Mood balloons

Photography: Amy Elyse Stringer, London

Photography: Amy Elyse Stringer, London

A floating ascent, a drifting, a lifting and a releasing of the emotional ethers; something of this occurs within us perpetually. The inflation and deflation of mood balloons is a necessary concomitant to sensory contacts. Such balloons may be breathed into life by a trace of some abstracted thought, by a triggered memory, by a bodily sensation of pleasure or pain, by a taste, a scent, a sound. Or they can be inspired by the cyclical rhythms of our bodies, by lunar phases, or by a poignant anniversary perhaps. Many are the ways for a ballooning of our moods.

And yet we identify some as ‘being moody’, or others perhaps as ‘coolly self-possessed’. This is to misunderstand the ubiquitous nature of moods and mental states generally, both of which engage ceaselessly in the conditioned and conditioning interplay of human sentience. The confusion comes about in the conflation of the tonal qualities of psychical states with our habituated responses to them. Another way of expressing this is in terms of the degree to which we indulge our mental tonalities; the extent to which the self-entity inhabits our mood balloons.

All of that which is under discussion here applies to the healthy individual; and it must be accepted that clinical states of depression, anxiety or morbidity are issues of a different order, and which may well need addressing with the aid of medication, talking therapies, or both. Still, there are many instances of normatively healthy people who seek to deny free expression to their moods and mental states, instead choosing to view them as somehow indulgent displays of solipsistic self-concern. Here, we see a defensive response to any inflation of mood.

Elsewhere, it’s often erroneously thought that the psychologically mature, or those spiritually advanced, exhibit an equanimous repose in the face of emotively charged situations. Whilst it is so that, at a certain point in our development, we may gravitate towards a philosophising disposal of the effects of genuine adversity and elation, this is something of an intermediate stage of our maturation. It is the region within which awareness of our internal response mechanisms is sharply honed and perspicacious, and yet balanced too much in favour of this objectivity.

Once equilibrium is gained between our understanding and whatever situation we are faced with, then the biasing towards objectivity recedes and we ‘become the situation’, so to speak. Rather than maintaining an aloof and dryly intellectualised witnessing, which is false, we observe with an exquisite intimacy. Here then, for example, tears may flow freely in the presence of others’ suffering. The mood balloon inflates rapidly and is met with no resistance from the intellect as emotions are hoisted aloft, so allowing complete engagement with life, ourselves and others.

What does not recur in this more balanced scenario is any self-induced perpetuation of moods or states of mind. And it is by just those means that the ballooning of moods becomes challenging, causing distress, anxiety and so forth. The self-entity interjects with the idea ‘now I am this; and so it is that I suffer’. So there’s a becoming here that, whilst not in fact actual, grants an immersive quality to such unpleasant states. In identifying with emotions in selfhood, our awareness is hijacked and engulfed in a draining, cyclical vortex of perpetuation and indulgence.

What then, is the wiser response to any perfectly natural occurrence of mood balloons? One answer consists in a passively non-resistant mode of observation; this means not exerting a controlling influence which merely sustains our sense of selfhood and so with it any mood balloon. It’s not easy to passively allow deeply negative feelings to exist, as the urge is to obliterate them by means either of conflict or distraction; and whilst this may have some limited efficacy, it’s no long-term curative, at best serving only as a partial expedient – a head-in-the-sand approach.

So much of our angst is perpetuated in the identification of selfhood with emotions; as if believing, quite literally, that ‘I am in a mood’. No mood contains any ‘self of me’, nor can it ever. Yet understanding this intellectually alone no more than partially ameliorates negative feelings. Dwelling in contentedness amidst our mood balloons requires insight into our illusory self-construct and disentangling conditioned responses from arisen feelings. From here, concerns are allayed as to their inflation; we see them as natural colourings of our airspace, and all is well. Pop!

