Why should we feel our emotions?

Without judging it as right or wrong, the fact is that when we avoid feeling or accepting our emotions, they don’t truly go away. They persist in some form. By avoiding the emotion, we are actually reacting to the emotion and training ourselves to react again and again in future.

If we avoid feeling sad, we respond to the emotion of sadness with an action of avoidance. But the emotion of sadness is itself a natural response to a situation we perceive as bad. By adding avoidance actions, we inject noise and distraction into whatever would naturally arise in us as the sadness progressed. The energy of the sadness is redirected into other actions and responses.

And the truth is that holistically we don’t know the role and repercussions of our emotional response. We have this urge to displace the sadness without knowing what the sadness really is, or what it is doing, or what other processes it is setting in motion.

For one thing, avoiding the sadness means we don’t really know it. One glimpse of sadness might be enough to know “I don’t like it!” But how big is it? How dark is it? Is it purely sad or is it also scared? Is it limited or is it extrapolating itself beyond the situation that evoked it in the first place?

Perhaps by analogy we could say that sadness is like physical pain. We could go straight to painkillers at the first hint of pain, but if we understand that pain is a sensation with depth and complexity and regions and variation, then we can gain knowledge and familiarity with the pain. We might even find that the pain is part of the healing process, that it brings us insights into how to live with and manage it, or that it inspires cures.

Going deeper still, we could say that an emotion such as sadness is not a response, but something our deeper self is creating as part of our reality. If we react against the reality our own deeper self is creating, then we are causing friction and conflict within us.

To be honest I don’t know if this is the correct answer or just another transient perspective along the way. But I like it because it gives greater respect and value to the feelings and emotions that arise in us. Feel your sadness because it is part of your reality, and your job for now is to be present to the reality you are creating.

What is the present?

I am learning to be more present, but what does that even mean, and why is it worth learning?

The word “present” comes from pre meaning “before” and esse meaning “to be”. It means what is before or in front of us.

Learning to be more present therefore sounds like nonsense. Am I learning to be before or be in front of something? Is this the profound spiritual art of getting in front of things? Is there a course I can do on getting out of things? Learn to be more absent…

Linguistically there’s something a bit off with “being present”. But maybe we can give a better name or a better context to this thing we are trying to learn.

The present is what is in front of us right now. It has temporal and spatial significance because it is right here and right now.

And the right here right now is taking care of itself. I don’t have to learn how to make the here and now be here and now. I’m not organising the party, I only have to show up.

And I think that’s where the language is coming from, because another way it’s phrased is “be more in the present moment”.

The present moment is the moment that is before us. It’s the party that’s going on right now and we can show up to it if we choose.

But I’m not taking anything for granted. What is a moment? A moment is a very brief period of time, etymology open to debate. The present moment is the brief period of time right before us, that we can choose to be in somehow.

Which is more nonsense, because we can’t be in a moment. We are in all moments of time, moment after moment. Because we are the ones experiencing time through the lens of our own consciousness. Moment is not a scientific measure of time, but a subjective and experiential one, and if we are not “in” it, it doesn’t exist.

So let’s cut through all the bullshit now that we’ve cracked this thing wide open. What people really mean when they talk about being in the present is paying attention to sensory experience rather than being preoccupied with self-generated thoughts and imaginations.

There must be more to it than that and different lessons to be learned, but for now the key point is that we are learning to be comfortable in the more primal world of sensory experience, rather than escaping constantly into “higher order” thoughts and cognitions.

Why do that? There are lots of potential reasons and justifications for it, and mine may well change over time as well. But at this present moment what seems most compelling is this:

My brain is responsible for creating this world of sensory and somatic experience. I may receive light through my eyes and vibration though my ears, but the interpretation and depiction is all carried out automatically by my own brain without my awareness or conscious control. As such it is something I am doing from a deeper level of my own being, and yet I tend to view it as an external “reality” to which I am subject and from which I am separate.

You don’t control your own heartbeat, and yet you do. A deeper part of you controls it, and does so brilliantly for our benefit and health and comfort. How much more amazing is it that our every moment of conscious experience of our world and our own bodies is also crafted and curated by us?

I think that’s why so many traditions focus on the breath. Breathing is a physiological function that exists at the fluid boundary of conscious and unconscious control. Breathing is automatic, but we can also take control of it at will. Yet both parts are “me”.

So in conclusion I’m not sure that “learning to be present” isn’t just a vague metaphor, when what I’m really doing is learning to relax and get comfortable in the deeper and more primal regions of myself and the world I create, a world that is not separate from its creator.

The nature of life is not suffering

At some point I chose to accept the religious proposition that life is inherently suffering.

Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Sufi sources all seemed to proclaim that suffering is an intrinsic part of the human condition and that we are closer to the meaning of life when we face suffering and accept it.

