Two Exercises to Uncover the Emotions that Fuel our Moral Dilemmas by Aleksandar Fatic

Sometimes the identity and intensity of the emotions that drive our moral dilemmas is foreign to us. Discovering the register of emotions that create the cacophony of a moral problem is thus an important step towards stripping the moral conflict naked of any rationally imposed additions and facing the core issue of the moral dilemma with a full awareness of one’s authentic emotions, as well as one’s values that are involved. However the rationalization that follows a moral dilemma: the early onset of the question of ‘what should I do here’ obscured the emotional content that creates tension within the moral issue and gives it dramatic appearance. The pressure of ‘what should I do’ is a powerful screen that shields our emotions from being confronted in their fullness. Once the emotions are fully comprehended, the drama of the dilemma tends to fade away. The register of emotions, once complete, often provides a clear way towards the solution, because the very identity of the emotions tend to clarify the relationships with others and the priorities in our own lives vis-à-vis these relationships, so that the options for action themselves are no longer the same.

A good example of this is the emotion of hatred. We live in a society which educates us that hatred is a socially unacceptable emotion, however natural it might be. Societies sanction ‘crimes of hatred’ more severely and attach a greater stigma to them than ‘ordinary crimes’. ‘Hate mongering’ is considered subversive whether it is engaged in between ethnic communities or between groups of schoolchildren. ‘Hate language’ is so highly politically incorrect that its use might prevent someone from gaining public office or even land a person in prison in some countries. Hate, in other words, is an almost taboo word in our modern culture. Unfortunately, as with most taboo words, this does not only mean that we learn not to hate, but often, more likely, we learn not to recognize hate when we feel it, and not to admit that we hate when we do recognize it. There are strong socially generated incentives for all of us not to consider hate as a possible authentic emotion, not to work with it, and not to express it almost under any circumstances. The more enhanced our social image is, the more reluctant and, consequently, unable we tend to become to recognize or express hate. Yet, however strange this might sound at first, hate, just like any other emotion, may be the solution to our moral dilemma.

A moral obligation that is felt towards someone whom we hate loses its force once we recognize the hate. This applies, for example, to people we used to be closely emotionally tied with, such as former partners, former friends or business associates. Societal expectations may require someone who has just split up with a partner to assist the partner in coping with career or family difficulties; they might place a pressure on the former spouse to provide support to the former partner in ways that cause anxiety in the spouse and generate strong psychological and somatic resistance. One might be forced to be nice to someone in ways which militate against one’s own well-being. The sense of moral obligation that is superimposed by the society, the projected image of a benevolent person that we are taught to strive to become can actually seriously debilitate one’s sense of satisfaction with one’s life and may endanger the very prospect of achieving the good life. The duties that are imposed on us, most of them internalized as our own apparent values, are the cause of much of the neurosis of the modern day. While people are often taught by psychotherapists that they should ‘release’ the frustration in various ways and try to achieve a situation where the duties no longer trouble them, more often than not this does not work. Realizing that we hate someone might be an emancipatory feeling, just as understanding that we suffer from an allergy to an external factor might save us hospital treatment of premature death. To do this we need to be able to access our register of emotions in an effective and reliable way which is sufficiently unhinged from the politically correct values that dominate our rational projections of value.

The same is the case with passions of physical attraction, fear or a sense of personal inadequacy. Any emotion, if it makes up the core of our authentic relationship to a moral issue, blocks the resolution of that issue and, when made explicit, unblock it. Given that emotions that we feel in the face of moral issues, at least in light of the sentimentalist account of virtues, point to the presence of absence of virtue, the ability to confront such emotions, especially when they are the negative emotions such as hatred, requires the same sincerity and realism that are required of us to be accurate judges of our own character.

