Recovering the Capacity to Feel
How do you feel at the moment? Happy? Sad?Angry, Bored? Guilty? Whatever you feel is totally OK.
Do we actually know how to feel?
Emotions and feelings are inseparable from our existence as human beings. We come with them already inbuilt and they colour our experience of life from day one. For such a pervasive and integral aspect of our lives, it is amazing how little we acknowledge value, respect and understand emotions. It is very rare to actually allow our feelings to just be as they are and to pay attention to them.
I came back to my work in late January feeling out of sorts. There were feelings of boredom, sadness and uneasiness. Overall I felt depressed. I noticed the tendency to want to sort the situation out, to find out what was either causing it or to simply run away from the emotions. I thought there was something wrong with me, that I shouldn’t be feeling this way, that somehow I was doing something wrong. I have often felt like this when experiencing so called ‘negative’ emotions.
Feelings are often just ignored.
In our culture feelings and emotions are largely ignored, actively avoided, seen as problematical or set up as something to achieve (e.g. happiness). I have found that even in so called spiritual circles emotions can be ignored or demonised. I have met meditators and meditation teachers who talk about not ‘indulging’ ones feelings. The emotional landscape gets seen as a hindrance, something to be ignored or overcome.
Feelings often scare us.
It seems that these common reactions to emotions are largely based on fear. Emotions take us by surprise; they appear to arise suddenly, out of nothing. Just as quickly as we can be feeling happy and joyful, we can feel angry, or depressed. We clearly can’t control or choose our emotions. If we did, we would just choose to be ‘happy all the time’ right?
Feelings and emotions are clear indications that despite the illusion (and our wish for the contrary), our lives are out of control. This lack of control can be scary! Because we don’t like the feeling we are not in charge and running the show, we desperately try and seek a remedy, a way to control and contain our emotions. We either try to ‘control’ them or we push them away and ignore them.
Are emotions really ‘positive’ or ‘negative’?
In seeking to control emotions, we divide them up in to ‘healthy’ or ‘positive’ emotions and ‘negative’ or ‘unhealthy’ emotions. Unsurprisingly the emotions we deem to be positive and healthy actually feel good (joy, happiness) whilst those we deem unhealthy or negative (anger, sadness, shame, guilt) feel uncomfortable or unpleasant. Experiencing negative emotions can even be taken as a sign of personal failure, like we ‘should’ only experience positive emotions. If you are feeling sad or angry, it can be seen as somehow ‘wrong’. The implication or sense can be that you have done something wrong or you should not actually feel that way. This divisiveness sets up the scene for trying to “get” positive emotions and to eliminate negative emotions. Hmmmm – I don’t know about you, but that has never worked for me.
Moving beyond our ideas of emotions.
What if our ideas that emotions should be a certain way, was way off the mark? What if the idea of ‘good/positive’ and ‘bad/negative’ emotions was entirely made up? What if emotions and feelings should be exactly as they are? What if they were neither good nor bad, positive nor negative, but just shades, waxings and wanings of energy, tone with associated physical expressions?
Emotions as weather.
What if emotions and feelings were as impersonal as the weather? Naturally moving, changing according to its own nature? Just as we don’t think that a rainy day is a personal failure, should we really think that feeling sad, angry or ashamed is a personal failure? Just as it would be ludicrous to live life in pursuit of trying to make the sun shine all the time, is it equally ludicrous living life striving to be happy (or any particular emotion) all the time?
Being with feeling.
When I recently felt sad, depressed and uneasy I decided to be with these feelings as much as possible. I actually felt the feelings. In particular I explored how the feelings were in my body. From a physical point of view there was an agitation in my body and a vague feeling of discomfort. There was often tightness in my chest and stomach. It didn’t feel pleasant and I didn’t like it, that was clear!
No wonder I often run away from such sensations, distracting myself with work, chocolate, alcohol or sex. In this case, as much as I could, I just noticed how I wanted to resist the feelings and how they created certain stories in my mind (the primary one being that there was something wrong with me and something needed to be fixed).
I allowed the emotions and feelings to be there. To expand, to contract – to do their thing. Interestingly enough, this investigation made the feelings easier to be with. There was something fresh, alive and vibrant mixed in with the feelings of unease that was actually, truly OK. There was a clear till point or sanctuary within even the difficult physical and emotional sensations.
An inherent OKness.
The more I focussed on being with whatever was arising and feeling in to it, the more the still point expanded and seemed to embrace or hold my whole experience. It felt very warm, embracing and loving. The changing and difficult emotions seemed to be held by a wider experience of OKness, acceptance and love. There was a sense that all the emotions, sensations and even thoughts, my entire experience were emerging from this holding.
Underneath any perception and any judgement, a deeper reality was touched in to which seems to be always there and also always available, as long as I am available. Availability in this case being the willingness to encounter the truth of what was actually going on for me, the willingness to be with my emptions, feelings and accept them for what they were, as they were.
A healthy meditation practice embraces emotions and feelings.
In a healthy meditation practice we can meet our emotions and feelings with ease. We don’t avoid or turn away from them. We don’t ‘transcend’ them. We encounter them, we explore them, we relate to them. In this relationship the emotions are allowed to be there, they are allowed to grow, to change, and to shift to blossom. And in their blossoming, they like all things change.
When you notice a certain feeling or emotion, explore it. Notice any judgement you may have about the emotion (is it a so called positive or good emotion) or is a so called ‘negative or bad emotion’. Notice the judgment and then feel the feeling. What is it like in your body? Are you contracted, open? How ids you head, how is your stomach. How is your breathing? Can you feel deeply in to the emotion? What is there? Does it stay static, does it change. What is the flavour of the emotion? What dialogue arises with the emotion (I feel this way because….). Hang in there and see what happens.
Keeping it real.
The idea (and that is all it is) that emotions are good or bad or have to be got rid of or even ‘worked with’ is just an idea. Encounter the reality of the situation. Here. Now. What is REALLY going on? Move from the concept and the history to her and now in the present moment. Watch what happens. See how it all plays out.
“If we really want to live a full life, both the ancient tradition of Buddhism and the modern one of psychotherapy tell us that we must recover the capacity to feel. Avoiding emotions will only wall us off from our true selves–in fact; there can be no wholeness without an integration of feelings. Both traditions have discovered that the way to plumb the full depths of our emotional being is by letting ourselves go, by surrendering to who we really are. And both traditions understand that we need a state of reverie in order to know our emotions. Whether that reverie comes through meditation or the quiet holding space of therapy, it is always necessary.”
~Mark Epstein Quote extracted from an article called, The Buddha Goes to Therapy, that appeared in the magazine Psychology Today.