Posted by: Monkey | April 18, 2012

Emotions vs Feelings

My intention behind this article is to share my own reflections on deepening the ability to ‘feel’ life more fully through the distinction between the concepts of emotions and feelings. The distinction at the word level is arbitrary and may appear to be just playing with semantics. At an experiential level, however, the distinction is real and I invite you to change the words ‘emotion’ and ‘feeling’ for ones that are more appropriate for you if that eases understanding of the points I am making below.

In my own life becoming clear on this distinction has created more space within me for an authentic response to the unfolding of my life and the avoidance of external drama when confronted with discomfort. Discomfort is an interesting phenomenon because until we accept a sense of responsibility for the quality of our own lives, the idea that the discomfort we feel in our lives is an internal process externally manifested. This internal discomfort is actually the cause of the uncomfortable circumstances that arise in our life and for many this concept is going to be confronting and difficult to accept. This sweeping statement may not make much sense at the moment and it is my hope that in the articles I will be writing to follow that it will slowly take shape as a very real ‘rule’ of life.

Finding the distinction between an emotion and a feeling, for me, was one of the very first steps along a path that seems to be leading me to living a more authentic life. In general my life seems to be becoming more effortless and more in line with what I think is the true direction of my heart. That is not to say it is easy, at times it is anything but easy. And it’s not to say my life has entered one of an endless happiness…  I am coming to look at the possibility of having that experience as a myth and the striving for such a day is something I am still working on dropping at every level of my being, to be replaced with a greater sense of acceptance and appreciation for what is, as it is, as it unfolds. To truly validate, at every level, my own experience.

To start this discussion I would like to talk about emotions. An emotion to me is a label we have commonly given to represent a specific frequency of feeling. Much like the words for colors are given to represent specific wavelengths of light and just like colors there are many variations within the same label, for example green has many possible shades and tones just like any bulk emotion such as happiness or sadness has many possible expressions that could be contained by the same label.
So like with colors, we could lay down emotions on a line and map their graduations as they shift from one bulk frequency to the next, e.g. from ‘blues’ into ‘greens’, etc (I apologise as I am not familiar with the actual graduation of colour in frequency).
In that same context emotions could also follow a specific continuum line as we mapped the shift from one emotion to another. I think on this line we could also all commonly agree that there would be a divide effectively cutting the line into two sections labeling one side ‘positive’ and the other ‘negative’. This is evident in our language when discussing emotions when we consider negative emotions like fear, anger and grief versus positive emotions like happiness, excitement and in general feeling ‘good’.
In summary an emotion is a label used to describe a specific and limited set of feelings. In essence it contains an inherent judgment due to a collective agreeing by society that one set of feelings is preferable to another, the positive versus the negative emotions.

So to consider a feeling now we look at a much broader experience and it is what is behind that which we commonly call emotions. Much like we use limited words in our language to describe what is, in fact, a completely unique collection of atoms and molecules arranged in a form of matter. For example we use the word ‘chair’ to describe an object with a shape that we can sit on. We might add a few adjectives to this word to narrow it down a little bit more and yet no matter how many adjectives we add we will never be able to adequately describe the incredible uniqueness of this particular set of atoms right in front of us. Every chair, even the ones that look the same, is different at an atomic level.
The label emotion is much the same for a feeling. A feeling, to me, is a unique energetic experience that is felt within the body. When that feeling arranges itself in a way that is somewhat familiar to us and to what we have learnt from society around us, we give it a label and call it happiness or sadness or whatever. If we drop the label and take a genuine look at this feeling we are experiencing in this moment we might find that it is a completely unique, multidimensional, rich, vivid and dynamic occurrence.
While it is incredibly difficult to look at a chair and drop the label chair seeing it as a unique collection of atoms right in front of us because we are programmed at such a deep level to form matter into an arrangement in our brain that fits our labels, it is much easier to drop this judgment when looking at our own feelings.

Here is a simple investigation you can conduct right now, wherever you may be sitting and reading this:

1. Remember the last time you felt a really strong emotion. It doesn’t matter whether it was a positive experience or a negative one; the important part is that you really remember it. Bring this experience right up and begin remembering the details and circumstances around what caused this feeling. Allow the thoughts around it to rush in, fill it out with your imagination and add in the sights and sounds. Bring it forward as deeply as you can until it seems you are in that experience again.

2. Pay attention to your body and how it feels as you recall this experience. Bring your attention deeper and deeper into the body and notice where the greatest level of sensation is. Is it in your chest and heart area? Or perhaps in your gut? Your spine or brain? Wherever it is, increasingly pay more attention to this sensation.

3. Now begin to drop the thoughts and memories you used to recall this experience. Let them go and focus all of your attention on the particular sensation in your body. Feel into it deeper and notice if it has a particular movement or direction associated with it? Perhaps it is tingling, pulsing or buzzing? Maybe it has a quality of taking up a certain amount of space beyond the body. Fully feel into this feeling and simply pay attention to what it is without a label.

——————————————————————

That is the distinction between an emotion and a feeling. The emotion is the limited label saying “oh this feeling is happy” whereas the feeling is the actual sensation happening that we are labeling as an emotion and literally occurs in the body. An emotion is largely a mental construct. To have an emotion we pay only the briefest amount of attention to a feeling that arises before dismissing it and accepting, at a mental level, that we are having a particular emotion.
For many people the above exercise is going to be challenging. Many people that I talk to are so out of tune with the actual state of feeling that our bodies are capable of that they are not actually able to feel a genuine feeling instead often saying the emotion is occurring in the head.

So what is the point of making a distinction between an emotion and a feeling?
In some of my earliest experiences with reawakening my capacity to feel I remember noticing that once I dropped the labels around what I was feeling that at an experiential level a feeling is free of a connotation of positive or negative. What I mean by this is that when discussing emotions we will give them a classifier of positive or negative which will influence our behavior towards having such feelings, as well as our behavior to others having a certain set of feelings. When we drop into feeling at a body level there is no longer a good or a bad feeling, there is simply an occurrence of sensation in the body.

I think realizing and working at this level is a step towards cultivating unconditional acceptance in our lives.
When we drop our judgments about the way we feel we may find that we no longer seek out particular experiences to the exclusion of others in a hope to feel a certain way. If there is only feeling without a positive or a negative and if each feeling is unique and rich then we may discover we become a connoisseur of feeling and that all feelings are welcome within us. Our struggle with life may cease as the circumstances unfolding day to day become increasingly effortless as we embrace whatever occurs as it occurs. It may be that we stop interfering in the experience of others in an effort to change the way they feel so that we may be more comfortable around them, as such we might find ourselves that much more accepting of others and their experience.
As we come to accept all feelings as welcome within us, because for no other reason that it is the way we feel, we may discover that we are able to enjoy life more… that we are able to live our life in a state of joy, not in the attempts to cling to a transitory and limited emotion as happiness rather a state of continual acceptance and reveling in the entire spectrum of experience available to us on this human plane of existence.

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