This point of view, this way of looking at life, served me at a difficult time when life was full of suffering and misery seemed inescapable. It was empowering to accept the suffering and stop trying to run from it.

But it is no longer empowering for me to believe that life is suffering or that my suffering is more real than my joyful and pleasant experiences.

So I choose now to believe that suffering is not important. Suffering is not significant. What is significant is my will and my happiness. What I want in life – the things I love and enjoy. These are what matter.

I am allowed to let go of past suffering and the fears and anxieties associated with it. I don’t have to keep track, and I don’t have to feel it anymore. Suffering is not more authentic or more meaningful. It’s just noise.

I choose instead to cherish and keep track of the good feelings and the good things in life. I choose to keep track of the exciting, happy, joyful, cheering, and satisfying things that make life fun and easy to enjoy.

To feel is to fully live

In the moment of assenting to a feeling of profound sadness, we are allowing our will to take the plunge, to follow through in a judgement and a movement previously only glimpsed.

In this movement of the will – feeling the feeling – the sadness or fear is realised – made real – to us in the fullness of our being: intellectually, physically, and volitionally. Imagine a person who experiences a violent accident but suppresses and avoids feeling the emotions and “processing” the trauma. It is as if they are unable to move forward, unable to be the person they have already become through this experience.

As human beings with a will that chooses, and which makes its choices manifest in our “feelings”, we cannot be said to fully live our will if we do not fully feel it. This means that the unpleasant experience of sadness, grief, fear, despair – but also the pleasant experiences of joy, love, hope, and pride – need to be accepted and felt, so that they can make their mark on our souls and shape us for what is next to come.

Feelings as the movement of the will

Why do feelings matter, and how does avoiding our feelings hold us back from what we want in life?

I’ve argued already that feelings matter simply because they exist in us, and avoiding them is avoiding being who we are.

But I want a better and more satisfying explanation. Why does avoiding feelings hold us back?

One approach is to start with what “feelings” really are, because the word itself doesn’t tell us much. “Feelings” just means “things we feel”. What are these things?

By inspiration I came across a sermon by an early American theologian, on the subject of “affections of the mind”. Affections are what we would call feelings. But many theologians and philosophers in their study of human nature and free will pin these feelings to the internal logic of the human mind.

According to this view, affections such as “liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting” are inclinations or movements of the will, and our “feeling” is the inward experience of these movements.

In other words, when my will inclines towards something, I feel good about it. When my will is inclined to oppose something, I feel bad about it.

These varieties of inclination of the will are traditionally sorted into categories like love, desire, delight, as our will inclines to the things we want, and hate, aversion, and sorrow as our will inclines away from things we do not want.

And the inclination of the will can vary by degrees or intensity, and it can also be combined and mixed as we encounter more complex situations and scenarios, giving rise to the full range of what we call feelings.

What does this mean for our current endeavour? It means that when we avoid feeling something like anger or sorrow or guilt or grief or fear, we are restraining our own will, based on a false belief that if we do not feel it, it cannot affect us.

Consider something you don’t like to think about. When you focus on that subject you have feelings, which are your will opposing this unwanted thing. If it is strong, you will even feel physical sensations like increased heart rate, light-headedness, an upset stomach. These are the physical correlate of your will opposing the unwanted thing.

These feelings are unpleasant, but they won’t hurt us. Yet they can be so unpleasant that we decide to stop focusing on that subject, to try to avoid feeling the discomfort or pain or other sensations. In effect we treat this movement of the will as something unwanted, and we end up afraid of feeling afraid or guilty or ashamed etc.

This means our inner life is getting more complicated, because we are now setting up internal boundaries for things we want to avoid thinking about and feelings we want to avoid feeling. It’s messy and tiring. And while we sought to be free from painful negative feelings we have actually added another layer of negative feelings.

But in addition there may be something lost to us by not allowing the full movement of our will to run its course. Back to the subject you don’t like to think about: what happens if you stay with it and allow your will to stretch and move to completion? What happens if you allow it to continue until everything has settled? What does it even mean for the will to be settled, as happens when a troubling thought no longer troubles you?

When a troubling thought no longer troubles us, it means our will is no longer moved by it or actively opposing it. We’ve all had the experience where an embarrassing incident from childhood no longer causes embarrassment. But why? Because we learn. We are constantly learning, and by sitting with the feeling of embarrassment or experiencing other embarrassments or by living more of life and learning more about life, we learn on a deep experiential level that those experiences weren’t as bad as they seemed at the time. We learn through the evidence of daily life continuing, that we have survived those moments and in hindsight they don’t really matter.

But we can’t learn if, instead, we avoid the embarrassment feeling and all thought of those incidents. And we definitely can’t learn if we seek to avoid all future embarrassment and all future negative feelings.

