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.

Why feel your feelings?

If you aren’t feeling your feelings, what are you doing?

Imagine you’re walking and suddenly feel a sharp stabbing pain in the sole of your right foot. What do you do? You stop, take the weight off your foot, and check to see what is going on.

Implicit in your investigation is paying attention to the specific location and sensation of pain. The pain helps you work out what is going on.

And while it makes sense that this pain mechanism helps you attend to injury and avoid further harm, on a more basic level it is simply what the human organism naturally does. It’s okay to justify it on evolutionary grounds, but our actual experiential response to the pain is part of our nature, and we will naturally respond this way unless prevented or trained not to.

I make this point because the evolutionary/survival analogy is not as helpful when we move from physical pain and injury to emotional pain and feelings. Nonetheless the analogy is solid: when something hurts us on a feeling level, our natural response is to stop, feel the feeling, take the “weight” off it, and work out what is going on.

I don’t want to offer a consequentialist argument for feeling our feelings, because the real reason we should feel them is that our whole being “wants” to feel them, and would feel them if we weren’t interrupted, conditioned, and coerced into ignoring them instead.

Our bodies and minds continue to try to feel them, continue to bring them to our attention, even when they are no longer relevant to our circumstances and surroundings. It may not be of survival value right now to feel the feelings from a trauma many years ago, but it is something we “want” to do anyway, to complete and put to rest those crises and painful experiences from the past.

And it seems that if we can feel these feelings and let them be resolved, our whole being will feel the relief and gratitude and lightness of letting them go.

Light in the dark: pure awareness and feeling your feelings

If you’ve had a lot of trauma in your life, sweeping unpleasant feelings aside is probably second-nature. Yet experts and common sense insist that lasting happiness can’t be practiced while also pushing against negative emotions.

If we aren’t fully feeling it, we are to some extent pushing against it, and vice-versa.

But how does feeling our feelings relate to the practice of pure awareness? At face value it seems contradictory: pure awareness is like standing under a beautiful sun and feeling the light shine on your face. By contrast feeling your feelings can be like crawling into a dark and narrow cavern deep underground.

Yet the two are not only reconcilable, progress depends on working the two together.

In Daoism they talk about cultivating both life 命 ming and nature 性 xing. My understanding is that life or ming refers to our biological, biographical life. The details, dynamics, and peculiarities of our bodies and minds and experiences. Xing or nature is the eternal, essential part of us, the pure awareness we have been playing with.

Uniting our nature with life means bringing pure awareness to whatever is going on in our bodies and minds, without reservation. It means feeling our feelings in the light of pure awareness.

Pure awareness brings clarity and elevation to our experience of life. And at the same time life brings depth and resonance and individuality to pure awareness.

The Dao De Jing tells us that thirty spokes make a wheel, but it is the hole in the centre that makes the wheel useful. If pure awareness is the hole, then life is the thirty spokes and the rest. Without a hole the wheel is not useful, but the hole alone doesn’t make it a wheel.

When the burden of trauma and feelings is too great, pure awareness can be a temporary escape from life. But beyond being an escape, pure awareness and life belong together.

As we become strong enough to handle the residue of past trauma, we can turn our pure awareness towards those feelings, take the light down with us into the caverns underground where parts of us have remained stuck and lost in the dark.

Uniting pure awareness with life brings the clarity and security and wisdom of pure awareness into all the twists and turns and trauma that form the layers of our life experience.

In practice it means invoking pure awareness and then feeling our feelings. For me it means the mini-practice I’ve developed, and then allowing any and all feelings and thoughts and physical or mental artefacts to arise and simply be in the space and light of pure awareness.