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Integrating the Head with the Heart

Integrating The Head With The Heart

Summary of Insights Winter 2016 - Josh Korda


I’m an empowered Buddhist dharma teacher, which means I spend a lot of time addressing groups of students, in the course of annual retreats and two or three weekly classes around Manhattan and Brooklyn; however, the focal point of my life’s work involves providing one-on-one spiritual and psychological mentoring to individuals. What’s of central importance to my interpersonal work is emotion integration, by which I mean the practice of bringing one’s underlying, spontaneous, instinctive feeling states into ongoing conscious attention and decision making.
Now, you may well wonder, why would anyone need help perceiving or assimilating emotions? Aren’t they readily apparent? However, I’ve found, over the course of working in depth with hundreds of individuals, that many of us live at estranged distances from our authentic feelings, depending on strategies of denial, numbing, and other repressive tools to maintain internal states of comfort when loneliness, sadness, fear, guilt, or anger are present. These are difficult states to stay with, and are often associated with previous experiences involving interpersonal shame, rejection, and abandonment (more on this theme below). It is, in other words, far from a given that we relate to our feelings with appreciation, care, and interest. Yet true emotion recognition is the only thing that can motivate each individual to make authentic life choices.
The emotional mind, as detailed by the acclaimed neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in his now classic 1994 text Descartes’ Error, plays an integral part in rational decision making:
…human reason depends on several brain systems, working in concert across many levels of neuronal organization, rather than on a single brain center. Both "high-level" and "low-level" brain regions cooperate in the making of reason.… [The lower levels] are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings.… [T]hey are within the chain of operations that generate the highest reaches of reasoning, decision making, and, by extension, social behavior and creativity.  Emotion, feeling and biological regulation all play a role in human reason. (p. xvii)
I know of no other healing process that compares with emotion integration in developing meaningful life priorities; how else can we live with any sense of authenticity or individual freedom if our true, spontaneous feelings are not in accord with our plans? Unlike so many spiritual and therapeutic tools that require long-term commitment to achieve gradual payoffs, I’ve found that helping people identify their feelings and impulses on the spot is often rewarded with prompt and comprehensive psychological benefits.
[Case study, found at bottom, could be inserted here.]
Ready connection with the emotional mind, however, is not as easy to develop as other spiritual practices—such as concentration and insight-based meditations—for other practices can be fostered alone, at home, or in groups of dedicated but largely novice practitioners. The life-changing potentials of emotion awareness invariably requires the support not only of a spiritual mentor or therapist, but also of a support community or large group of caring friends, if it is to be effectively established. The emotional mind surfaces and reveals itself in safe, social settings; it is in the “secure container” of spiritual communities, recovery meetings, share circles filled with friends, intensive group processes at retreats, or well-guided group therapy that the greatest emotional healing is fostered.
To make wise decisions we're not just analytically and cognitively weighing out a bunch of possible future outcomes, we're also integrating a wide array of historical, personal events—past experiences during which we felt strong emotional states—into the equation. These histories of resonant events are expressed through physical, embodied feelings. For example, tightness in the abdomen, rapid breath, scattered attention (i.e., fear) can signal we’re in the presence of a situation similar to earlier circumstances during which we felt imperiled. (Damasio found that when the unconscious regions of the brain responsible for monitoring physical states are damaged, individuals become incapable of making choices: reduced body awareness results in frozen states of bewilderment; even though the rational mind is intact, the brain can no longer make even simple decisions; without our emotions, we’re essentially incapacitated. Damasio called this the Somatic Marker Theory.)
As the emotional mind is maintained by largely nonverbal processes, sheltered in the darkness of the unconscious mind, it speaks to us largely through the body: contractions in the chest or stomach, feelings of anxiety, facial expressions, the crack in the tone of our voice when we are sad even though we don't know why, watering eyes, sudden feelings of elation, or attention spans that are jumpy and cannot settle. We are constantly sending ourselves a wide array of information that conveys our resonant histories; the body speaks our truths.