In fact, the tension between the idea that the development of virtue requires a systematic cultivation of sensibilities through active self-coercion to do the right thing under the right circumstances is only a surface one. When one considers more closely how the process of moral self-improvement operates, it becomes clear that in order to plan and exert the effort to become a better person through self-discipline one must first be able to properly appraise one’s own virtue status. While I might desire to become a highly disciplined martial artist, my ability to progress towards that goal first depends on my ability to confront the fact that I am neither disciplined, nor a martial artist. If my current situation causes problems to me which impair my well-being, this, just like any other challenge, requires me first to adequately appraise my moral, emotional, psychological and physical status. Unless I am able to be aware of myself I am in a suboptimal position to proceed with resolving any serious ‘internal’ problem, whether it is a difficult decision to be made with conflicting priorities and loyalties, or a moral dilemma with regard to family, friends, the society at large, or myself. As a moral sentimentalist I am obliged not to stay with the mere recognition of my suboptimal moral status; my task is to work on the cultivation of virtues that constitute capacities for a good life as I see it, and at the same time for doing the right thing by others in as many different situations as possible. This does not mean that, simply because I have internalized the goal that I should become a malevolent person, I should not be able to recognize the fact that at any point in time I am (still) not a fully malevolent person. In other words, the fact that as a moral sentimentalist I believe that the ideal of moral virtue towards which I strive is one where I would no longer feel hatred, and would in fact find joy even in the making of sacrifices or suffering injustice (as is the case in Christian ethics), does not, nor should prevent me from seeking to understand the hatred that I (still) feel in a situation where this might be the core feeling that blocks me in the tracks in attempts to resolve a psychological or moral dilemma. I may not allow myself to act fully as hatred commands me to, but I will hardly be able to understand my own moral or psychological predicament unless I am able and willing to recognize my hatred. In this sense, synchronically, hatred might liberate me, while diachronically, as a moral sentimentalist, I may not remain with hatred. In other words, hatred may be incompatible with my moral goals in character development, yet it may not only exist in me, but also be the key to my being able to progress in addressing any specific moral situation that I might become stuck in during my life of self-development. The same is the case with any other emotion, positive or negative. After all, this is a familiar thing in psychotherapy: the presupposed ‘moral neutrality’ of psychotherapy is predicated exactly upon this insight, namely that a person suffering from unresolved issues might only be able to be helped if the moral judgement of her expression of the truth about her feelings is suspended.

The suspension of moral judgement is temporary and serves to assist the process of negotiating an existential crisis and/or giving expression of true emotions. Once such emotions are brought into the open they are subjected to moral critique in the context of the overall sentimentalist paradigm of moral improvement and self-development. Thus there is no contradiction in principle between adopting moral sentimentalism and arguing for techniques that suspend moral judgement in order to facilitate the expression of blocked emotions.


Exercise 1: The Tasks for Dreaming


One of the best ways for uncovering the authentic emotions that we harbor vis-à-vis certain existentially challenging situations, including moral dilemmas, is to allow our subconscious mind to manifest itself by loosening conscious controls at the edges of sleep. This means that the otherwise suppressed emotions are likely to surface when conscious controls weaken just before we fall asleep, and even more so just as we wake up. Sometimes, the early morning thoughts and feelings are the most direct manifestations of our authentic emotions and attitudes regarding things that preoccupy us.

This is an individual exercise which lasts at least a week, while preparations take another week. The exercise takes place after the counseling process has advanced to the point where the moral dilemma or similar problem has been clearly defined and articulated, and it has become clear that a rational consideration of options alone is insufficient to break the action impasse in the counselee.

Typically Tasks for Dreaming will be scheduled several months into the counseling process, after both the counselor and the counselee are satisfied that the core problem has been identified in a sufficiently articulate way. The counselor will have established the basic facts about the counselee’s personal circumstances in order to make an informed decision about the use of the Tasks for Dreaming exercise: if the counselor has small children, for example, looks after an elderly or frail family member, or has responsibilities that require her constant being available to others, then Tasks for Dreaming would not be the method of choice.

For those counselees who can organize themselves so as to spend a week alone, undisturbed and off work, and whose core issue or dilemma suggests that the release of blocked emotions might create inroads into the problem, Tasks for Dreaming is the right choice.

The exercise starts with a preparatory week when the counselor will schedule two or three sessions to inform the client about the exercise, and to help her clear up her agenda for the following week to free as much time as possible for meditation, contemplation and relaxation (staying at home, off work, preferably alone). At the conclusion of the final session in the preparatory week the counselee should start the exercise immediately, which means that the final session in the week before the exercise should be scheduled the day before or on the day the exercise is planned to begin.  The counselee will focus on writing a diary of emotions and thoughts with regard to the core problem whenever they arise (or become conscious) during the day, however each morning immediately after waking up and each evening immediately before going to sleep the counselee will consciously concentrate on the problem at hand and write whatever ideas or emotions one has or experiences at that time. The counselee will organize her week so as to try to maximize sleep without the aid of drugs. After a week of such regimen the counselee returns to the counseling session immediately (the very following day of the conclusion of the exercise week) with the diary prepared during the exercise.

