Mental illness is a side-effect of great intelligence the convoluted, crippling creativity of an aimless mind consumed by endless possibilities others cannot conceive a life held suspended in anticipatory anxiety A feedback loop that becomes incapacitating a simple fear can become compounded tenfold fearing the fear, fearing the fear of the fear, and so forth spiraling into a paralysis of infinite indecision Stuck in the self-deception of finding a solution trying to think your way out of overthinking is absurd salvation lies in the surrender to sensation instead forsaking the mental landscape for the physical body What does this fear feel like? Where is it held inside? a jittering energy of dis-ease beneath my chest the dizziness that sets in from a blood pressure spike an unsettling static nestled deep in my stomach The fever of neurosis is broken by awareness how strange it seems to have survived the sensation I've been running from all of my life the cure of quiet curiosity Being present in the storm as it passes acknowledging the connection between frightening delusions and flowering imagination the balance between benefit and burden Learning to embrace the full scope of being this incredible entity with boundless potential finally finding gratitude within the fear I carry my best qualities sprout from that same seed
Feel your feelings. This is one of the new popular phrases floating around the internet. But it’s never really made clear what is meant by these words. A lot of us resist this advice for that very reason. Why would I want to feel my feelings? I’ve been taking such pains to avoid them for most of my life. What isn’t explained is that these mental loops that we are labeling as “feelings” are not, in fact, our feelings. They are the cascading cycles of inner dialogue that we have built up in response to our feelings. These thoughts are really want we desperately want to avoid.
The way to escape these thoughts isn’t by pushing down our feelings or trying to numb them through distraction or substances, it’s to direct our minds away from the words and into the physical sensations we are experiencing. This is definitely something easier said than done, but it’s a practice worth putting effort into. Watch your mind as it tries to move back into thinking instead of feeling. I did this with my anger just the other day. I moved my awareness into my body. I felt the tightness around my heart, the heat in my face and neck. Then after just a few seconds, my brain was back to narration, finding ways to justify and bolster these uncomfortable sensations. Again and again, I had to keep putting down these words and picking up the actual feelings I was experiencing instead.
It’s quite difficult to remain in silent sensation, especially when it’s not a pleasant one. The mind is so good at labeling and explaining and creating stories. It’s an odd experience to not focus on defining and labeling everything. I’ve spent my whole life searching and trying to learn the words and explanations for what I go through every day. That’s the reason I got a degree in psychology. It may be helpful to have a background of knowledge about these things, but sometimes even that isn’t what we really need. Sometimes all we need to do is allow and be present with whatever is there, whether we can define it or not.
Learning that it’s safe and beneficial to trust and allow the physical sensation of my emotions without constantly analyzing has opened the door for me to accept this level of awareness in my relationships as well. I have a tendency to become fixated on what the other person may be thinking or feeling in regard to a shared experience or out interpersonal bond in general. I become overcome with worry that they perceive our relationship differently than I do, that I like them more than they like me, that they are unhappy, upset with me, etc. In order to relieve myself of this anxiety, I search for ways to reassure myself through explicit, verbal communication.
However, I often notice that even hearing the exact words I am looking for from the other person, I find myself unable to trust their words alone. I revert back to internal analysis, worrying, and skepticism. Giving myself permission to accept my own feelings for what they are at the simplest, most primal level, has encouraged me to do the same with other people. Ultimately we will never know what another person truly thinks or feels about anything. We have to eventually trust our interpretation and move on.
Like most things, this lesson is magnified while under the influence of psychedelics. Whenever I’m tripping with someone, there are phases where I feel we are perfectly in sync. Everything is easy. I feel connected, understood, and loved. Then a thought will arise or some slight friction will occur that leaves me questioning. Have we really been on the same page? Am I just being delusional to think they’ve understood me thus far? A dark cloud will appear for a moment, but will quickly pass as I allow myself to trust and enjoy again.
Our lack of trust in our emotions and our perceptions is what causes most of our stress in modern times. I think the fear behind this is primarily the fear of being wrong in our assumptions. We want to guard ourselves against every possibility. This is an impossible task, though. We will never be able to verify the validity of our perceptions and interpretations. Therefore, the best thing we can do for ourselves as well as those we love, is just accept, allow, and be present for whatever may arise. Give yourself permission to enjoy your experiences even when you can’t explain them, put words to them, or back them up with empirical evidence. Some things are meant to be felt, not spoken or explained.
