Feelings, pt. II: Emotional Constipation
- by Subversify Staff
- Posted on 15 October, 2010
Everything is always washing into my heart. And I have a choice in any moment to open to it or close to it, to resist or allow it to protect myself from it or to open to it and let whatever response comes just be.
— Amy McCarrel
Feelings aren’t facts, but it’s a fact that you feel.
— Popular slogan
When I wrote the first part of this series, I initially posted it with some trepidation because understanding being present intellectually and actually experiencing it, are two different things and it’s an acquired skill. However, I believe awakening (another word for being present) is an option that’s available at any time. My own experience tells me that everything necessary for fulfillment exists right here, right now, this very moment. All that is needed is a shift in consciousness that opens to that potential and actually experience it, rather than to continue to conceptualize it.
Judging by the responses over the years, I realize now my initial feelings were unwarranted. When I began this series, I mentioned that my work brings me into contact with literally hundreds of people every year. And I am always amazed by the number of people who have chosen to take responsibility for their own awakening outside the context of organized religions. There is a movement, indeed a wave, of people seeking to find their own answers and that is one of the most remarkable things about the present historical period.
There are two knee-jerk (conditioned) responses to feelings, and they both have their price: to run from them, or indulge them. In addition, as I wrote previously, we attach stories to our feelings, creating our own personal novelas (novelas are Spanish-language soap operas with such titles as Amor Salvaje [Savage Love], or, Deseo Bestial [Savage Desire]). This does not mean, however, that feelings are not real. Moreover, I do not mean to imply that the awakening process results in a super calm person floating an inch above the ground offering benedictions to everybody.
Let me state two myths about awakening:
Myth #1 Awakening means not having feelings, especially “negative” ones like anger, fear, jealousy, or greed. Instead, the process leads to an unchanging, always calm, state.
Myth #2 You have to choose between feelings and presence. When you have feelings, you have lost who you are.
These two myths are stereotypes and quite laughable, if you ask me. Being awake, at least in my experience, is to feel completely, to love passionately, to be alive, to become transparent or translucent. Awakening to what is (rather than arguing against reality) leads one to feel more fully but in a manner that doesn’t make us prisoners.
So, normally we have two reactions to feelings with a heavy price attached: running (aversion) and clinging (desire). Two sides of the same emotional coin. We live in a male-dominated society in which feelings are viewed as inferior. To be “emotional” is considered unprofessional, for example, and we spend much time and money constantly “processing” our feelings away. I think in this sense, women (or rather, the feminine essence) offer much in teaching us to be present with our feelings. I have a simple technique when I am working with people. If you ask anyone what he or she is feeling I have found that they will usually proceed to describe to you what they are thinking. So what I do is to ask them to describe to me where they are feeling it in their bodies. This usually works to center someone in the moment, rather than describing his or her emotional novelas.
This is where the feminine principle, that wonderful capacity to experience everything in the body, can help us can overcome the temptation to become stuck is ego-centered thinking. When our egocentric alter ego — the “mini me” — starts its whispering, we often become stuck. But I digress…
We pay a high price when we avoid our feelings as they arise. They then become sticky and gooey and don’t pass through us as cleanly. What happens is that we first create a tension in the body and literally cut off the free flow of sensation. In order not to feel anger in the belly, we clench the solar plexus and block feeling, blood flow, and energy. To avoid feeling fear we contract the pectoral muscles and collapse the chest. The consequence is that, over time these attempts to stop feelings leads to imbalances and stress-related illnesses. We literally create body armor to protect ourselves from feelings.
Another consequence of avoiding feelings, especially the ones we view as negative or threatening, is to become “rational.” We develop strategies to control or stop feelings. As an answer to the question, “Why am I feeling this?” we often quickly say something beginning with “Because”: I am angry because of you… or: they made me feel sad because they…” And in that way, we get caught up in the endless rollercoaster of cause and effect.
The other option is indulging our feelings. Sometimes this happens right away (I was infamous for this) and sometimes it simmers for a while before boiling over — maybe after a few hours, days, or even years. The point is that once the floodgates open, there is hell to pay and a big mess to clean after. You can even cause permanent damage. Contrary to popular opinion, “letting go” or indulging is just another way of rebelling against the tension created between the feeling and its repression. We have to compensate for our initial response with an explosive mixture of emotion and willfulness: “Angry?!! You’re damned right I’m angry, and you’re going to sit right there and listen to why!”
