Many years ago a colleague of mine talked to me about living life along a steady, unmoving line between the emotional highs and lows I seemed addicted to at the time. They manifested themselves most noticeably in the weekly rhythm of Fridays and Mondays, fuelling each other in a never-ending cycle of ups and downs. The purity of the joy I felt on a Friday afternoon, with the whole weekend ahead of me, would be matched 2½ days later by the despondency of a Monday morning; the weekend banished to a memory and my mood compounded by having to face another five days before I could feel that joy again.
I was a slave to my emotions and to the regular visits I took to life’s peaks and troughs. My colleague back then – a gentle, soft-spoken Indian who would rise each day at 05:30 to meditate, who gave yoga classes, organised weekend retreats and, improbably, also worked for 25 years for an investment bank – told me I’d be better off living my life in the space between the extremes. I protested that such a life was too boring to contemplate. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to give up the joy I experienced, even if that joy also meant having to experience its opposite? Surely the goal is to find a way to be more joyful more of the time?
But such a life is unsustainable. The emotions we experience, and the feelings and moods to which they give rise, are all chemically induced. The more we chase the experience, the greater our tolerance becomes and the ever-harder we must work to produce levels which satisfy. In addition, continued visits to the body’s chemical factories are draining and damaging. Emotions are meant to help us deal with life, rather than be seen as stimulants to be used whenever we want. Karaj used to say, ‘If you are feeling sad then feel the sadness. But don’t indulge.’
I sought out the experiences which offered me the full extent and range of my emotions. Being emotional made me feel alive. Even when I felt pain, sadness or melancholy, they were just different opportunities to experience what I thought it meant to be human. It felt like a ready-made, instantly accessible roller coaster; one I could ride any time I liked. Moreover, if I could also generate and stir up emotional situations, then I could be the creator of the very experiences to which I was addicted.
It took Karaj to make me see how important it is to calm down. He taught me to use my emotional side properly: to tune in to situations and act appropriately. And for the rest of the time, relax and remain calm. Life between the extremes is calm. It is centred and balanced. It’s the eye of the storm; the zero-crossing of a waveform; that point of stillness where all around there is motion, noise, chaos. From that central position we are ready to respond to whatever is happening, ready to move when the time is right; like a tennis player who always returns to the mid-point after every shot, because from there he has access to the entire court.
It doesn’t stop with our emotions, which are transient by nature. When they subside, our feelings remain and we cling to them for the same reason we sought out the emotions in the first place. For days, weeks, even years we hang on to them. Being centred allows us to release unhelpful feelings and to seek out more appropriate ones. And the more we occupy the middle ground, the easier it is to find when we really need it.
In his TED talk on The Surprising Science of Happiness, the Harvard psychology professor, Dan Gilbert, closes with the line: ‘We have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are chasing when we choose experience.‘ It means that, from the peaceful, tranquil place at the heart of everything, we can choose to feel whatever we want. Then, just like the tennis player, we return to the middle, safe in the knowledge that we will be restored to the calm, centred beings we were born to be.