I think therefore I feel…. Maybe not

In Western Civilization, from what I can see, the brain is king.  This may sound like a strange thing to say, but if you examine our philosophical history which has often driven scientific inquiry,[1] thoughts, feelings, and ideas have long been associated with the mind – which has long been associated with the brain.  In a typical Trickster trap that turns the world on it’s head (quite literally in this case), new research indicates that the composition of our guts may have more to do with what goes on in our brain than we thought[2].  I have a feeling that this research is just the first fracture of many to come that will break this firmly entrenched belief.[3]

Recently I’ve started thinking of the brain as somewhat like an old telephone switchboard operator. Calls come in and the operator works the switchboard so that the call can go through.  If the switchboard goes down no phone calls are connecting, but that doesn’t mean no one’s trying to call.  The brain, after all, is a processor.  It processes the inputs we take in via our senses, it does not (in most cases) create them.  We seem to be in a place, as a society, where we’ve decided the operator switchboard is the source of almost all the phone calls.

Late last year, as I was preparing for the birth of my second child, I was meditating for large chunks of time using, among other things, the Sounds True, Insight Meditation series[4] tracks for emotions and body sensations (these are two separate tracks).   One of the many times I was listening to the “meditation on emotions” track, I noticed Joseph Goldstein say “note the feeling tone of the mind” and I checked.  Wait… what? But I don’t feel in my mind[5].   Listening to these two tracks so often in close succession, began to tease apart the concepts of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations in my mind.  It was as if I had been holding a rock in my hand, but when I looked again a thousand grains of sand were filtering through my fingers.

There’s a reason they’re called feelings

In my experience, we seem to think thoughts and emotions go together like rama lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist a Grease musical reference there.)  For the first time I started to question that.  What if they are not so closely associated?

Many of us are already acquainted with how being hungry can make us very irritable.  If we’re not paying attention an argument can blow up about something completely unrelated to our hunger.  The conflict may resolve, but if we don’t eat another storm may brew before long.  In such a case, the intensity behind our emotions  is not a result of what we’re arguing about, but something else entirely.

Thus, we know that we can experience bodily sensations that cause us to ’feel’ a particular way and that those ’feelings’ can be transferred or misattributed to a thought or situation.  If this were only true for hunger, sleepiness, or sickness it wouldn’t be so difficult.  We all have experience with these bodily needs and with a little awareness they are pretty easy to spot.

Unfortunately, there are other influences that we are less cognizant of that can cause the same kind of effect.  Past life memories are one potential trigger for emotions that have nothing to do with thoughts.  We may run into a person, place, or thing from a past life and transfer the past-life emotions into the current life without even realizing it.  I don’t want to dwell on that case too much here because it’s pretty rare and I’ve already written several posts about past life influence on our present lives.[6]

What you don’t know CAN hurt you

Energetic influence, however, is more common than we may think and another input to our “feelings” that may be overlooked from general lack of awareness or sensitivity.  I have been energy sensitive[7] now for eighteen years and I still have much difficulty sorting through the energetic inputs I receive.  For example, whenever i’m in a large crowd of people (especially children) and there’s music playing or a show of some sort, i cry.  I have cried at the silliest, most ridiculous shows, shows I didn’t even think were GOOD.

My husband laughs at me good-naturedly, and I suppose it is funny.  Still, I don’t know why it happens – I don’t know why i’m crying.  It’s an emotional response that’s not tied to a thought at all.  I suspect the behavior is related to being ‘overwhelmed’ by the energy of the crowd, but I am still unsure.[8]  Another example of this occurred during my brief[9] encounter with a Christian mystical church in January 2013.

I was waiting in a comfortable, parlor-like room for services to begin and parked myself on a small orange chair that looked like it belonged in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.  The minute I sat down I could feel this tremendously strong, roiling energy at my back.  The intensely tumultuous energy was so distracting and disturbing that I couldn’t sit in the chair.

I moved to the identical chair ’kitty corner’ from the first, but while the energy in the new chair was more calm it was still incredibly powerful and deeply unsettling – too much for me; I had to get up again.  Warily, I sat on the oversize couch in the room, being careful not to let my back touch the cushions at all. That seemed to be “free” of any notable energy, and only then could I somewhat relax.

