What is the Problem With Your Feelings?

Most of us don’t know what to do with our feelings. When we feel them strongly, it seems as though we should do something: ignore them, express them, develop a narrative to explain them, identify with them. Many of us have the impression that our feelings say something about REALITY as in: “I can feel this in my gut and so, I know it’s true. It feels more true than anything else!” Then we may feel it is almost an obligation to tell someone else about how we feel, and if our feelings directly affect that person, we may start a ball in motion that keeps rolling on its own accord. And then we may become embroiled in some ridiculous argument about whose feelings are right.

But the problem is that feelings are not right or wrong. Feelings come and go. They don’t tell us anything about reality; they tell us something about ourselves at that moment, and about how we are experiencing ourselves in the context of the company we are keeping. It seems to me that certain schools of psychotherapy have made serious mistakes in guiding people to bring their feelings directly into actions and words instead of examining their feelings as one aspect of experience. Certainly, our bodies are designed, through our limbic systems and frontal cortex, to be motivated to carry our feelings into action. And yet, many of those feelings are programmed by primitive reactivity. Our passions and attachment bonds and fight/flight programs prime us to act as though we are only animals, not as though we are humans — with our increased consciousness, responsibility and choice.

I worry about the lack of wisdom that leaves many of us adrift with our feelings. I have found some wise guidance through applying some Buddhist teachings about feelings and using these in psychotherapy, as well, especially in couples therapy. You may believe that Buddhism encourages us to ignore or subdue our feelings, but my own teacher, Shinzen Young, takes a different approach. He teaches us specifically how to feel our feelings without doing ANYTHING about them. Feelings are body sensations and narratives that arise in the mind’s ear and images that arise in the mind’s eye. When we don’t do anything about them, we can watch them arise and pass away with their narratives and images and sensations. Feelings arise and pass quickly; nothing stays more than about a half minute unless you intentionally or unintentionally encourage it. As Leonard Cohen, Zen poet and bard, says: “I don’t trust my inner feelings. Inner feelings come and go.”

If you can find the path that allows you to FEEL your feelings, you will SEE and HEAR your own mind more clearly, but this doesn’t translate into reality. Reality involves the complexity of the world around you– what is happening at the moment and how others are perceiving and feeling it, as well as how you are feeling. Once you see what is in your feeling mind, then you can open a space for inquiry into yourself. What do I want to express, if anything? What do I want to let go of? What are the consequences of either?