Every Cell Alive - Unfettering the Emotions

 'Water Mother', Kai Nielsen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

'Water Mother', Kai Nielsen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

 It's harder than one might think to simply let feelings well up in their fullness, as they come. Try it for a day: let your consciousness wash over your inner being as you wake up, make coffee, see your loved ones at breakfast, greet the bus driver, check Facebook.

It's an endless parade, a rollercoaster ride: jolts of pleasure, insecurity, anger, fear, delight, resentment…on and on and on. In tandem, the mind is constantly attempting to turn the emotions into more “appropriate” ones, to explain them away or to bar them entry. Observing the drama is really unsettling, but also enlightening. And when our consciousness takes on the role of a loving mother, letting her children, Thoughts and Emotions, play unfettered on her body, it is also very healing.  

There are many reasons why we find it so hard: if the feelings are unpleasant, we may just want to avoid the pain. Feeling anger, hate or resentment may not fit in with our self-image as caring, empathic, civilised beings. Or then we took at face value the ditty “don’t worry, be happy”, and cut off the sad and lonely bits in us. Sadly, we often also bar entry to positive feelings because we feel unworthy of them, or out of a fear that if we let ourselves open up to them, we will be hurt by others. It may be a superstitious fear that if we feel happiness, then something bad may happen. Whatever the cause, the intent is to protect ourselves from life's chaotic and uncontrollable side, messages from the unconscious. Life becomes a game of emotional tag.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the way different paths will present themselves to us when something becomes important to understand. In the last weeks, three different roads have all led to this same, timely subject of pushing away, changing or intellectualising our feelings, and the great wisdom and relief of letting them flow in us in all their fullness. The paths that came to me as I beavered away at this fine art were Rick Hansen’s lecture on neuropsychology, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyFuNKyDJsg, Marion Milner’s chronicle of a seven-year experiment in building an inner life of her own, https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/10/11/a-life-of-ones-own-joanna-field-marion-milner and a colleague’s remarks on Buddhist meditation.

The one that most spoke to me was Marion Milner’s Herculean and fearless effort to see who she really is, underneath the masks of propriety and the need to strive. Her intentions were much wider than just letting her feelings be free, but that was part of it: to benevolently observe them, really feel them and accept them. She describes her practice  as 'a matter of recalibrating her habits of perceiving, looking not directly at an object of attention but taking in a fuller picture with a diffuse awareness that is “more like a spreading of invisible sentient feelers, as a sea anemone spreads wide its feathery fingers.”' The rewards affect life entire: 'One morning, she found herself in the forest, mesmerized by the play of sunlight and shadow through the glistening leaves of the trees, which left her awash in “wave after wave of delight” — an experience not cerebral but sensorial, animating every cell of her body.”'

Hansen - being American, natch - is keen to emphasise the practical usefulness of savouring the positive emotions, letting them sink in and thus slowly creating new, more constructive pathways in the mind. This raises mood and, in the right setting and with repetition, dismantles trauma. He uses a three-fold garden metaphor to illustrate the ways we can help ourselves to enter more positive mind states: we can "contemplate the garden", that is, our emotions, and we can “pull out the weeds”, ie. become aware of our negative thoughts and rumination. Thirdly, we can plant something in place of the weeds, by focussing on the positive thoughts, enjoying them for a moment in order to let them take root in us.

He uses another metaphor for a balanced way of being in life: letting time flow past you as if you were a net, helping the positive moments stick to the net for longer and letting the negative ones pass through more rapidly. The intention is not to become entangled in individual positive moments either, but after a bit let them sink away and make room for new ones. In the fast flow of daily life, the whole practice can be distilled as “Have it, enjoy it”: make note of pleasant moments, really stay with them for at least the critical time span of 10-20 seconds, to help them make a lasting neurological impact on us.

Though Hansen has solid research on his side, I keep thinking that sifting through our emotions and putting them into two broad baskets of “good” and “bad” is in itself a risky enterprise. We have to allow ourselves to also feel the ucomfortable, unpleasant emotions. They carry important information and need our self-empathy. All the emphasis on “positive psychology” and “looking on the bright side” may help us nurture unhealthy, only half-honest internal pictures. We have to recognise and accept our whole selves, including the “shadow”.

That is why I would prefer to balance Hansen’s approach with the Buddhist practice of choiceless awareness, as described by my colleague Andrew Brixey-Williams, which “involves just letting the senses receive impressions through the ‘sense doors’ - seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling/touching, smelling and - in Buddhist psychology, the sixth sense door, thinking.  In other words, in this psychology thought is not perceived as something that is done by self, but which arrives unbidden. So in meditation we learn to be choicelessly aware, and then to avoid ‘mental proliferation’ (in Pali, ‘ papanca’) ...intellectualisation and so on. The idea that it’s not ‘me thinking’ is challenging, and can really only be investigated through reflection.”

All this has led me to have ever greater respect for artists. Great art is born out of a direct, flowing connection to pure experience, only lightly organised by the mind to make it tangible. For us cortex-obsessed Westerners, writing, even thinking about these things is risky, because then we are already in the realm of the intellect. The body is a great friend: always going back to the physical sensations, the breath, helps. So that is what I will do: close off this post and return to the realm of the senses.