In the first example there’s a clear enough disconnect between my thoughts and emotional response to help me realize something strange is going on. In the second example, however, had I not been energy sensitive I might have taken on the emotions from the energy in that first chair as if they were my own.  If I went looking for rational (in other words, “thought-based”) reasons to explain why I was feeling that way, I might have completely misattributed those feelings to something going on in my own life.

Don’t let it go to your head

For me, these examples and experiences reduce to two fundamental ideas.  One is that we may need to start distancing ourselves from the belief that emotions are in our mind.  So far, from my experience, emotions are actually felt; they are mostly a body sensation.  Perhaps we need to really challenge where emotions fall on the spectrum between body sensations and mental activity.[10]  Secondly, we could benefit from taking a closer look at the tie between our thoughts and our emotions. Maybe we should avoid “looking” for thoughts to match our emotions or even labeling our emotions (unless we really, really understand them).

Why do we feel the need to “look” for a reason to be feeling what we are?  Perhaps it’s because, in our rational minds, we do not handle uncertainty well… I know i don’t.  By tying our feelings directly to our thoughts we may be subconsciously seeking to have ’control’ over them – if we can explain a feeling, even name it, we think we have some sort of influence over it.   In doing this we banish uncertainty to the margins of consciousness.  Unfortunately it stubbornly refuses to stay there.

The trouble with ’looking’ for a reason for our feelings is that we run a high risk of either misattributing them or transferring them.[11]  If we do that we may find ourselves having conflict (or, in the case of happy feelings, entering relationships) based on emotions we don’t really understand the genesis of.[12]  Additionally, when whatever we misattributed the feeling to gets resolved – we’ll be unpleasantly surprised and dissatisfied to find that our feelings have not resolved.

Please note that I am not trying to suggest that thoughts are NEVER tied to emotions, in many cases they are.  I am simply suggesting that we don’t take the association for granted, that we investigate.

Reach out and touch….yourself[13]

If you’re game to try separating out your feelings  from your thoughts, the first place i recommend starting is with the dual meditations of body sensations and emotions.[14]  When doing these, notice the body sensations of your emotions.  Practice just being with your feelings rather than trying to tie them to thoughts or experiences.  Instead of labeling your feelings, question them.  For example, instead of saying to yourself “this is nervousness” ask yourself “is this nervousness?” What exactly am I feeling?  A tightening in my chest? A tingling in my lower abdomen or lower back?  A tensing of my facial muscles? Your body (and your energy-body) will talk to you if you’re willing to listen.

Once you have some experience doing this in a meditative setting and feel comfortable that you can, at least, focus on an emotional body sensation, take it out of the meditation session and pull it into your daily experience.  Although it can be helpful to do a checkpoint whenever you feel something strong[15] be mindful that this can cause the misattribution confusion I mentioned earlier.  A more targeted exercise for the ideas in this post would be to do random checkpoints throughout the day whether or not you are experiencing a strong emotion.  This can help you isolate FEELING from thought.

Unfortunately I don’t have any easy answers for how to tell when you are feeling something directly related to a thought versus an energetic, past life, or bodily influence.  If you practice being with your own body sensations, though, I believe you will be able to sort this out for yourself eventually. If nothing else, it will give you another tool to help bring you into the moment – which is really all we have.


[1] not in all cases of course, but in many

[2] Michael Pollan writes in his latest book, Cooked, “A recent study performed in Ireland found that introducing a certain probiotic species found in some fermented foods… to the diet of mice has a measurable effect on their stress levels and mood, altering the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain…researchers found they could block the effect by severing the vagus nerve that links the gut to the brain” (pg 328)  When I read this I laughed in delight.  I’m not going to go look up the specific quote from Lewis Hyde’s Trickster book, but the first part of his book is devoted to the Trickster and appetite (or – the stomach & gut).  I don’t focus on that at all in my Trickster post bc frankly there are too many meaningful pieces in that book and not enough space in a post for me to write about all of them.  Anyway, Hyde mentions, “The Sugars in the gut provide the fuel for the brain.”  I imagine at the time he thought it was a bit of a stretch to try to connect the Trickster’s cunning to his association with appetite & the intestines (in some stories, quite literally, Tricksters are strongly associated with the intestines).  Then this little gem of research starts surfacing and some twenty years later, the connection is made for him! 🙂  It’s the kind of thing that makes you really love life.