It’s also worth noting here that the bulk of our emotional activations are based on our past interpersonal experiences, for those events tend to activate the strongest feelings. As the psychologist Matthew Lieberman shows in his 2013 book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, emotions articulate how well connected we are with other people; how well connected we feel to our friends and families. Feelings can be viewed as social thermostats, in that they provide feedback about how securely connected we feel to others. Loneliness, for example, signals states of interpersonal disconnection, while anger bolsters the urge to punish those who have mistreated us—both of which place us in physically contracted, defensive states, as we feel vulnerable. Joy, on the other hand, switches off our defensive vigilance, rewarding us with physical ease, as we’ve successfully connected with others and feel less exposed. Grief is the wounded withdrawal we feel when an important attachment figure is no longer available; shame and guilt are social emotions we experience when we do harm to the tribe and to the people we depend on. 
Why are emotions messages about our states of interpersonal connection? Human beings are social beings. Our great survival advantage doesn’t accrue from running fast, fighting well, scampering up trees; we don't have physical shells or armoring that can protect us. But what we can do with great alacrity is attach to others, and not only in one manner; we cement relationships in multiple ways. We may connect through lists of our favorite movies or places to travel, or the plans and anecdotes we express via language, but we also attach to each other in through facial expressions, laugher and tears, body language, tones of voice. When I convey my sadness through all these nonverbal means, you not only feel, or empathize with, my sadness, you mirror it back; we feel connected on a much deeper level than language. We are connected via our feelings, or “hearts,” not just our thoughts, or “heads.” 
When our species was first evolving, there was another species we competed with for the same resources; our competitors were not only bigger and stronger than us, they were faster, featuring even bigger brains than ours. But this other species, the Neanderthals, is now extinct, for while their brains provided better eyesight and hearing, they had smaller frontal lobes, and thus poorer emotion integration, which meant they didn’t work well in teams, didn't work in groups, and were easily outmatched by our ancestors. Our ability to connect through language and emotional activations provided our greatest survival advantage. 
Each of us embarks on the journey of life by seeking to connect with caretakers, as we are entirely vulnerable, incapable of surviving on our own. As the psychologist John Bowlby noted, the drive to attach is as powerful as the impulse to attain food and warmth.
Of course, language isn’t used in any meaningful way to communicate with adults until we’ve survived to three or four years of age, by which time the brain’s right hemisphere has been largely formatted: by 18 months of age, our ‘emotional maps of the world,’ which maintain our expectations of how other people will behave toward us, how secure we are in the world, are established.
Each child initially speaks to its parents through nonverbal expressions of sadness, fear, frustration, and joy. When a parent is attuned, and capable of providing a tolerant environment, these emotions are mirrored back to the infant, which creates ‘emotion recognition’ and feelings of security. So the mother or father will smile when the child is happy, or frown when the child is sad, or express shock when the child is surprised. If all goes well, the child begins to feel comfortable with its emotional life and feels confident in a world of other people; when a “secure base” is established, the child will grow to be a confident adult.
Conversely, if caretakers are systematically impatient or unavailable, a safe space isn’t developed, and the infant will learn to suppress the emotions that lead to disconnection. In the earliest years of life, practices of social compliance and false selves can be developed, for disconnection with caretakers is the most dreaded state a child can experience. 
As we grow older, our conscious, conceptual minds—concerned with ideas, narratives, and language—take control of maintaining our ‘social image,’  the idealized version of ourselves, the way we want to be seen and thought of by others: smart, creative, caring, exploratory. Maintaining a social image involves promotion—putting up preferred images of oneself on Instagram, advertising ourselves on Facebook, LinkedIn, or related sites through appropriate posts. To care about one’s social image means keeping track of our ‘reputation,’ what other people are saying about us out of earshot. Ironically, one’s social image can be attended to utterly alone, in the absence of social interactions, on a laptop; many prefer such isolation during self-construction.
 Meanwhile, the emotional mind cares less about the social image; it seeks the empathetic mirroring that occurs directly, face to face, when another individual sees our loneliness or frustration and signals, via gestures, expressions, and tone of voice, that we are loved. While the conceptual mind concerns itself with keeping embarrassing secrets to maintain our ‘social image,’ the emotional mind may desperately want to reveal our hidden truths, to be fully seen and accepted.
