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Ignore the thoughts, feel the sensations
I’ve been talking about “feeling through the pain caused by the threat of being changed by a new idea.”
Here’s some guidance for how to actually do this — how to process an emotion.
It’s a chapter from an ebook I started writing, but never quite finished.
If a part of this strikes you or confuses you, let me know, and I’ll unpack it further!
Ignore the thoughts, feel the sensations
A devoted fan once asked John Lennon to explain the meaning of the lyrics to a particular Beatles song.
In his thick Liverpool accent, Lennon replied, "Doesn't mean nothin'. Sounds good coming off me tongue. I just write the words, you make up the meaning."
It wasn't some philosophical "meaning" or interpretation that made the words beautiful for Lennon — it was the sounds of the words.
In other words, the sensations.
What is true of those lyrics is true of emotions — their meaning is found in the physical sensations as they are experienced in the body.
Recall the only instruction in this book: “Ignore the thoughts, feel the sensations.”
Thoughts lead inevitably to action.
The great philosopher and founding father of psychology William James tells a funny story: One day, he was lying in bed on a cold morning, struggling to get up for a simple and familiar reason: he didn’t want to!
While consciously aware of both the warmth of the bed and the chill of the room, he describes being paralyzed with indecision and unable to move.
A few seconds later, he suddenly realizes that he has gotten up! Something had distracted him, or he had become lost in thought, and in the absence of contradictory thoughts of comfort and cold, his original thought of getting out of bed had expressed itself without any effort.
He was, he explains, "aware of nothing between the conception and the execution" of getting out of bed.
Sensations do not lead to action.
Dr. Pavlov famously trained his dog to associate the sound of a bell with food. Pavlov would ring a bell, and even without food present, the dog would salivate.
This is due to the association between the sound and the experience of hunger, which must be built up over time through conditioning.
The first time the dog heard the bell, it did not salivate.
But like Pavlov's dog, when we develop a habit of over-expressing our emotions, we condition ourselves to obey them. We feel emotional sensations arise, and without an opportunity to stop and reflect, we find ourselves believing and obeying the thoughts that accompany them. We see an upsetting Facebook post about politics, and immediately stop whatever we were doing to respond.
This conditioned inability to pause and question our emotions is as common as it is destructive, to the extent that Wilhelm Reich called it "the emotional plague."
Our vulnerability to this conditioning is one of the reasons consciously deciding to do nothing can be a helpful first step when an emotional upset arises.
Since this technique involves refusing to obey the impulses of your emotions, doing nothing is a simple and clear way to be sure, in the midst of an upset, that you are in command.
Thoughts could either be true or untrue.
This is true of any thoughts, whether they come from an emotion or not.
The problem with emotional thoughts is not that they are never true, but that they are never trustworthy.
Emotions seek first and foremost to justify their separate existence. Providing you with accurate facts and interpretations of the world is not a priority.
Reich explains that the thoughts arising from an emotion nevertheless have a certain "coherence," which allows them to appear rational and logical at the time without actually being either.
As a result, it is impossible to accurately judge the truth of a thought in the midst of emotional turmoil.
Sensations are neither true nor untrue, but certainly real.
There’s no such thing as a “false sensation.” When you feel a pit in your stomach, there it is!
No skill in judgment, or any faculty impaired by emotion, is required in order to clearly perceive sensations.
Thoughts will continue in cycles indefinitely, leading you through endless attempts to "figure things out."
Psychologists and people who have suffered from depression are aware of rumination, of repeatedly thinking the same thoughts in an attempt to resolve an intractable problem and cure oneself by “figuring it out.”
This occurs on a small scale with many distressing emotional experiences; we become entangled in the thoughts arising from an emotion in the attempt to resolve it.
Though it may feel at the time like we are "working on the problem," rumination rarely actually helps.
Emotional sensations are limited in quantity and will "run out" when given the proper attention.
Imagine a pressurized air canister. When under pressure, it has power. When that pressure is suddenly released, it exerts a force, and propels the can across the room.
Emotions behave as if “pressurized.” When triggered, they propel us to act in whatever direction they want to go. And if we refuse to obey that impulse, more sensations arise, and the pressure to act seems to intensify.
Simply feeling the sensations and allowing them to pass is like holding the canister still with one hand, and letting the air out of it with the other.
The pressure loses its power. The can doesn't fly across the room, and once the pressure is released, you can put it down wherever you want without worrying if it will "go off."
When we do this with emotions, their power to move us against our will is drained, and now the only reason it will move is at our deliberate request.
The emotion thus transforms from a nuisance to an asset; from a threat to a tool.
Paying attention to emotional thoughts leads to more emotions.
Emotions use thoughts to justify themselves, to compel action, and to prolong your suffering.
Paying attention to emotional sensations leads to clarity and peace.
Ignore the thoughts; Feel the sensations.
This is only a shorthand. “Ignore emotional thoughts” by itself leaves too much room for misinterpretation. It’s worth the up-front hassle to get a feel for what “ignore emotional thoughts” is intended to mean:
Don’t take emotional thoughts too seriously
Acknowledge emotional thoughts, without obeying them
Let go of emotional thoughts
Allow emotional thoughts to pass through without judgment
Starting to get a feel for it? If you have some meditation experience, these kinds of orientations should seem familiar.