Since negative feelings are the inclination of our will in opposition to something, it is as much a part of who we are as our preferences and desires. The things we don’t want inform who we are just as much as what we do want.

So by feeling our feelings we are allowing ourselves to learn on a deep, conscience level the full weight and significance of what we do and don’t want. We are allowing our will and our knowing to coalesce in the person that life has made us become. When we avoid our feelings we refuse to be the person that we have already become.

This exploration has brought clarity and encouragement and if you persisted with it I hope it helped you too. From what we know now it makes perfect sense and is even inspiring to let ourselves feel the full movement of our own will. Knowing and allowing our own will to oppose what it opposes is a strength. It brings us to the forefront of who we really are.

And if you agree that life is shaped by being who we are, then it follows that we will get the life we want quicker and more easily if we be our real selves ASAP.

The silence between stories

There are levels and layers to the stories we tell and how we construct our reality. Aspects of this construction are conscious, many are subconscious. Some are malleable, others are not.

For example, there are optical illusions that persist even when we know that what we are seeing is an illusion. This leads neuroscientists to hypothesise that the visual cortex operates independently of other brain functions. The part of your brain that “knows” the two lines are the same length doesn’t inform the part that constructs your visual field.

But the stories that come up as thoughts and ideas in our own minds to which we can assent or retrain, these are more conscious and more malleable than the foundational cognitive processes that create our reality.

The stories that interest me are the ones that orient us biographically in real time and in post hoc reflection and debriefing – whether personal or shared. The stories we tell about who we are and what we are doing, have done, and plan to do, and the context in which we do it.

Because these are the stories most easily silenced, and the silence of these stories is freedom. A more pragmatic approach is to simply question whether this story serves me. Am I benefiting from telling this story? Culling the stories that don’t serve is a path to immediate freedom.

As you practice culling stories you might find that they are deeper and more numerous than expected. Like text in an urban environment, we live immersed in a plethora of stories.

But as I practice silencing stories that don’t serve me, it appears that I have the absolute freedom to select or reject them. I’m not swamped by the stories, because the stories themselves have only as much power as we give them.

Living the continuous moment

We live most of our lives biographically, inhabiting stories or narratives on short, medium, and long-term timeframes. But our consciousness exists in a continuous moment.

In the continuous moment we can simply be, feel, and let our subconscious processes work themselves out through us.

And yet instead we mostly subscribe to stories about ourselves, others, and life in general. Within these stories we tax our bodies and minds for the sake of narrative conflicts and goals.

It is possible to stop telling stories and instead anchor ourselves in the continuous moment. But there’s a catch: even if we stop telling stories right now, our body and mind needs time and space to unwind from all the tension and contortions forced upon them.

In most of our stories we have feelings as incentive. The carrot and stick of positive and negative emotion. But if we continue trying to avoid negative emotion instead of letting it run its course, we cannot escape from story-land.

If “negative” emotion is something we have to avoid, then we cannot sit still in the continuous moment so long as negative emotion is present. Negative emotion becomes a cause of conflict and the conflict draws us into another story.

To live in the continuous moment we must stop telling stories, and become willing and (with practice) able to undergo all our emotions without closing down or running away. As we practice feeling our feelings we increase our emotional bandwidth and thereby allow our mind and body to return to their original nature.

Life has caused us to take a warp, and reverting to our original form can be uncomfortable. Learn to be okay with discomfort, and enjoy the profound relief of letting all that stress, conflict and tension depart our minds and bodies.

Why do we do things we don’t want to do? Stories and fear of uncomfortable feelings. Why do we endure things we don’t want to endure? Stories and fear of uncomfortable feelings. Stop telling the stories, get comfortable with the uncomfortable feelings, and with time we can live truly authentic lives that fully align with our own values and desires.

Are “bad” feelings bad?

We talk about feeling bad or having negative emotions. But if feelings are feedback, how can they be bad?

Calling a feeling “bad” is a classic case of shooting the messenger. The feeling isn’t bad, the feeling is there to tell you that something bad has happened.

Does labelling feelings negative or bad make it harder for us to feel them and give them space? Might a change in perspective and labels help us to feel all of our feelings more freely?

We are of course subject to social pressures to not feel certain feelings. When we feel “bad” we can’t easily conform to peers and authorities. Sad, scared, and angry people are deemed anti-social (unless they are sad, scared and angry en masse, in the guise of a social movement, validated by sheer numbers).

But the same is true of good and positive feelings as well! If you are too happy or enthusiastic you will also struggle to conform. Really happy people don’t want to share in the gloom of everyday complaints and anxieties that make up the daily news cycle and the concerns of the voting public.

So whether we call them bad or good, strong feelings that are out of sync with the rest of society or your immediate peers and authorities will invoke societal pressure to conform. Conformity is therefore not a good enough reason to label these feelings “bad”.

