So now we have a work-horse to help us make whatever changes we need to in order to heal. The healing we’re talking about is deeper than lifestyle changes. You can know how you are supposed to eat and exercise and participate in family and community and not stress out, but often getting yourself to actually live that way is problematic. Things just seem to get in the way. Ideally, the “doing” in your life springs directly from your “being,” from who you really are. Who you really are is a Divine Being, whole and healthy. Finding out who you really are, underneath all the wounding, conditioning and domestication is what we’re about here. On a foundation of faith in whatever helps us the most, we practice compassionate accepting awareness of what is. This brings us face-to-face with our truth and we can see how our own personal truth aligns with a higher Spiritual truth.
The practice of awareness, acceptance and compassion also form the foundation for a healthy relationship with your feelings. Why is that so important? Because being messed up with your feelings causes you a lot of grief, which is a metaphorical way of saying that it is not an optimal condition. Just think of the amount of human suffering that can be linked to misunderstanding our feelings. Over 20% of Americans are now on an antidepressant. Emotional eating accounts for a lot of obesity and type II diabetes. Addictions complicate millions of people’s lives and break up families. Domestic abuse, child abuse, employee abuse…the list goes on and on. All of these conditions and more can be helped by being healthy with your feelings.
Sometimes, like a panic attack, feelings are so powerful that they pull you completely off your center; you may even spend time in the Emergency Room thinking you’re having a heart attack. Other times, like depression, they are so insidious and grinding that you can start to believe that the only relief is in death. Sometimes your feelings drive your behaviors and you might do things that you later regret. Managing your feelings, especially trying to make them be a certain way, is my definition of addiction.
All of these problems with feelings can be prevented by knowing what feelings are, by knowing how they work inside of you and by understanding how to work effectively with them. That is what I mean when I say “have a healthy relationship with your feelings.”
So, what are feelings from the Integral Medicine perspective? First, let me emphatically state what they are not: feelings are not the problem. No matter how you are feeling, feeling that way is not the problem. So you don’t really need to do anything about the feeling per se. The feeling is caused by something; the feeling is a result of something. The feeling can be thought of as a symptom: a clue to what is really going on. You want to be able to follow the clues back to the real treasure.
A feeling is just a messenger bringing you information, it is not the message.
The message is buried in the feeling and your job is to figure out how to get the feeling to deliver its message so it can go on its merry way. A healthy relationship with feelings does that. Thinking that the feeling is the problem and/or the message is a big confusion for many people, including mental health professionals, in our society. This confusion leads to unhealthy relationships with feelings and ineffective counseling.
Your awareness of who you are, your conscious sense of self, is housed in your conscious mind. The conscious mind processes information by thinking. You become consciously aware of how you are feeling by thinking about the feeling. This is why it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a thought from a feeling.
I see feelings as messengers coming to the conscious mind from the non-conscious mind and from the physical body. Physical and emotional feelings follow the same rules and the same tools can be used to be healthy with them. (Recent research shows that physical and emotional feelings even use some of the same neural circuitry in your brain: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tech-support/201308/the-science-heartache-6-things-you-need-know.) Your headache is just as much a messenger as is your angst. Both can be listened to; both can help you deepen your understanding of yourself, including what actions to take that are in harmony with who you are and what you need right then.
Some feelings are just reporting the status quo like, “Oh, ya, my foot is touching the floor.” Some are letting you know that an action needs to be taken like, “Oh, ya, my bladder is full, I better get up from this computer soon.” (That is a random example I just made up, this article is not to be construed as autobiographical.) And some feelings are trying to call your attention to aspects of your world view that need examination and perhaps updating like, “Oh, ya, I’m a big imposition on everybody around me.” (Oops, that part is autobiographical.)
Because feelings are just messengers and it is generally considered bad form to chop the head off the messenger just because you don’t like the message that they’re bringing, you can conclude that all feelings are valid. This means that you never have to say to yourself, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” The fact is, you are feeling that way. What’s behind it? Where did that feeling come from? What generated it? Those are better questions.
Some feelings you are going to just naturally like, some you will just naturally not like. Learn to treat them all equally. Equanimity toward your feelings is a very helpful skill if you want to be healthy with them.
Physical feelings and emotional feelings are correlates of each other. In other words, every physical feeling has an emotional feeling associated with it and vice versa. Another helpful skill to develop is the ability to listen to both tracks, the physical and emotional, at the same time. Sometimes it’s easy, like when you hit your head on the corner of the cupboard door. Other times take practice.
Try this exercise. Take a moment, settle yourself and your awareness into yourself. Put your awareness into your left hand. Just make a mental note of whatever sensory information you are getting from your left hand: the position of your fingers, the air temperature, any pain or tension, etc. Now become aware of the emotional tone of your left hand. What emotional feeling comes up as you put your awareness into your left hand. Now, pause for a moment, center yourself and then put your awareness into your right hand. Again, make a mental note of any sensory information you are receiving from your right hand. Then note the emotional feelings that come up as you put your awareness into your right hand. Are they different from those from the left?
When many people start this exercise, they cannot identify the emotional tone in their hands. Keep trying. Your perceptions sharpen with practice. Those who are able to sense the emotional tone in their hands generally see that they are different from each other. And well they should be. Your left hand has had a left-handed experience of your life and your right hand a right-handed experience. Generally one hand is preferred for certain tasks over the other and so forth. Some people are aware enough that they can easily move their awareness from hand to hand and identify the different physical and emotional feelings. Practice listening to yourself until you are in this group. This exercise can be repeated using your knees, feet, ear lobes or whatever.
So far we’ve gone over three perspectives and/or skills that will help you work with your feelings in a healthy way:
- All feelings are valid
- Develop equanimity toward all your feelings (hint: practice awareness, acceptance and compassion for how you are currently feeling about your feelings.)
- Learn to listen simultaneously to both the physical and emotional aspects of your feelings.
Next we’ll go over ways to get to the message that the feeling is carrying and then what to do with the message once you get it.
Copyright 2013 Steven M. Hall, MD