It goes without saying that a society made up of individuals who spontaneously express each and every emotion would make for challenging, even nakedly impolite encounters. But burying one’s emotions is no solution. The cost of inhibiting the appearance and continuity of emotions over the course of decades causes significant damage to our physical and psychological well-being, as any psychologist will affirm. What invariably results is a cycle of suffering: Challenging emotions arise; we distract our attention and try to present a happier or more confident appearance, only to find ourselves suddenly anxious during our social interactions, eventually falling into practices of avoidance and isolation. And the feelings we’ve suppressed don’t go away, they force their way back into future encounters, where we might act them out, expressing anger to innocent bystanders or fear during harmless circumstances.
Emotion repression has been implicated in too many psychological disorders to count, though I would be remiss not to mention some of the most prominent: obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety, agoraphobia, borderline personality disorder, not to mention the countless forms of addiction (note the impressive relevant findings mentioned in Philip Flores’s 2004 masterpiece Addiction as Attachment Disorder).
When we deny our feelings, relationships become compromised, as our body language, gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions demonstrate our emotions faster than we can consciously control. (The neuroscientists Benjamin Libet and Joseph LeDoux, among others, have established that emotional activations only take about one-tenth of a second to appear, while our conscious thoughts require at least a half a second to arise, so by the time we decide to feign happiness, our sadness has been visible for roughly 400 milliseconds.) So, while we try to put on a brave face, other can tell there’s something false being presented; they can no longer trust us, for what we’re doing and saying no longer align. Furthermore, the stress of concealment creates what the esteemed Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner called excessive ‘cognitive overload,’ a state where suppression sabotages how well we perform tasks and relate to others.
I would suggest that an individual’s sense that something is missing or incomplete, or even something dark and monstrous lingering in the mind, results from the ghostly traces we have of all authentic feelings we’ve buried over the years, rather than learned to express. And I’d go further, and suggest that all addictions—substance-based or behavioral—are essentially attempts to numb and bury the very emotions we expect others will reject, based on our early childhood experiences. Drugs, alcohol, addictive shopping, food, and substance addictions can be seen as attempts to replace other people in the role of relieving our painful emotions. Human beings are psychologically set up to seek others for processing emotions; if we learn early on that many impulses will be shunned, we may seek drugs or compulsive behaviors to suppress those emotions. 
If we could simply repress our emotions, and thus make them go away, it would be a much easier state of affairs. But once again, emotions are vital messages about our interpersonal status and security; so suppressed emotions don't go away; they linger beneath the surface of awareness, waiting to rise up and express themselves any way they can. Someone who has not allowed themselves to feel the grief of a divorce—believing that grief is too scary to hold—will find themselves handicapped in developing new relationships, for the expectations of abandonment or disconnection will play out in each subsequent interpersonal connection; more and more feelings will be withheld, and false personas will be displayed in romantic encounters.
Emotions do not go away.
When people lose touch with emotions, there are other telltale signs as well:
Over-scheduling and busyness is a sign we don’t believe we will receive acceptance and love simply through the expression of our core emotions. We therefore attempt to win love through achievement and accomplishment.
Procrastination is often an expression of poor emotion integration. Take for example an individual who is a wonderful photographer, but when it comes time for her to enter a local photo contest, she can't fill out the entry application. She puts it off, stalls, continually rewrites the application; too much time passes and the competition—which she may well have won—is subsequently closed. Why is this? Is it because she is lazy or can't follow through with goals? No. At some point, early in life, during occasions when she expressed her creative, spontaneous, authentic feelings to others, she may well have experienced shame or rejection. This would create the emotional belief that any expression of her true, authentic feelings will continually lead to rejection. If she could reconnect with this underlying fear and express it to others, however, the first steps in dismantling procrastination would be taken.
Having completed a basic overview of the topic at hand, what follows are the twin methods that foster emotion integration and healing: creating the internal safe container for emotions to arise, without being met with resistance or suppression, along with an external, interactive setting where these previously concealed emotions can be expressed and met with safe, empathetic mirroring and naturalizing.

