Monday, July 27, 2015

Inside Out and Discernment

By Julie and Santiago Rodriguez

Anger is talking, but Joy won't shut up. Disgust has something to say, but it is hard to hear with Fear yelling in the back. Meanwhile, Sadness is moaning and moping around. It is a scene from Pixar's Inside Out, the film about how five emotions manifest themselves in the life of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. The scene is also one we're quite familiar with. Often, we experience a mixture of many emotions – thoughts, feelings and desires collide, and it is hard to make sense out of things.

In those moments, to get in touch with what is happening in our minds and hearts, it would be good to remember the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits of St. Ignatius Loyola. For Ignatius, discernment is the interpretation of the motions of the soul, or our inner movements: thoughts, feelings, desires, and imaginings. The Rules help us to become aware of our inner movements, to understand them, and to take action. Inside Out does a magnificent job at portraying the inner life of a girl thus inviting us to beware of our own inner life.

Discernment is an art; a way to find ourselves and to lose ourselves at the same time. It is a way to discover the inner workings of our minds and hearts, and to lift them up to God. At times, it might seem that our inner movements disrupt our intention to lead a good and efficient life, and to walk humbly with God. Yet, when we pay attention to the motions of our souls we recognize that they help us organize – not disrupt – our perceptions, memories, and lives.

Discernment begins with awareness of our inner life. Thoughts are meant to be thought. Feelings to be felt. Desires to be used as inspiration. Imaginings to be contemplated. For this, an exercise like the examen of consciousness can be very helpful. It is very beneficial to regularly examine our inner life: to sit in the stillness of the early morning with a cup of coffee or in the evening hours with a cup of tea to notice the thoughts we had during the day and where they led us, to acknowledge our feelings and how they shaped our perception of the world this day, and to consider our desires and imaginings and how they helped us express ourselves and to respond to others. Discernment helps us to understand whether our inner movements come from the good spirit – and they lead us to God – or instead come from the evil spirit – and they lead us away from God. Without this awareness and understanding, our decision-making process will always be off-target.
The examen of consciousness is a prayerful way to notice the beautifully rich experience of all our emotions – particularly joy and sadness. Henri Nouwen best characterizes the twin emotions, “joy and sorrow are no longer each other's opposites, but have become the two sides of the same desire to grow to the fullness of the Beloved.” Sadness and joy are powerful emotions and together they give rich meaning to our lives. Unfortunately, we are often conditioned to believe that we are supposed to be always happy and never sad. Society demands that we do everything in our power to make ourselves happy.

This is illustrated in the film through the struggle between Joy and Sadness. Joy is the peppy and charismatic leader. Sadness is portrayed as off-putting and literally a drag. Joy – and to some degree the other emotions – is obsessed with making sure Riley is happy. Everything becomes contingent on that. Joy perceived Sadness to be a threat to Riley's well-being because Sadness affected the core memories that power and shape personality. Instead of paying close attention to Riley's complex emotions and allowing her to experience sorrow, Joy shuns and isolates Sadness.

When an important emotion like sorrow is repressed, bad things are bound to happen. In the film, bad things indeed happened: when things don't seem to go well for Riley, Joy and Sadness scrambled to take control of the situation and inadvertently got sucked out into the memory bank. Depression ensues as Riley and Sadness are unable to stand up against the forces that drag them down. In Riley's case, the family's move from Minnesota to California, and for Sadness her isolation and self-blame.

Contrary to our conditioning, repressing our emotions is not the norm and instead it is harmful. Repression dulls the awareness of the inner movements. It hinders true discernment, and leads to a crippled sense of reality and an inability to empathize. We all want the good life, but thinking that the good life is all about “happily ever after” is an illusion. The good life is about embracing all the joys and sorrows of life and cultivating gratitude for them. We need to beware of and to honor all our inner movements. In the film, it's not until Joy finally opens her eyes to Sadness and validates her value that things begin to turn around for the better.

Discernment is not about finding happiness. It is about finding ourselves and seeking God. It is about pondering our inner movements without negative judgment and prejudice. It is only when we turn our attention to our thoughts and feelings without trying to hold onto them or to rule over them that we recognize God laboring within us. This leads to emotional and spiritual well-being.

Anger is talking, but Joy won't shut up. Disgust has something to say, but it's hard to hear with Fear yelling in the back. Sadness has a word to share, an ear to listen, and an invitation to cry. And it's all good. Every emotion is vital. Every inner movement is valid. Awareness of the motions of our soul help us lift our minds and hearts to God and to offer him our lives from the inside out.

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