[3] While I was drafting this post, actually, my husband directed me to an article on The Verge about flatworms retaining memories after their brains had been removed and they had grown a new one. (you can read it here)  So, first of all, the very idea that the rest of the flatworm grows a new brain turns the ‘brain is king’ mentality on it’s head.  Secondly – and this is what the article speculates – the idea that memories are stored elsewhere beside the brain also challenges this outdated belief.

[4] produced by Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein

[5] now some who read this may quibble that the “mind” isn’t necessarily synonymous with the brain – and I have also listened to meditation tracks that talk about the body-mind.  This is perfectly conceivable – however, in my experience when most people use the term ‘mind’ they associate it with the brain.

[6] I did a past life series about my own past life regression experience, the first post can be found here

[7] So this is nothing particularly special about me.  Anyone with a little patience and inclination can become energy sensitive.  The easiest, most reliable way is to meditate regularly and when you’re “in” the meditation a bit to hold the palms of your hands about an inch apart (focusing on the very center of the palm).  Move your hands / palms towards and away from each other and after a few meditation sessions (or maybe your first time if you’ve got an undiscovered knack for this kindof thing) you will feel a sensation that’s a little bit like pulling taffy between your palms… you can go from there.

[8] I started to strongly suspect this phenomenon might be related to my energy sensitivity when one of my meditation teachers who is also an energy healer mentioned that she cries during her sessions and that this is how she ‘releases’ the energy of the session (ie, the energy moving between her and her patient).  It occurred to me that my crying might also be a ‘release’ of energy that I was taking on from the crowd.  Obviously I don’t know that to be the case, but it’s the most logical explanation I’ve found thus far.

[9] and by brief I mean a matter of weeks not months 🙂

[10] There may be some who point to brain activity and use it as an indication that emotions are anchored in the brain, but remember what I said earlier about the brain being a processor.  We don’t seriously speculate that the outside world doesn’t exist just because activity shows up in a particular part of the brain when we see.  We may need to ask ourselves – which comes first the body sensation or the brain activity?

[11]  to help explain the distinction; I see ‘misattributing’ as a rationalization. “I must be feeling angry because of ‘x’” We don’t really know why we feel the way we do so we try to self-analyze and figure it out. On the flipside ‘Transferrence’ happens when we do really feel a particular way about a particular thing but some ourside influence magnifies the intensity.

[12] As another example – i’ve read in multiple places that perceived danger can heighten sexual attraction.

[13] If you cringe or laugh when you read this, good J.  I wanted to shy away from using this heading at first (which is a reference to an old Bell Telephone add “Reach out and touch someone”) but it’s a reminder to myself as much as my readers not to take me tooooo seriously 🙂

[14] It would probably be helpful, although not necessary, if you’ve meditated at least a few times before attempting this.  The Salzberg / Goldstein Insight Meditation program can be pretty good if you’re just starting out as it functions almost like a meditation ‘course.’ – and, as a bonus, has the two very tracks I’m talking about in it 🙂

[15] I have an upcoming ‘Dances with Books’ post on the book Thanks for the Feedback in which this exercise will be discussed in more detail using an example from my own life.

WARNING: This is not a book review.   This is the first post in my new series “Dances with Books.”  To learn more about what that means- read here

I found freedom in the ugly truth” – Madonna, Living for Love


Some dances are fast and frenetic, they start and finish before you even know what happened.  This is a slow dance.  A long dance; one that started four or five years ago.  I was sitting down to dinner with my husband and in-laws at a local Tapas place when my brother-in-law brought up the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage.

He had been struggling for some time with some personal issues and thought it might be helpful for him to go.  I must have made a dismissive noise because he looked pointedly at me and said, “I thought this sortof thing would be right up your alley.” “You’re not going to find yourself by going somewhere,” I responded, “you have to look within.”

So I had to laugh, embarrassed at my own arrogance in that long ago conversation, when I read that renowned spiritualist Sonia Choquette’s latest book, Walking Home: A Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed, chronicled her time walking the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.  As I read her story, an understanding that had only just started developing in the prior year became clear. [1]  In walking with Sonia, I found my own path out of bondage – a bondage I hadn’t even realized I was in.