What do we do about all this?
The essence of spiritual practice involves the reintegration of emotions that have been systematically buried, whether through substances, workaholism, food addictions, binge shopping, or avoidance coping. When we learn to feel and express our feelings, we start to feel more spontaneous and trusting in life, less blocked, stuck, or prone to procrastination; again, unacknowledged emotions are what keep us stuck. 
Emotion integration has two stages: (1) creating a safe container for the recognition and investigation of emotions, and (2) practicing the external, or interpersonal, expression of emotions.

A Safe Container for Emotion Recognition
Internal awareness is based on nonjudgmental present-time awareness, dropping whatever story is playing obsessively in the mind, distracting us from what is felt in the body. This practice is by no means limited to the cushion, in fact it’s essential to develop an ongoing, embodied awareness, during which we acknowledge all the physical states experienced in the body, beneath the parade of thoughts.
So we must go into the body and find where the obsessive thought is being held. The goal is to stop repeating the resentment—for instance due to the end of a relationship, all the history of the relationship and the outrage at the behavior of an ex-partner or friend—to simply put that aside and go into the body.
The first step is to connect with the emotional sensations playing out in the front of the body (as Barbara Frederickson and other psychologists have noted, emotional contractions are largely activated by the vagus nerve, which activates facial expressions, neck and chest contractions, abdominal tension). Noting the physical sensations, we label whatever emotion is present; this requires putting aside whatever story is playing over and over in the mind, essentially masking the emotion. (If it's an outrage story, it's probably anger, while grief or sadness is masked by self-pity.)
Whatever emotion is present, no matter how unpleasant, allow it to flow through the body: loneliness may first express itself as a hollowness in the chest, then spread, creating a sense of tension in the shoulders and neck, a sense of listlessness in the mind, along with tears or sensations in the micro-muscles around the eyes. The key is to permit the full, somatic expression of whatever seeks our attention; remember, when we permit emotions to arise, they pass as well.
All emotions that we're going to be working with are going to be playing in the very front of the body, for that is where the vagus nerve, central in affect expression, activates. So if your back is tight, or legs uncomfortable, simply relax those areas.
Investigate the entire experience, not just how it appears at first, but the entire lifespan of sadness or anger or fear. When the feelings are at their greatest intensity, we may start addressing the experience with compassion. I use phrases such as, "I care about my suffering," "I'll take care of my suffering," "I care about these feelings," anything that reassures the emotional mind that its content is welcome. 
Often, in times of my life where I’ve felt lonely or disconnected, I practice putting aside whatever thought-based story is playing in the mind, masking the feeling, and go directly to the sensation; again, loneliness for me generally presents as a hollowness in the chest. I sit with this feeling, and eventually old images and memories will start to arise; my entire history of loneliness will appear, then dissipate; it becomes a feeling I no longer need to run from, and now, when it arises, I feel far less anxiety or discomfort.

