Emotional Intelligence versus Emotional Seizures

I have been intellectually impressed for years with G. I. Gurdjieff’s claim that we have three distinct types of “intelligence,” namely our intellectual mind, what we usually think of as intelligence, our emotional mind, and our bodily-instinctive mind.  I say intellectually impressed, because for many years this was primarily a set of ideas for me, not something I had a really deep understanding of.  Gurdjieff claimed that much of the suffering of human life comes from the fact that these three types of intelligence are not all trained to function well.  Rather, one of them is overemphasized -verbal intelligence, in my case – and the other two are left undeveloped and, I would add from my psychological perspective, in a fairly neurotic state.

One of the first ways this became clear to me was when I began training in the Japanese martial art of Aikido back in the 1970s.  I had been impressed with a demonstration of the art, and invited a black belt instructor, Alan Grow, to come to UC Davis twice a week to give instructions.  I started a student club, of which I was faculty adviser, to justify getting space on the mats in the gymnasium for this.

To my surprise and consternation, I could immediately “explain” Aikido far better than my black belt instructor.  As I would later put it, I had a “Black Belt in Talking” by the time I was twelve!  That’s an amusing way of saying I was very glib.  But while I could verbally explain Aikido better than my instructor, I couldn’t do anything, whereas he could toss me across the mat with what seemed a flick of his wrist.  It took me several years to learn how to learn in a different way.  What was required for Aikido was body-instinctive intelligence, not intellectual, verbal intelligence.  Eventually I learn to pay attention from my body, as it were, and actually begin to really grasp what Aikido is about.

Emotions were even more difficult, as, like most people, when an emotion arose it tended to hijack all of my consciousness, and then make all my perceptions and thoughts centered around and reinforcing that emotion.  If something had aroused a fear response in me, for example, I saw things as more threatening than they probably were, I had thoughts about other times I was afraid, and, of course, my body sensations reinforced the fear.  A fearful stimulus that may have lasted only a few seconds produced a self-reinforcing reaction that could go on for minutes or hours.

I engaged in many personal growth activities in the 70s, 80s and 90s, aspects of the Humanistic Psychology movement as well as a spiritual quest, and gradually learn more about what my emotions were and to be accepting of them.

I would not claim to have become particularly emotionally intelligent, but at least I was no longer really dumb and neurotic about emotions, and, similarly, because of Aikido training and meditation training later, I became more aware of what my body-instinctive intelligence was telling me at a particular time.

This morning I had a particularly clear example of how emotions ought to work when they are reasonably intelligent, rather than undeveloped or neurotic.  My wife Judy and I were having a silly quarrel on a topic we’ve had silly quarrels about many times over the years, and she mentioned that if she died before I did, I wouldn’t have to do the things she expected me to do.  I responded, from an intellectual stance, that this was indeed true, but, on balance, the gains from this would be nothing compared to the loss of her.  To my astonishment, before I could finish that sentence I was all choked up and crying!  And a few seconds later, it was all over!  My emotional intelligence had risen and taken over my consciousness, reminded me of what was really important in my life, and, having perceived that I got the message, had then become quiet again.

This is my understanding of what Gurdjieff had to say about the intelligent way for emotions to function.  Emotions give you a different perspective on situations than intellect or body-instinctual intelligence, they come on powerfully to make sure you notice that perspective, and then, if you’ve got it, they quickly cease.  On the other hand, undeveloped emotions not only force a message on you, they kick off associations to all sorts of things that have ever felt like this, and you could easily have what I’ve called in the title of this note, “emotional seizures.”  That is, instead of you getting the message right away, so you can act more appropriately, you go on and on with the emotion kicking off thoughts which reinforce the emotion which generate appropriate body sensations which kickoff more related thoughts which reinforce the emotion, on and on and on.  Your mind is seized!  Modern neurological research about emotions talk about how the emotional part of the brain “hijacks” the thinking part.

This is not to say that there are no long-lasting emotions which are useful, necessary and realistic.  Some aspects of life require long consideration, emotionally as well as intellectually and bodily-instinctively.  But most ordinary emotions, when they become intelligent, can indeed, from Gurdjieff’s perspective, only last a few seconds, just long enough for you to get that message clearly.

It amazed me that in less the second I became so deeply emotional and was crying, and that it was all over a few seconds later.  But I’m glad to have had this very clear example to share some of my understanding about the nature of personal and spiritual growth, and hope this might be useful to others someday.

These ideas will seem quite sensible and have practical implications when you are in a calm state, and probably be forgotten when a strong emotion takes over: it happens to me that way a lot.  A strong emotion screams “This is the Truth, you feel it, it’s Real!!!”  When that happens I try to note what the actual message of the emotion is and also remember about emotional hijack.  It’s like a very loud alarm siren is shrieking and it’s hard to think, but don’t feel too bad about yourself during that alarm….


  1. I like this bit of data, that there are different types of intelligence. It seems everyone is a different mix, and that is part of what makes us interesting and unique as people.

    I am probably more intellectually intelligent, very low emotionally intelligent, and moderately physically intelligent. This makes others with their own blend seem so different even though the same species! For example the stereotype “jock”, or “woman”, as examples of physical and emotional intelligence.

    I fully understand the “emotional hijack” notion! Perhaps now that I have noticed and had the idea of various intelligences reinforced, I will raise by triangular IQ?


    1. I wish just intellectually getting the idea of different kinds of intelligence was enough to develop those other kinds! But you have to work at each of them on their own terms. But it certainly helps to intellectually know, that way intellect can remind itself “Hey, I’m not the only thinker on the block and it’s silly of me to automatically reject any other opinions….”

      1. I was at a public meeting for Gangaji where she said something that had a profound effect on me, which I will paraphrase as “find what you fear, go to the center of it and see what is there”.

        In relation to these different types of intelligence, I could think of the ones I am weak at as things I fear and as you say work at each of them, by inhabiting them and letting myself have the experience I “fear”.

        I think fear is a good word for it too, avoid, dismiss, ignore could be others, but at the base of it is fear.

        Being mobile in how one sees the world and in how one presents oneself to the world for experience, not firmly attached, would seem a good thing!


        1. “find what you fear, go to the center of it and see what is there”.”
          Good advice. I would add that you should find skillful ways of doing it, ways that work for you. Sometimes just trying to confront some emotion can increase its intensity and your confusion. Vipassana type meditative skills can increase concentration and equanimity, so allowing you to see compounded aspects of a feeling more clearly and so deal with them. There’s stuff on Shinzen Young’s websites on doing this that can be helpful.

          1. Thank you for the link to Shinzen Young, I am going to do a 10day course later this year. Sort of scared as I have heard it is intense, but excited too!

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