Punching a pillow or taking out your frustration is counter-productive. I often call it “practicing to hate.” Exploding is just another way of attempting to have control over feeling and avoid feeling overwhelmed. You think you are managing the feeling, but in fact you are not feeling, rather, you’re doing emotion. We create drama. Rather than experiencing feeling as a wave, we constrict our sense of self and become the wave itself. Instead of feeling anger or sadness, we become it. Take note of the language we use to describe these states: we say, “I am angry,” “I am sad.” This language describes an emotional experience that has temporarily taken over our very identity.
Once in the grip of our small, fearful selves (the mini me), the only choice we think we have is to either repress our feelings or to be taken over them and become reactive. Either way, we are still trapped. We are still run by our personal emotional novellas, disconnected from the reality of the world around us, and we are still unable to give ourselves and others our deepest gifts.
That’s it for now. Next week: our emotions as our children…
Eddie -Yamil Rosario: There are two knee-jerk (conditioned) responses to feelings, and they both have their price: to run from them or indulge them.
Good writing on a difficult topic. How to write about feelings while balancing the intellect and the “sticky and gooey.” The difference between drama and feelings – the practice of “feeling” the tr…ees rather than whatever the ego dictates – all well worth reading and writing about.
Insightful piece Eddie! It’s always about that balance. Sometimes I think women feel too much when reason is what’s need, and sometimes I think too much when the need to feel is paramount. Finding that harmonizing balance between the two is essential to a healthy inner life, and as you alluded to, an external freedom as well.
I think Dr. Wilhelm Reich referred to this ’emotional constipation’ as the terror of living, which eventually leads to the ‘armoring’ of the individual and all of the neurosis or even psychosis that could produce!
Thanks for the lesson my friend. Each one, teach one indeed!
I think we cannot deny that we do have feelings as responses to events, and I know you are not suggesting that we don’t. I am concerned, I guess, about a third misconception that could arise, the idea that we should experience feeling but not act on any insight we gain to change painful situations, because somehow, the experience of being present is all we need. It doesn’t matter that we are, for instance, in an abusive situation, because we can rise above it through being present. Like the idea that being present means not having feelings, that represents a superficial understanding of what you’re saying. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I would love to see you address presence and feeling as transformational, not just internally but in our interactions and the conditions of our lives in a future piece, if doing so seems worthwhile to you.
Because I can just hear the question, “If we are always just present in the moment, then aren’t we just reacting? You say presence makes us less reactive, but how? It sounds pretty passive to me, just experiencing feelings and letting them pass. How is that not being helpless?” It is hard to see the power in something you have never experienced, as you say. That quote about thinking about experiencing the trees and actually doing it says it well. Perhaps it is as difficult to express the power of something to someone who has never experienced it as is to understand it without the experience, though. Sometimes, you just have to let go and try something new to “get it.” So maybe my suggestion is not useful, but I think that a misunderstanding of the idea that experiencing and being present with our feelings is passive and reactive is a barrier to being present. But when you’re trapped in the novella, it can be hard to imagine what being outside might feel like and what it might mean.
After all, fear of the unknown is one reason we cling to our narratives, even though they are impediments to knowing what we think is already known.
I have no idea why my comments post with the sour little green face. If they are a way of indicating our reaction to your commentaries, I can’t change them from my cell phone, which I’m using to comment. If they are just the default avatars randomly assigned to us, I am going to start commenting as “Dyspeptic Pessimist.”
Karen: good questions, some of which are addressed in the first two parts (maybe I need to articulate it better), and some that will be addressed later.
I would just like to pojnt out that being present and actually FEELING is not passive, though at a conceptual level, it may seem that way. My point is that we are going to react, but that’s different than being reactive. Also, if we’re going to react, then we should fully experience what it is we’re reacting to. IOW, when we develop the psychological space to embrace our feelings, we become less controlled by the stories we attach to them. On an experiential level, actually EXPERIENCING feelings (as opposed to doing emotions) is a very empowering experience.
Puma: I think what I am trying to point at is the reality rather than the construction of it. Too often we build castles in the air when it comes to feelings/ emotions. It’s more about getting outside of our heads and getting into the totality of living.