A Safe Container for Emotion Recognition
Without expressing our emotions in interpersonal settings, protracted and powerful feelings can be experienced as unbearable and toxic, rather than developing well-being. For emotions to be fully processed, it’s essential to locate safe individuals who can tolerate and support us while we verbalize our most disruptive and painful affects. When we risk expressing our grief, fear, anger, and loneliness, we open ourselves not only to vulnerability and intimacy, but the possibility of healing.
Interpersonal work involves expressing and signaling entirely internal, implicit, and often dreaded personal feelings to other people, in search of tolerant understanding and ‘normalizing’ (when others acknowledge our feelings, they appear less unique or ‘personal,’ making them easier to share aloud, less isolating or unique).
In the interpersonal exercises I lead at every retreat, I’ll split the attendees into tetrads (groups of four), having each group sit facing each other in close proximity, near enough that soft speech can be easily deciphered.
One by one, the members of the groups take turns, expressing whatever they experience in relation to a theme or topic I’ll announce aloud. For example: “Right now I am aware of [specific sensations] in my body.” “Right now I am aware of the following feeling or emotion.” “Right now, I don’t want you to know the following [thought, feeling, experience] about me.” While most people—even spiritual practitioners—might dread such exercises during their mundane lives, during the course of a spiritual retreat, where interpersonal consideration is paramount, people grow to relax and ‘drop their guard’ (become less reactive and defensive). I’ve rarely experienced the participant who has struggled during these exercises.
Before offering the above for reflection, participants are instructed in the basic tools of expressing emotions in a safe, interpersonal container: We stop, breathe, and feel, meaning we focus our attention away from whatever thoughts, memories, or intrusive perceptions are dominating awareness.
We stop constructing and attending to the internal, alternative universes in the mind, all the stories and conditioned reactions, developing an open awareness to inner experience. Stopping is simply slowing down, opening up a channel to appreciate what we feel, hear, experience internally.
We breathe to become primarily attuned to our internal sensations, the physical home that supports our existence. It’s a kind of awareness that’s pure, stripped of conceptualizing or judgment, a return to the natural.
We feel the sensations, movements, contractions, and tensions that constitute the felt body. The emphasis is less on calming or relaxing the body than simply paying attention to what it presents. We’re simply being present with inner sensations, rather than combating what we feel; we’re meeting our somatic experience with acceptance, rather than resistance or the inclination to distract ourselves.
When we share aloud, we focus on articulating this inner landscape; the conversion of feelings into thoughts will be awkward, and it’s best to always include descriptions of inner sensations: “I’m feeling a tightness in my chest, my breath is shallow, my mind is finding it difficult to settle,” rather than saying, “I’m anxious.”
When it’s our turn to listen, we open to other people with the same degree of nonverbal awareness and relaxed, nonjudgmental acceptance with which we greet our own inner sensations or feelings. We attend to other people with curiosity and care; our attention and interest widens as we take in mutual experience.
In connecting during emotional support exercises, we share without any agenda or goal. We’re not trying to gain new friends or attain approval, impress or startle. We’re trusting that in being vulnerable and open, aware without focusing on inner thought, a rich interconnection with others will develop. While important conceptual personal insights may occur as the result, the cathartic release of secretly held feelings is the real intention. The aim is to develop a fully inclusive awareness, rather than foster better communication skills (though that can occur as well). As we continue listening and sharing from the heart, the mutuality provides the strength to greet our most painful emotional activations in a new way, stripped of reactivity, defensiveness, avoidance, or denial, no longer worried about rejection or shaming. Practitioners report that it can feel like a new approach to living; turning to other people with complete emotional transparency, without any desire to impress or manage what others think. Suddenly we feel lighter in our bodies, less guarded, patiently open, not feeling pressured to get our views or opinions heard.
In external mindfulness, each sensation, feeling or mind state that arises is offered an opportunity to be acknowledged and expressed. Rather than constantly returning to our ideas, we allow them to wait their turn, trusting that our thoughts will remain intact if they are important enough. If an idea vanishes while we share our physical and emotional experience, we learn to let them pass without worrying we haven’t been seen or heard: we have. We are not our ideas; we are not our feelings. We are simply beings seeking to connect through the vulnerable and true expression of the heart.

[case study follows]
John [pseudonym] arrived in mentoring lamenting his constant struggles in dating, in which a clear pattern had developed; intelligent, extroverted and confident, he found it easy to attract women, via Tinder and OKCupid, for dates. And while the early course of a budding relationship would go smoothly, avoidant tendencies would quickly surface: his current companion would be perceived as either needy or ‘not as fun’ as he originally surmised. When asked to narrate his early childhood experiences, the events that created his avoidant patterns were revealed: a distant father who preferred work over family gatherings, coupled with a marginalized mother who, disappointed in how her life had turned out, took to micromanaging her son’s hobbies, creating an engulfing arena where it became important for the child to ‘find space.’ And so he grew to perceive women as a necessary ‘problem,’ a way to attain sexual gratification and narcissistic validation, yet seeking distance was equally important to ensure a sense of personal freedom from intrusion and obligation. 

While the ‘symptom’ John wanted to address was his challenge in ‘finding the right person,’ what had to be acknowledged—through insight meditation practice, guided reflections, interpersonal dialogue, and experiential awareness—was how the underlying ‘internal working models’ of his emotional mind were constantly choosing women who would recapitulate his early, childhood relationships, creating the same disappointing result. Freedom from the past required observing how his emotional mind was distorting and sabotaging his search for a ‘lasting partnership.’


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