Binding Light

Before leaving for her trek, Sonia writes quite a bit about the beating she takes from herself and others about her reactions to the loss of her father and brother; “I prayed for these feelings to go away, but they didn’t budge, and for that I was also disappointed in myself.  Being this angry with my now-dead brother didn’t fit in at all with my self-image as a spiritual teacher and guide, and that left me feeling embarrassed.  If I let slip to anyone that I did harbor these feelings, especially to any of my spiritual or professional peers, I was immediately chastised.  I was told things like: ‘Forgive him.’ ‘Don’t Judge.’ ‘It was your karma to have a brother like this.’ ‘Be grateful it wasn’t you.’ ‘I’m surprised that you feel this way given that you should know better.’”[2]

No matter where we are in life or on the path we can expect to be subjected to the expectations of others.  People always seem to have an idea of what it means to be ‘spiritual.’ They say things like; “If you were so spiritually advanced you would do this more, or do that less.  Be more x, be less Y.  Care more about this, Care less about that.”  Etc.

Not only do we face expectations from others, but also from ourselves.  Sonia writes, “It.. shamed me.  I was not supposed to be angry with him.  He was dead, for God’s sake!  I was supposed to have unconditional love for him and be glad he was at peace.” [3]  As frustrating and discouraging as the criticism of others can be, nothing is quite as defeating as our own unmet expectations for ourselves.

Sonia relays how she chastised herself about her feelings, “Come on, Sonia.  Really? Haven’t you worked out your childhood wounding yet?… How pathetic of you.”  I’ve certainly faced this kind of self-recrimination in my own heart many, many times in the last eighteen years.  I thought I was past this – why do I still get angry, jealous, hurt, frustrated, etc.  Without realizing it, I had constructed a prison out of my own (and others’) expectations and locked myself inside.  No wonder I’ve been so stuck.

Mind over Matter = Over Head Projector?

Not only do we carry the judgments of ourselves and others, but we also project our disappointment in ourselves onto others.  We make a bad situation even worse when we take a particular comment or behavior of another person and magnify it through the lens of our own insecurities.

Sonia writes, “I.. recognized… that the one who had injured me most was not my father at all.  Rather, it was me, by treating myself the way I had interpreted him to be treating me when I was a child” [4]  Here Sonia describes how she treats herself and we would do well to pay attention.  However, this type of projection can come into play, not only with self-treatment, but directly in our interactions with others.

I came to a realization late last year that because I was insecure about being attractive and desirable, I was projecting those feelings onto my husband.  I interpreted particular behaviors and comments on his part in such a way that they reinforced my own insecurity; clearly he found me unattractive and undesirable.  It took some powerful soul-searching by me on this topic to recognize what I was doing because although I didn’t feel unattractive or undesirable I was worried that I was and that created the impetus for my projection.

People have hundreds of motivations for doing and saying the things they do – but we interpret them using our own filter.  This isn’t to say that our projections are only the products of our imagination.  It may be that there is some truth to my assumptions and interpretations when it comes to my husband.  But it may be that 10% of what I’m interpreting is true to his feelings and the other 90% is my projection… or it may be 50/50, or it may all be in my mind.  The bottom line is – how he actually feels is quite independent of my projection.

Clean Break

It is only by engaging with our expectations, fears, and insecurities that we can begin to see how and where we project them.  Sonia writes, “Maybe it was time to stop judging even these dark parts of myself and just acknowledge and accept that I have some of these fears at times…”[5]

Reading about Sonia’s walk helped me come to a deep realization of my own.  I had been mostly defining myself by my mystical experience eighteen years ago.   While I have certainly been actively walking the path and have endured and exulted in a number of spiritual tests and triumphs since then, there was a part of me that was always looking back to that experience and trying to get “there” again.  There was a part of me that thought any “authority” I had on spiritual matters was informed by that experience.  For the first time in eighteen years – I was able to start releasing my hold on that attachment.

