The Thought and the Felt
There are several levels of awareness from which one can experience life. One level is the domain of conceptual awareness, wherein everything we experience is translated into words and images, which in turn can be stored and used in narrative thought sequences—academically referred to as declarative memory. Words and visuals provide us the ability to represent and store the events of our lives, they are the building blocks of "The Autobiographical Self," the narrative the provides a thematic unity to our experiences. Language additionally allows us to derive meanings from the various ideas we store; its what we rely on for understanding the mysteries of life, from the greatest of tragedies to the most mundane of set backs and successes. As we think conceptually, given the emphasis on visuals and words, we tend to situate a sense of awareness being situated behind the eyes and between the years, as if we exist within our heads, but not our bodies.
The second level is the realm of emotions expressed physically in the body, referred to commonly as 'gut feelings,' or 'felt intuition.' Feelings are essentially governed by our survival impulses; they influence us both subtly and overtly, by tensing muscle groups, altering how the blood circulates via the release of hormones, emotional shifts courtesy of chemical changes in the brain stem and other neurological regions. We access feelings through our sensory impressions of the body, and so they are experiential by nature, rather than accessed via thoughts or visual impressions. When we open to this domain, we no longer conceive of ourselves as existing solely within our heads; we return home, as it were, to the body. And whereas the conceptual level provides an 'autobiographical self,' the great neuroscientist Antonio Damasio notes that our feelings create a 'proto self,' the conditions from which our sense of being a coherent, existing being, in relation to all that is external, arises.
Two Types of Feelings
In general feelings can be broken down into two, overlapping categories:
1) Emotional energy that arises when core regions of the brain perceive a threatening or exciting external event is present. During these occasions the internal (fight or flight) changes are quite sudden, and the region of the brain that reports body states (insula) signals our attention, for a significant event is occurring, and it requires our full attention. In the aftermath of an important event, feelings remain as a core component of life's traumatic or triumphant experiences: sadness is often expressed somatically via a tightly constrained stomach; anger via a tight jaw, forehead, arm muscles contracted; loneliness a hollowness in the chest; fear a constriction in the base of the throat, etc.
2) An "inner barometer" that provides us with very basic commentary on what we're presently experiencing. This barometer is limited to felt sensations and instincts, what the Buddha called "vedana." While feelings are not capable of language, they can be experienced as communicating three simple ideas:
• "I like what I'm experiencing and want it to continue" (muscles and circulatory system relaxes)
• "I don't like what's going on and want it to stop" (muscles tense, blood pumps through constricted veins)
• "I don't have an opinion." (no change in body state)
We're often driven by this felt "inner barometer" without the slightest awareness. For example, when given a choice of food to order, or what clothes to wear, we let the "inner barometer" decide: as we look at clothing or food, etc, we unconsciously note how the body reacts to each possible choice, and go where the greatest sense of ease is felt.
The Interplay of Thought and Feeling
For life to be experienced as joyful or serene, we need both the conceptual and the emotional to be at ease and in sync. If the mind is filled with repetitive and intrusive thoughts, there is little peace; nor can ease be real if the felt body is constricted and tight with unattended fear or sorrow. True peace is contingent upon both thoughts based on clear perceptions and equanimity (yatha butha nanna dassana), along with the embodied states of relaxing into life as it is right here and now; we need to minimize needless ideation to feel the flow of being alive.
And so we live in an interlaced dynamic; the thought and the felt. Alas, we tend to focus our conscious awareness on the conceptual, narrating and judging each moment of life, while being driven mindlessly by unexplored feelings. To feel at ease we need to enter what neuroscientists call a state of "flow" rather than a state of "doing." When we're busy doing life, we're caught up in the narrative of "I have to get this or that accomplished or else…" which creates needless ideation, pulling us away from somatic awareness: ironically, the less we're aware of feelings the greater influence they can play over life, creating needless avoidance tendencies and aversions.
Rather than stop doing things in the world, we put aside the narrative that pushes us forward into the future, or backstories that trap us in the past. We focus on what's right here and now, using the conceptual to aid us in creatively addressing life's demands, while controlling fear, anger and craving impulses: that's a lot of work in and of itself.
And yet we continue to pull ourselves out of a balanced relationship between the conceptual level of life and the felt, or experiential, by the conceptual realm's need to control all it experiences, such as other people and events. We tend to pull away from uncomfortable emotional energies, cutting them off, seeking distractions and diversions—shopping, sex, drink, drugs, work, escapist fantasies—anything to make the discomfort go away. It's an entirely futile and frustrating attempt to avoid any and all feelings of distress or unease; we seek a life free from any challenging feelings. And while its natural and ingrained for us to be anxious about our lives, the need to direct things obsessively towards our expectations, does not create peace or states of security. When we attain some comfort in a distracting state of evasion, the underlying, nagging feelings that we've simply put off trouble and challenges remains. T In much of life we mindlessly obey felt discomfort, following its urges to avoid challenges or any situation we find difficult. This reactive strategy adds a stressful tendency to attempt to control what is uncontrollable; trying to make everything consistent with our demands. The result is avoidance, procrastination, isolation and insecurity, hardly the hallmarks of lasting peace.
Returning Home to Presence, Recognition and Acceptance
In meditation practice, when we notice we’ve arrived a place of resisting the emotional energy of the body, or a state of anxiety about past or future events, the procedure is to note the urge to control what's happening. Rather than attempting to dominate via thought and will power, we can return to the body, noting the 'inner barometer' and all that seeks attention. We don't change, we open to what's present with a caring attention. This is the practice, over and over and over again: return home, to the body.
When we make this homecoming an ingrained, habitual response to life's challenges, we liberate ourselves from the fears of isolation and separation, and we reunite the conceptual level of experience with the somatic; its a feeling of presence based on recognition and acceptance. From the dynamic interplay of the mind and body we open to life in all its myriad of true emotional shadings; we find comfort in being truly and naturally alive, rather than trapped in stories that are walled off from all that is real and memorable.