If the initial week is insufficient — the counselee suffers disturbances, has problems concentrating, or just can’t fall asleep — the exercise is attempted the following month, and again until the goal is reached.

The task for the counselee is to articulate any emotions that arise in relation to the problem in the state of relaxation, particularly in the early mornings, to write these emotions and/or thoughts down, and thus compile a register of emotions that may well represent a broad spectrum of mutually contradictory feelings and ideas. These are the ideas that may well be quite different from the ones that arise in the short and intensely filled time-spans of counseling sessions where a rational exchange dominates the discourse between the counselor and the client.

Once the register of emotions is compiled, counseling sessions will resume and focus on the considerations of specific emotions and thoughts found in the register. Solutions are sought in the counselee’ s attitudes with regard to the results of the week spent in dreaming and contemplation. Experience has shown that people tend to change their behavior and approach to the problem after such intense periods of meditative searching inside, as deeply suppressed ‘solutions’ that prima facie seem socially or personally acceptable tend to resurface. Typically, these are changes that manifest themselves, e.g. in relationship issues, in decision to break a relationship or to simply accept things that seemed to be the main hurdles to the relationship in ways seemingly unlikely strictly rationally speaking. The reason for such changes is that the real emotions towards something that was defined rationally as a problem which needs a particular type of (philanthropic, constructive, ‘positive’ of ‘just’) solution tend to resurface and color the entire mindscape of the counselee’s decision-making on the issue, often leaving little real doubt as to what one should do.

One counselee who was subjected to the ‘Tasks of Dreaming’ method had suffered several years from an unresolved relationship with her husband. They had a child whom both loved dearly and did all in their power to protect him from the typical consequences of a divorce. The woman was unable to fully ‘let go’ of the ex-husband, although she did not want a renewed relationship with him because she was strongly repelled by his apparent values and what she saw as a complete lack of emotional, even personal integrity. She was also deeply put off by the company the husband was keeping and his affairs with women whom she considered to be totally incompatible with what would be considered ‘decent’. The husband had been involved in a criminal culture and much of his pre-married life had to do with serious crime and serious criminals on all levels of his personal life. Yet he had deceived her into believing that he had been a typical middle-class technocrat in search of a traditional family. Their relationship was thus a source of deep ambivalence for the counselee. She was trying to ‘understand’ the ex-husband by attempting to relate his actions and apparent values associated with such actions to her own, and this always landed her in even greater bewilderment and chronic stress. Years of counseling had facilitated only periods of temporary relief. The problem appeared to be truly chronic.

After the counselee had undergone the Tasks of Dreaming week, she came back to counseling unusually calm and decisive. ‘I think I have articulated what I feel for John. I simply hate him. I wish he would die suffering. He does not deserve to be alive.’ She made it very clear that she did not consider this to be in line with her Christian values, but was happy to formulate an emotional self-diagnosis at that particular stage in her life. She discontinued the practice of seeing her ex-husband every day, decreased telephone and messaging communication with him, and reduced time spent with their son (who was living with his father) to twice per week. She regained her interests, started on the way of regaining her health by returning to physical activity, and increased her productive work hours (as opposed to emailing and internet surfing). The problem, and the conflict between the two ex-spouses remained, however the moral conflict within the counselee was resolved, through in a way few would consider recommendable: she discovered that she hated the ex-husband and modeled her life according to this fact. She did not do anything to harm him, but the articulation of her negative emotions towards him helped her draw boundaries which allowed a healthier and more productive life for her. She was free to continue on her own way of self-development and, even more importantly, with her own emotional life. She soon lowered the intensity of the counseling and within a few months she asked for the sessions to end and she felt she no longer needed them. This came in the fourth year of acute suffering and intensive counseling with various professionals.


Exercise 2: Physical exhaustion (what can US Marine Corps training teach us about authenticity)


One of the basic tactics to mentally ‘engrain’ learned fighting techniques which require a combination of naturally programmed responses to threat and rationally constructed movements is simulating the conditions that bring the mind and body outside ‘the zone’ of optimal functioning by creating perceptual, physical and mental exhaustion. These are the physiological conditions that most closely resemble the physiology of body and mind under stress, when large quantities of adrenaline are ‘dumped’ into the bloodstream, resulting in a narrowing of vision, auditory exclusion and a ‘fight or flight’ state that makes only the basic movement by large muscle groups available to the brain. In military training, stressing the body through physical exertions simulates the fight or flight state that the body enters in an actual life threatening situation of combat, where, for example, small muscle movements such as those of fingers, hands or feet are simply cut off. The aim of military training is two-fold. First, it is to reduce the actual effects of the fight or flight state for soldiers by exposing them to similar physical conditions so often that their bodies and brains become partially accustomed to them. As for soldiers small muscle movements are crucial in battle (such as pulling a trigger), and the fight and flight state is known, for example, to seriously damage the eye-hand coordination (critical for aiming with a firearm), the military finds it imperative to develop techniques for soldiers to cope with the adrenaline rush. This aim is not directly relevant for dealing with emotions in our technique of Physical Exhaustion. However, the second aim of the military is directly relevant to our goal here.

