic illusion that our minds are distinct from our physical bodies and the wider material world, a condition I describe as “a voice turned in on itself.”
In this isolated realm, we are free to brood and sulk. Lest we lose control of our emotions, we suppress our feelings. Suffocated, and perhaps embarrassed, by our emotional metabolism, we search our closed-off minds in vain for a solution to what we feel in our bodies.
Autonomy relieves this internal torture by allowing us to identify ourselves as the character in the ongoing narrative of our lives, not as the detached abstraction residing in our minds that is afflicted by unease. When vanquished, this alienated voice takes with it the anger and despondency that characterize the “moody blues.”
This is consistent with our innate desire to detach ourselves from our unhelpful internal conversations. In the material world, we do not wish for silence, inhibition, suppression or moodiness. We endeavor to bring ourselves forth, to declare our autonomy: to stand for kindness over cruelty, tolerance over impatience, mercy over malice, generosity over pettiness, persistence over retreat, care over indifference, and on and on.
Fortuitously, the practice of these values is an emotionally rewarding experience—an enlightening subjective experience that is known intellectually rather than felt physically. This experience transcends the baseness of the moody blues, setting the stage for a true satisfaction that provides the basis for more sophisticated, sought-after forms of valuation: aesthetic appreciation, the serenity of justice, the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Love for the truth, and of thinking truthfully, pairs with our aspiration to live thoughtful lives, becoming one of our highest-order values and motivators for the choices we make every day.
Arnold Siegel is a contemporary American thinker, teacher and mentor. He is the founder of Autonomy and Life and leader of its retreat workshops and advanced classes.