For years now, I have practiced yoga, meditation, and gratitude daily. While I’ve definitely noticed improvements in my mental health since implementing these practices, it still feels like the changes I’ve experienced have been underwhelming. I thought that after such diligent effort over so many years, that I would be further along in my spiritual journey by this point. I still struggle daily with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, anger, jealousy, fear, anxiety, etc.
In the beginning, these daily practices were done very intentionally. It was easy to remain mindful because everything was so new to me. However, after solidifying these routines, they became just that, routines. Many days I find myself just going through the motions. That is the reason I haven’t been able to enjoy more of the benefits ever after so many years. I also think this may be a reason some people find themselves giving up on yoga, meditation, and mindfulness all together.
We must always be careful not to allow these things to become just words, just routines. Going through the motions may be better than doing nothing at all, but it isn’t going to result in the profound changes we’re seeking in ourselves. Yoga isn’t about the shapes the body takes, it’s about where the mind goes, learning to watch our own thoughts, learning to let go, to make peace with our perceived flaws or shortcomings, and so much more. In the same way, a daily gratitude practice isn’t about how fast you can list things off, or being able to fill up a whole page. It’s about the energy, the emotion behind the things your listing.
It’s almost funny when I think about it. I don’t know why I would expect writing a list of things I’m grateful for to be any different than writing a grocery list considering the way I normally feel while doing so. I usually don’t feel anything at all. If anything, I feel annoyed. “Ugh, I don’t have time for this. I can’t think of anything to write. Why am I such an ungrateful person? Why is this so hard for me?” That’s usually the kinds of thoughts occupying my mind as I struggle to think of enough bullet points to fill the page in my gratitude journal. Saying the words, “I am grateful,” isn’t enough. You’ve got to feel it too.
Now for some people this may just be something that blossoms naturally from doing the practice. That’s how it is for all of us at the beginning I think. But for an emotionally blunted person like myself, after the initial novelty of the practices begins to wear off, it takes a bit more effort to uncover that emotional energy. Words and actions may help to illicit certain feelings, but we can’t allow ourselves to become to distracted by the words and actions alone. It’s the energy, the emotion, the sensation, that really matters. Having the emotion without the words, will still work wonders. Having the words without the feeling behind it, does nothing.
So the next time you embark on any mindfulness practice, try to focus on the energy behind your intention. What is your goal in doing this practice? What types of feelings and emotions are you trying to invite into your life? Are you trying to train your brain to quickly list things? Or are you trying to train your brain to actually experience a certain kind of energetic state? If you want to be able to more easily experience gratitude, you’ve got to actually practice feeling grateful, not just telling yourself you are.
This may be a lot more difficult of a practice, if you’re like me. I really struggle to get in touch with my emotions. If someone told me to imagine what love feels like, I’d feel confusion and maybe anxiety rather than love. If that sounds like you, try this short exercise:
- Close your eyes.
- Take 5 slow, deep breaths in and out.
- Now, imagine someone or something that you love. At first, you might still struggle to feel anything. If that’s the case, keep concentrating on more and more details. You might try to remember and recreate in your mind a memory with this person/animal/object.
- Once you’ve got a clear image in your head, move back into your body. What types of sensations are you experiencing? What do you feel and where are you feeling it? Maybe you feel an opening in your heart space or a lightness in your stomach.
- Whatever you’re feeling, focus on those bodily sensations. That is love. Not the words, not the thoughts, but this, right here, this feeling.
- Stay with that feeling for awhile, breathe into it, explore it, try to savor the subtleties of it so that you may more easily call yourself back to this energetic state in the future. Try to memorize every aspect.
- When you’re ready, you may release the practice and open your eyes. You can come back to this practice as many times as you need to. Eventually it will become easier and easier to cultivate this feeling whenever you want to.
If you’ve been practicing for a long time like I have and are just now coming to this realization, no worries. Obviously it took me this long to realize too. No need to be harsh on yourself about it or feel like you’ve just been wasting time up until now. The foundation you laid by “going through the motions” has led you to a place where you’re now able to delve more deeply into your practice, to add a new layer to your daily routine. We all move through our spiritual practice at our own pace, with our own unique obstacles along the way. Honor where you are now and keep moving forward.
If you have a daily gratitude practice, maybe today try to list only 1-3 things. Rather than quantity, focus on the quality of emotion behind each listed item. Let me know how it goes! I’d also love to know: What does love feel like in your body? What does gratitude feel like to you?