This may sound like nothing, but it can be very powerful to take a defining moment in your life and say, you know, that was incredible and I learned a lot, but it’s over – really over – and it’s time to move on.  It’s time to stop seeing the rest of my life as the waves created by that one impact.  I found freedom in my own ugly truth. Yes, there are lots of expectations I’m not meeting.  No, I’m not spiritually connected all the time – experiencing union and bliss.  But also, I no longer have to keep trying to be ‘there.’  It’s okay for me to be right where I am.

This liberating understanding further refined a concept that has been germinating inside me for a few years; the concept of allowing.  To allow is to “permit something to happen or exist.”[6]  When we allow we are not making anything happen, we are not forcing a particular outcome.[7]  We are simply letting people, events, ourselves be what they are.  When this concept originally occurred to me a few years ago, it was via the understanding that “we need to allow people to change.”[8]  But, for the first time, inspired by Walking Home, I realized I needed to apply this to myself.  I need to allow myself to be who I am, where I am, now.

Sonia writes, “I also needed to stop seeing my ego as ‘the enemy’ and start seeing it as the ‘me’ who needed more love.  I didn’t have to fight my ego when it flared up in pain.”[9] Ego can be a very loaded term in the spiritual community – often associated with negative connotations.  Here, it seems to me, Sonia is saying, we need to stop pretending we can leave our ego at the curb, we need to recognize that it is part of who we are.

Diseases of the body often (though not always) have innocuous-seeming warning signs before developing into deeper problems.  In like fashion, we ignore or gloss over the concerns of our ego at our peril.  Our fears, hurts, angers and insecurities that are not handled in the conscious realm of the ego don’t disappear – they sink to our subconscious where they become much more difficult to find and eradicate.[10]  We need to allow ourselves to have an ego and we need to allow ourselves to engage with it.

Inside Out

One of my favorite expressions over the last decade or so is this one; knowing is half the battle.   I love this phrase because there is a little trick to it that can catch the unwary, but the truth is there for those who look.  Most often this saying is used to reassure someone that – when they’ve figured out the cause of a problem – they are halfway to conquering it.  The trick, of course, is in the word “half.”  Knowing may be half the battle, but you still have another half battle to fight… and presumably you’re tired and discouraged from the first half!  There is a gap, and not a small one, between understanding and execution.

As Sonia puts it, “Forgiveness, at least for me, came about in increments.  I had to feel and honor my wounds and traumas before I could release them.  For years I had tried to forgive through spiritual platitudes, but in spite of my ambitious ideals, I only managed to bury my wounds even deeper into my bones.  Walking with my pain freed me from it.  I always wanted to forgive, but it was only through the act of being with my pain fully, walking with it day after day, that it began to ease up and leave my body, allowing me to open up to greater understanding of how people hurt one another, myself included.  In doing this I found compassion and could forgive and hope to be forgiven” [11]

It is something, a significant something, to recognize a pattern in my life – to see an attachment for what it is and start to loosen my grip. It would be naïve of me to think, however, that now that I can see the problem clearly it will just disappear on it’s own.  Even such a passive-seeming concept as “allowing” requires considerable effort to practice.  Sonia mentions walking with her pain.  I suspect I will need to walk with my own pain, my own insecurities, for quite some time before I can let go.  For now, at least, I’ve found my way out, my own path to freedom.

Songs I danced to while writing this: Madonna – Living for Love, Ariana Grande – Break Free, ODESZA – Say My Name, Calvin Harris – Outside

[1] In my post Everything is Now, I write about the process of ‘becoming’ – instead of thinking of development as time-based, recognizing all the pieces and parts that have to come together to make something what it is, or – from a different vantage point – someone who they are

[2]Walking Home: A Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed; Choquette, Sonia; Hay House; September 2014 –kindle location 199

[3] Walking Home: A Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed; Choquette, Sonia; Hay House; September 2014 – loc 193

[4] Walking Home: A Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed; Choquette, Sonia; Hay House; September 2014 – loc 1036

[5] Walking Home: A Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed; Choquette, Sonia; Hay House; September 2014 – loc 3409

[6] definition from dictionary.com

[7] I want to also note – that to allow is not to be a doormat – it is not to ‘let someone walk all over you’ or let you walk all over you.  Rather, allowing is about being and awareness; surrendering an imagined sense of control to an observation of how things come to be what they are.  Also – a recognition that they might change, and that’s okay.