Markus: Yes! Reich was waaaaay ahead of his time and I borrow somewhat from his exploration of “character armor” in this piece.
Here’s a good question (from Karen):
“Because I can just hear the question, “If we are always just present in the moment, then aren’t we just reacting? You say presence makes us less reactive, but how? It sounds pretty passive to me, just experiencing feelings and letting them pass. How is that not being helpless?””
Being present in the moment in the context of how I use it is simply observing — simply allowing whatever it is that’s happening, happen fully with as little added on by the discursive, chattering mind. It’s actually much more intense, but if you ever observe your inner chatter, you’ll note that it’s often caught in ruminating in the apst or fantasizing about the future. This is what I mean by hetting caught in the enldess cycle of cause and effect.
all this really doesn’t make much sense if you don’t experience it. This is more an experiential exercise than it is about theory.
Have you ever felt anger FULLY, without having to add anything to it, or reacting to it?
Have you have felt profound grief — just letting that wave pass through you completely, utterly, without giving in to the compulsion to act out on it, just letting the tears flow like two rivers of wisdom?
I don’t think too many people feel that way. I believe most people ruin from the experience of feelings totally so they can cling to the concept of it.
the avatars are random, I believe.
The avatars are random, but you can click on your name and set up an avatar of your own.
Eddie, I think that reply that answers the specific question will be very helpful for people who may have understood the idea of simply experiencing feelings as passive.
Okay if I add something from a slightly different perspective? People who are new to meditating (some of whom try it and find it to be such a frustrating experience that they don’t try it again) often struggle with a similar issue: They approach in the frame of mind that they are “supposed” to stop thinking, and they try to make that happen. So instead of observing thoughts that arise and letting them go, they struggle to silence them and end up thinking about how they’re failing to not think. And so meditation becomes a struggle for control, with an endless cycle of self-condeming thoughts, like “Wait, I’m thinking. I’m not supposed to think. Now I’m thinking about my thinking. I have to stop. I’m going to stop right NOW. Did I stop? No, that’s thinking about whether I stopped. How do you make yourself stop thinking? This is hard. Other people do it, how do they do it? Damn, I totally forgot I’m not supposed to think. Why can’t I do this right? What’s wrong with me? Great, now I’m thinking about myself, and I’m not supposed to be thinking. I have stop, right NOW. No more thinking. Did that work?” And then they conclude that they’re doing it wrong. Of course, they are, but what they then want is instruction in how to “do it right” by exerting their will MORE so they can stifle the chatter. It sounds like the opposite problem, too much control as opposed to the idea of passive reactivity, but I believe they’re related, rooted in an inability to detach from that internal chatter, a lack of conception of how that might feel. It’s hard, at least for me, to explain that you can let the chatter become background instead of engaging with it and, the less attention and power you give it, the quieter and less insistent it becomes, until it fades away and there’s nothing left but experience. “But how do you make that happen?” You don’t; you let it happen. “But how do you let it happen when the whole time, you know you’re not supposed to think and you notice that?” Noticing is fine, but don’t engage. Just observe that you thought and noticed that you did, without judging that as bad or wrong or not supposed to do, and let it go. “But how do you let it go?”
And of course, it’s what you said, you let go of the narrative and step out of the novella. But I find it hard to explain HOW. You just let that happen.
Well Eddie, you’ve stirred up a whole kettle of opinions of how we feel, when we feel and all the et cetera’s. I guess i’ll throw in my two cents worth.
There is a philosophy of “be here now”. According to psychologists, at any given moment, we can be thinking in the past, in the present and in the future, simultaneously. Much of our waking time is either spent in dwelling on the past, sometimes wishing for what could be changed, sometimes wishing to bring parts back, or in the future. We make plans. We mark dates. We acquire goals that demand a step by step procedure. Yet, while we are doing this, we are not living in that precise instant of experiencing and enjoying the moment. We are not feeling it. The moment slips by and once again we find ourselves reaching for the past or planning happiness for the future.
Karen, one of the best definitions i’ve ever heard concerning meditation was an explanation given by someone who was defining its difference from prayer. He said prayer was the petition, the formulation of questions. Meditation was waiting for the answers. No matter how it’s done; on a yoga mat, while folding laundry, taking the dog for a walk, meditation is the resolution to your prayer. I liked that.