But surely these “bad” feelings are labelled bad because they literally feel bad?

Not necessarily. There is a difference between the content of the feeling and our degree of comfort with it. And although “negative” emotions are generally associated with negative stimuli, that doesn’t mean the emotion itself needs to be experienced as uncomfortable or intolerable.

It’s easy, for example, to use physical pain as an analogy that implies a survival value in the avoidance of negative emotion: bad feelings, like physical pain, tell us that there is something wrong and motivate us to remove ourselves from danger.

But even physical pain is not so simple. We can experience pain due to benign changes in our bodies and environments. We can experience chronic pain that becomes self-perpetuating long after an injury or illness has passed. Our tolerance for pain can be developed and increased.

Does a “bad” feeling really feel bad? Does it feel bad when we stop judging it as “bad” or “negative” or “to be avoided”? Many people enjoy watching sad movies, scary movies, or tragic movies. They find value in the activation of these emotions that we label undesirable in real life. Maybe, like physical pain, there is space after all to feel these feelings without knee-jerk reaction and avoidance.

Maybe we can consider it to be like an evolved palate. As adults we enjoy all kinds of foods and drinks that our child selves would have rejected as disgusting or gross or intolerable. As connoisseurs we even appreciate tastes and textures and fragrances that other adults find repulsive. And we can push our own boundaries by practicing tasting these things without judgement – whether it be stinky cheese, weird fermented drinks, offal, wildly fragrant fruits, or unfamiliar textures that seem a bit gross at first.

And while we are all free to consume according to our tastes, and there is no pressure to get out there and learn to love foods that make you want to puke, the fact is that your “bad” feelings are already with you. You already have a pantry stocked full of foods you’ve hitherto avoided. Might as well learn to appreciate them.

This will be my experiment starting today. How do my “bad” feelings feel when I stop labelling, judging, and trying to avoid them?

Keep busy to avoid your feelings

At some point we are choosing either to feel our feelings or do something else.

That “something else”: is it inspired? Is it a match to how you feel? Or is it a mismatch?

When your actions don’t match how you feel, that is both a sign and a cause of misalignment within you.

If I am feeling sad but I force myself to go do the dishes, I am reinforcing a pattern that doesn’t make sense. What kind of organism ignores internal feedback? What kind of system has feedback that goes nowhere?

If you take painkillers without addressing the underlying cause of the pain, expect consequences. Keeping yourself busy to silence your feelings is no different.

A healthy organism is sensitive to stimuli and responds to its own internal feedback. Humans are the most complex and evolved organisms in the known universe, and our stimuli and internal feedback are wide and deep and sometimes this can be overwhelming.

But health beckons us nonetheless. Even without thought of “consequences” we love the ideal of health and harmony and loving authentically from within our own nature. When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.

We love the idea of living in balance with our own being, dancing to the exotic yet familiar melodies that seep into consciousness via the earth, the world around us, and our own intelligent bodies.

I am told that feeling our feelings is not a means to an end, it is a way of being. It isn’t a job to be done or a problem to solve. There are no guarantees that it will be over sooner or later or will quickly change from unpleasant to pleasant.

But what we will become is a being with the strength to embrace all of that. An organism strong and robust enough, yet sensitive and responsive enough to be fully itself in life. A being that contains the heat and cold of this universe in its extremes and doesn’t shy away from anything.

When we try to opt out of our own depth of experience, we end up in a shallow little pool of feeling and awareness – safe, but stagnant. The roar of the waterfalls and the violence of the rapids can be terrifying. The speed of the current can be dizzying. But this is who we are. If we feel it, it is part of who we are. And the authenticity and exhilaration we yearn for is inseparable from that.

So when the feelings come, don’t go do something else. Feel them. Become comfortable in the uncomfortable extremes and the strong signals within you. Trust where you are, and the value of what you feel, and that you are feeling it.

Looking for something sacred

I used to search for the sacred in life to escape from a miserable existence. These days I’m learning the sacred is not an escape, but an assist.

The Old English word for sacred is godcund meaning “god-like”, and for many people their idea of sacred therefore depends upon what their god is.

But the essence of humanity is divine, and therefore god-like, therefore sacred. These days we call this essence “consciousness”, which means the part of us that knows, the part without which all would be in darkness and unknowing.

The conflicts and differences between and among religions are trivial when the best (and strangest) of believers of all faiths have affirmed that at the heart of it all, the greatest and most sacred and holy and revered of beings is the same as your own core being.

We live our lives inside-out, except when we make time and space for the sacred to come to the fore. By whatever practice or ritual gets the job done, we let the inner knowing of our own consciousness take its rightful place for a while, and enjoy the relief and celebration as the rest of our physical and mental apparatus gets to lay down the burden of pretending to be in charge.