Friday, July 12, 2013

Literature and Emotional Intelligence: Part I

Reading for Awareness

What is Emotional Intelligence? (And Why You Should Care)

Here is a definition of Emotional Intelligence by three psychologists:

We define EI as the capacity to reason about emotions, and of emotions to enhance thinking. It includes the abilities to accurately perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.[i]

Here is another definition by the same team:

Emotional Intelligence refers to an ability to recognize the meanings of emotion and their relationships, and to reason and problem-solve on the basis of them. Emotional Intelligence is involved in the capacity to perceive emotions, assimilate emotion-related feelings, understand the information of those emotions, and manage them.[ii]

According to these two definitions, Emotional Intelligence involves an interplay of cognition and emotion. EI involves a beneficial interaction of thinking and feeling. That interaction helps its possessor gain greater self-awareness. The best stripped-down definition of Emotional Intelligence is:

EI = the beneficial interplay of cognition and emotion.

Yet many streams of ancient philosophy and wisdom writing, from the East as well as the West, have viewed the emotions in a negative light, maintaining that they are distracting, and as such, should be separated from cognition. In his commentary on the Brahmasūtras, Hindu sage Śakara makes it clear that the emotions present the main obstacle to the realization of the true self (ātman).

Here we see a wide divergence between philosophy and literature. For contemplatives from the Stoics in the West to Classical Indian philosophers Gautama, Śamkara and Patañjali, to the Buddhist sages, have regarded the emotions as disturbing, even dangerous. Yet these same emotions are the stuff of which literature is made. Drama enacts the emotions, lyric poetry describes them, and the novel uses them to portray character. Watching a play, reading literature, learning poems “by heart” – all involve the interaction of emotion and cognition. Yes, the definition of EI.

Daniel Goleman popularized the term “Emotional Intelligence,” which he used to describe notable results of psychological research on measurable emotional aptitudes. Psychometric testing in the 1990s established that Emotional Intelligence satisfied traditional standards for an intelligence. However, the concepts underlying the newly enshrined intelligence – concepts like self-awareness, self-cultivation, and self-mastery – pre-dated psychologists’ recognition of EI by thousands of years.

Today, Emotional Intelligence is a topic of academic study; it is taught in colleges and in corporate seminars. At Google, the common space occupied by the tenets of Emotional Intelligence and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness is the basis of a corporate leadership course taught by Chade-Meng Tan, meditation leader and author of Search Inside Yourself.

Outside of EI training and meditation, are there other effective ways of reasoning about and understanding the emotions?

Beyond the various curricula for teaching Emotional Intelligence, are there other cultural avenues leading to better self-understanding?  What about literature? Can one gain greater self-awareness, not necessarily from a formal study of literature, but simply by reading it?

Why Should I Care?

Improving your EI might make you better at your job. It might make you more money. It might make you into a leader. Most people only need one reason though. Improving your Emotional Intelligence will make you happier.

Can we gain greater self-awareness, not necessarily from a formal study of literature, but simply from reading good books?

From the beginning of recorded history, philosophy has given the emotions a bad rap. In the Yogasutras, Patañjali emphasizes the importance of clearing the mind of all disturbing influences, including the emotions. The sage lists some of the afflictions (kleśas) that disturb the mind: ignorance, egotism, aversion, attachment.

While some of the listed afflictions may sound abstract, attachment and aversion comprise the more recognizable emotions love and hate: perhaps the two most familiar emotions. These feeling categories have a specific role within Patañjali’s system as they do within other systems of Classical Indian Philosophy. Attachment, in particular, is regarded as an obstacle to enlightenment as it binds the subject to the material world.

Like attachment and aversion, afflictions such as ignorance (avidyā) and egotism (asmitā) may be cleared from the mind by following Patañjali’s exercises (temporarily cleared, one presumes: the exercises must be repeated). But perhaps the goal of detachment can be achieved in other ways.

This leads to the question: is there a role here for analysis? [Granted that the goal is not necessarily to follow Patañjali’s philosophy, but to follow it insofar as one is in agreement, it is not difficult to be persuaded that ignorance and egotism cloud the mind.]