Now the pent-up emotional dam… that is a big stumbling block. I have a lot of opinions that involve the break-down of personalities into passive/aggressive, dominant/submissive, introvert/extrovert, social/anti-social and eccentric. I see the interaction of these various prototypes as the emotional playing field for feelings. I would also add in empathy, sympathy and antipathy into the spectrum, but i’d rather wait to read the rest of your thesis before engaging more into this identification of feelings.
Karen: It’s not easy responding to some of these questions in a comment format. Indeed whole books ahave been written as answers to some of your questions. I will try to address this because I think it captures the issue succinctly:
“They approach in the frame of mind that they are “supposed” to stop thinking, and they try to make that happen. So instead of observing thoughts that arise and letting them go, they struggle to silence them and end up thinking about how they’re failing to not think. And so meditation becomes a struggle for control, with an endless cycle of self-condeming thoughts, like “Wait, I’m thinking. I’m not supposed to think. Now I’m thinking about my thinking. I have to stop. I’m going to stop right NOW. Did I stop? No, that’s thinking about whether I stopped. How do you make yourself stop thinking? This is hard.”
Yes, it IS hard, but THAT is the work! LOL If all you do is catch yourself doing this, then you would have done a lot. what happens is that you begin to develop the necessary space to free yourself. You develop a “witness” to the sometimes very insane stream of consciousness that is discursive thought.
It is not passive, it’s just a way to EXPERIENCE phenomena differently (IMO, it’s a fuller experience). Feeling without immediately reacting isn’t merely passive, it takes a lot of presence to do it the flavor is more vibrant, less pigeon-holed. Feeling in this way allows a person to more fully explore emotions without getting lost in the stories. for example, fear can easily morph into anger into grief into tears of happiness. what I am describing helps us develop a more panoramic view.
Here’s another great question that I will (unfortunately) not be able to address adequately:
“It’s hard, at least for me, to explain that you can let the chatter become background instead of engaging with it and, the less attention and power you give it, the quieter and less insistent it becomes, until it fades away and there’s nothing left but experience. “But how do you make that happen?” You don’t; you let it happen. “But how do you let it happen when the whole time, you know you’re not supposed to think and you notice that?” Noticing is fine, but don’t engage. Just observe that you thought and noticed that you did, without judging that as bad or wrong or not supposed to do, and let it go. “But how do you let it go?””
My only asnwer is that you learn to let go by doing it. everytime you catch yourself getting stuck, or incessantly ruminating, you note it and let it go. the more you do it, the more you exercise that opposable thumb of consciousness called “mindfulness.” It’s not an easy thing, nor does it happen overnight. But one day, you’ll looking deeply into some pain and it (the pain) will still be there, but it won’t have the same power.
this is pretty much extremely difficult to describe and why I often include experiential exercises. I can’t explain it, but there’s a utter sense of liberation in all this and it’s real.
Karlsie, I like this part:
“There is a philosophy of “be here now”. According to psychologists, at any given moment, we can be thinking in the past, in the present and in the future, simultaneously. Much of our waking time is either spent in dwelling on the past, sometimes wishing for what could be changed, sometimes wishing to bring parts back, or in the future. We make plans. We mark dates. We acquire goals that demand a step by step procedure. Yet, while we are doing this, we are not living in that precise instant of experiencing and enjoying the moment. We are not feeling it. The moment slips by and once again we find ourselves reaching for the past or planning happiness for the future.”
We all learn this in different ways, but the way a teacher brought it to my attention was on a bus. we were in the bus and the bus was moving. he pointed out that if I looked back, I could see where we were. This is part of the present moment. he also noted if I looked forward I can see where we were headed, and this too is part of the unfolding present. He told me that being present didn’t mean ignoring where we came from or where we were headed, but making sure we didn’t miss our stop. LOL! I know this sounds glib, but to me it made so much sense at the time.
As for the issue of emotional blocks. My next post addresses this, so I don’t want to give too much away, but it has a lot to do with acceptance. Meditation (and meditation-in-action) was described to me as stopping the argument with reality.
“Karen, one of the best definitions i’ve ever heard concerning meditation was an explanation given by someone who was defining its difference from prayer. He said prayer was the petition, the formulation of questions. Meditation was waiting for the answers. No matter how it’s done; on a yoga mat, while folding laundry, taking the dog for a walk, meditation is the resolution to your prayer.”
This was excellent!
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