[8] I use this word with the same intention in my post “Trickster Makes This Road” when I say, “we need to allow him to remain uncategorized.”  I hope to develop this concept more fully in an upcoming ‘dances with books’ post featuring the book Thanks for the Feedback – but, in a nutshell, what I mean here is that we need to stop engaging in behaviors that pigeon-hole others and ourselves, that make it difficult for ourselves and others to change.

[9] Walking Home: A Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed; Choquette, Sonia; Hay House; September 2014 – loc 4638

[10] once they are in the subconscious, they attract the Trickster influence to cleverly trap us in such a way that we cannot escape without engaging with them. As Sonia writes, As Sonia writes, “It’s frustrating when you are possessed by a pattern because you can’t really see it until it becomes so obvious that it smacks you in the face.” See my post Trickster Makes this Road for more about this.

[11] Walking Home: A Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed; Choquette, Sonia; Hay House; September 2014 – loc 4753

“…those who work the edge between what can and can’t be said do not escape from shame but turn toward it and engage with it.” Hyde, Lewis from Trickster Makes this World

You probably haven’t noticed, but there are not a lot of book reviews on this site.  Books have been an integral part of my own journey on the Spiritual Path, and when I launched the blog I had every intention of having a rather robust series of book reviews.  However, when I sat down to write them I found myself in a conundrum.  As I wrote, I noticed that the reviews were full of detail about how a particular book had affected me; realizations, connections, concepts and experiences I could relate to, and episodes in my life where a particular sentiment from a book seemed to  perfectly apply.  That material seemed entirely too personal to put in a book review.

Book reviews, it seemed to me at the time, should be somewhat distant from the content of a book and attempt to give an ‘objective’ description of topic, style, strengths, weaknesses, etc.  When I tried to write a book review that followed the above criteria, though, the reviews seemed overly basic in their description or very stilted and forced.  When I subtracted the personal element, I found I didn’t have much to say at all.  For awhile my solution was to just not write book reviews, but their omission has felt like a gaping hole in the blog since the beginning.  Feeling defeated, I tried a number of strategies to aid me in writing; [1] reading other people’s book reviews, following a particular formula, even looking up tips for writing book reviews on the internet.  My “finished” product, however, was never what I wished it to be and left me dispirited instead of satisfied.

So, of course, it was at 4am one morning[2] during the period of time that I was writing the Trickster post that an idea came to me.  Lewis Hyde notes in his book Trickster Makes this World  that the Trickster is associated with blocking opportunity or opening a way forward.[3]  I had just finished re-reading a portion in Hyde’s book that highlighted how two writers took aspects of themselves that they had been taught to be ‘ashamed’ of (ie, keep silent on) and wrote about them, thus exposing them for all the world to see.   By embracing the parts of themselves they felt pressured by their culture or family to reject, they had found their writing voice.

I must have been mulling this over subconsciously and concluded, why not? Although I wasn’t battling anything so serious as the issues of Hyde’s example writers, maybe I should challenge my ‘rejection’ of  the personal material I had put into my book reviews.  Maybe, instead of turning away from my intimate interactions with the pivotal books on my path – I should be embracing them.  Instead of sidelining them, maybe I should feature them.  Suddenly, breathlessly, I saw the path forward to giving great books the space they deserve on the blog… and a new series was born J

I have decided to call the series “Dances with Books;” the name capturing that my engagement with a book is, in many cases, more like a dance than a straightforward “reading” from beginning to end.  These posts will not be book reviews by any classical definition – although, by reading them you will probably learn something about the book and may be able to decide whether you want to read it or not.  I probably won’t talk about writing style, but I will talk about the ways I connect the content of the book with my own life.  These posts will tell you my story of reading the book.  Yes, they will be personal.  Yes, they will be biased.  Yes, they will be all about me… but hopefully, in reading about my path through the text, you will find something that resonates or, better yet, points you in a new direction on your own path.

[1]  I have had four reviews in draft for nearly a year now

[2] no, I do not deliberately get up at 4am.  We do have a new baby in the house, however, so I find myself ‘up’ at 4am quite a lot these days J.

[3] read my post “Trickster Makes this Road” for more about the Trickster influence