But how best to detach oneself/ one’s mind, from these afflictions? In the case of egotism especially, because it leads to so many errors of perception, it seems plausible that analysis may play an important role. How best to achieve an analysis of ignorance and egotism? Are we all to become philosophers? (Unlikely.) Shall we subject our egos to analysis on the psychoanalyst’s couch? (Impracticable.)

Fortunately, there is another possibility. Read literature. For the afflictions on Patañjali’s list, as on the lists of many a classical philosopher, are those humors, or vices that are the targets of satire, from Aristophanes to Molière to Oscar Wilde. Whether they are called afflictions or vices or sins, these scourges of humankind are all given emotional expression. Aristophanes skewered the vices of his countrymen, from academicians to war profiteers. Molière wrote entire plays dramatizing vices like greed (The Miser) and misanthropy (The Misanthrope). And Wilde demonstrated the illusory faces of love and reputation in The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and An Ideal Husband. If you have the chance, see the play – that is as good if not better than reading it. Beyond the great satirical plays, there are satirical novels: the rapier wit of Evelyn Waugh, the scathing, and contemporary, What a Carve-Up! by Jonathan Coe.

Analysis doesn’t have to be forensic to be effective, though, especially if the goal is to achieve a certain degree of mental distance from the vices that afflict us. Gentler than satire but just as perspicacious are novels of comic realism.

Sāmkhya-Yoga distinguishes between truthful and non-truthful cognition (vijñāna).
Non-truthful cognition – thinking that doesn’t accord with reality – is classified as ignorance. Ignorance is seen as the root of all afflictions.

How best to understand this blending of cognitive error with affliction – the view that all afflictions are due to false knowledge? (Patañjali, the Yogasūtras.)

Ask Emma.

Jane Austen’s Emma, the main character of the novel of that name, may be benighted, but her steep learning curve towards the end of the story becomes our steep learning curve, and is happily mastered. For Emma, a character with whom we easily identify, is intelligent and humble enough to learn from her missteps. Her insight, then, becomes our insight.

Beset by the distorting influence of her own egotism, and by an ignorance of others’ intentions, Emma has misdirected her stratagems and her affections. (I will try not to spoil so great a novel as Emma by belaboring any parallels between Emma’s afflictions and those enumerated by the Sāmkhya-Yoga philosophers.) At the point in the story when Emma’s cumulative errors have built to a crisis, the author’s disapproval of her heroine is synonymous with the disapprobation that Emma directs towards herself:

With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody’s destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken: and she had not quite done nothing, for she had done mischief.  (Emma, Penguin 1966, p 402)

With these ringing words Austen presents us with a summary of the effects of vanity and arrogance on judgment. As the sage said, “All afflictions are due to false knowledge (avidyā), and can be destroyed by right knowledge.” (Sinha, J. 1985, Indian Psychology, vol. 2, Emotion and Will, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.) So far we can agree.

The destruction of affliction, or preferably the correction of error in Emma and in the reader, is however, please note! an emotional experience. If Austen calls Emma’s beliefs and intentions “insufferable” and “unpardonable,” we can be pretty sure that Emma is feeling chastened and chagrined. And we feel for Emma. But not too much. For Austen’s comedy of manners provides just the right degree of detachment, allowing our amusement at Emma’s folly at the same time that we sympathize.

Brilliant! But Jane Austen isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Is reading literature, then, a mainstream means of gaining Emotional Intelligence?

How Basic is the Link between Emotions and Narrative?

End of Part One: To Be Continued 

Link to Part Two:

copy and paste:

[i] John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey, David R. Caruso ‘Emotional Intelligence: Theory, Findings, and Implications’ Psychological Inquiry 2004 vol. 15 no. 3 pp. 197-215.
[ii] John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey, David R. Caruso ‘Emotional Intelligence Meets Traditional Standards for an Intelligence’ Intelligence 27 (4), 2000 pp. 267-298.

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