Inexplicable tensions in family life

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney

Have you noticed how family life can sometimes appear irrationally conflicted? What I mean by this is a recurrence of largely inexplicable tensions between particular members of the clan that remain an enigma even to close observers. Experiences within my own family once led me to ponder this awkwardness, yet the problem’s ubiquity is indisputable. Within other families I’ve known in the past, there’s frequently been some seemingly unresolvable conflict gnawing away through the years and which seldom appeared reducible to any clearly justifiable cause.

The realisation of a natural harmony within family life appears widely elusive; naïve received notions and childhood conditionings perhaps having led us to err in our assumptions. We invariably pursue this chimera of familial amity in the early years of partnerships, believing that harmony will surely prevail amongst our projected future family. Any other approach would be odd in any case, leading to frictions between procreative urges and any realistic appraisal of our future emotional disturbances. But what’s the rationale for this leap of faith?

We might say that it’s no more than the same biological impulsion that serves as our surrogate reasoning – a natural ordering of priorities in which our psychological well-being is subordinated to the overriding procreative desire. This then, is a satisfactory enough explanation for later tensions between partners – maybe we weren’t as compatible with our beloved as we once convinced ourselves we were. The stress of proximity now creates conflict where once there was none; we’ve laid bare the painful truth, no longer able to deny the loosening ties of love.

Yet what of those situations that seem not at all uncommon, in which non-spousal family pairings appear irrationally conflicted? We needn’t presuppose any particular harmony between say, mother and son, or between siblings – there could instead simply be an indifference. And yet time and again we see an inexplicable tension between such pairings, one which rarely finds a resolution. Whilst both involved express their justifications for the conflict with a passion (and often an inconsistency), they invariably appear illogical to any witness – it just doesn’t stack up.

These irrational displays of conflict often have their genesis in childhood rivalries, when attempts are made to assert individuality, and hence particular needs. There’s an aggressive effort to establish the significance of our personal identity, to impose our unique (and needy), self-construct. Elder siblings typically initiate aggressive postures with new arrivals, a pattern which endures for decades once established. These attention-seeking strategies adopted in childhood continue to be used in maturity yet purely as the egocentric validations of the elder siblings.

These same strategies can also spill out into the wider family dynamics as the first born in particular continues to assert their needs. Not content with establishing their dominance over younger sister(s) and/or brother(s), the eldest offspring may also impose their self-centredness by asserting superiority over the parents too. They may for example claim to occupy ground not held by them – a broader intellectual terrain, a variety of life experience never accessible to the parents, or the moral high ground. This all creates suppressed tensions and conflict of course.

So whilst these problems arise from childhood conditioning, the sense of self is equally causal. The attention-seeking child develops a strong sense of their autonomy in which later they come to disregard their familial inter-dependence. They see the world and those who occupy it, including their own families, as resources whose worth or relevance requires calculation. Because of this, they may then unwittingly accommodate an insensitive judgementalism towards other family members, having deemed them largely superfluous to their needs.

Unsurprisingly, any family member acting in such a self-centred way will subject the rest to unwelcome stresses, and inevitably this leads to conflict. The aggression borne of childhood rivalries turns full circle and rebounds on itself. The self-centred adult, who first imposed their aggressions on family in childhood, now reaps the consequences in maturity. The effect is that everyone feels uncertain about the psychological terrain of the family; there’s an absence of trust that even mundane differences won’t give rise to suppressed or overt tensions.

As these subtle and hidden dynamics play out through the family over time, accommodations are often made so as to limit the frequency of the conflict. If not this, then the entire situation implodes and the chief culprit is largely exiled – tolerated at a distance but no more than that. The accommodations, when made, are largely suffered in silence by those making them – they tolerate the self-centred attention-seeker up to a point. This appeasing approach is useful only in that it maintains a superficial harmony; as an alternative, we can engage in open dialogue.

This is a risky strategy, yet one which occasionally may have to be made. It’s best done forcefully and unambiguously, as the main protagonist will deny any complicity in the problem. Following the denial, they may then progressively take the message on board, yet only sub-consciously. On the surface, the denial is sustained, with an over-weaning and disingenuous reasonableness being displayed in attempts to assure others of innocence. Yet all the while a slow absorption of the message occurs, and to which any truly mature adult must eventually respond.