Out of My Mind

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.

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