The second goal of military training through exhaustion is to help answer the question of which fighting techniques are most compatible with the naturally programmed physical actions in the human being when under the stress of combat. This question is critical for two reasons. First, the more a fighting technique is in line with what the body would tend to do anyway, the less likely it is that the hundreds of hours spent learning this technique will be in vain, because in the real situation of threat the body will revert to its own ‘innate’ responses and simply ‘shut off’ any learned skills that are not supported by these innate reflexes. Secondly, the more compatibility there is between the natural and the learned skills, the less time, energy and effort is required to both develop and maintain these combat skills. Thus both reasons are entirely practical. The common assumption in both is that when body is brought to a suboptimal level of functionality through exhaustion it reveals things about what is ‘natural’ and in a sense ‘authentic’ that are far less obvious when the body is well fed, well rested and exercising in safe conditions. For example, a soldier exercising in a martial art in a sports club will without hesitation execute high kicks, sometimes with considerable success, even under the stress of competition. However, if the same soldier, in a real battlefield, wearing a helmet, 30 kilograms of equipment in the back pack, heavy boots and strapped with hard and awkwardly shaped weapons, on uneven or muddy terrain, attempts a high kick this will pretty much spell his death or serious injury. An accomplished martial artist under the comfortable and regulated conditions of training in the everyday life, if faced with real combat with suboptimal lighting, balance or information, is most likely to become a victim. This marks the difference between the martial arts and combat training. In combat training, only physical skills that are realistic in suboptimal conditions physically, mentally and environmentally, are learned. These skills may be completely useless in a martial arts competition, just as the competitive skills may be fatally useless in real combat.

The same logic applied by the military holds for emotions when we are faced with serious crises. Such crises drain our energy gradually, but when we are rested and fit we are usually able to manage and control the emotions that give rise to the issues at hand. However, when we reach the breaking point after long periods of containing such emotions, and this usually coincides with a compromised physical health, the emotions erupt with all their force and may overwhelm our personal coping skills and resources.

The exercise Physical Exhaustion consists in the counselee’s exposure to intensive physical effort (running, doing repetitive strength exercises, lifting weights, or punching a heavy bag) for repetitive albeit brief periods (‘bursts’ of activity), such as, for example, 2 minutes of intensive running or hitting a heavy bag, followed by one-minute rest, followed by 3 minutes of abdominal crunches, followed by one minute rest, followed by 4 minutes of riding a stationary bicycle.

The exercise is performed in the presence of counselor, for two reasons. First, the counselor must be there to ‘take the anamnesis’ from the counselee immediately after the exercise, because the counselee herself would not be able to concentrate on the moral dilemma or emotional issue at hand, articulate the thoughts and emotions, or write them down under the stress of the exercise. Secondly, the counselor is there to appraise the value of the emotions expressed and the actual evaluation of the problem by the counselee when she is out of breath, low on energy and triple or quadruple the resting heart rate. The assumption of the exercise is that the ‘base’ response by the person stripped of the coping resources she has developed under the everyday circumstances will shed light of the ‘naturally programmed’ emotional responses that the person harbors towards the problem, of which she may likely not be aware under ordinary conditions. Again the emotional register uncovered through the exercise is discussed in regular counseling sessions later on. Unlike the Tasks for Dreaming, Physical Exhaustion tends to reveal relatively few emotions, which, more often than not, include emotions of ‘letting go’ or indifference to things that might seriously upset the person under regular conditions. The counseling process tends to take some time after this exercise, because the final form in which the person is likely to accept the core emotions expressed through the exercise tends to differ from their barren form during the exercise; some refinement is usually required through additional counseling. In this sense, Physical Exhaustion sometimes provides less direct solutions to the dilemma that the Tasks for Dreaming, however it is easier to organize and conduct, because it requires fewer pre-requisites and much less time.