Feelings vs Sensations: How to know the difference and how to truly feel

I know I’m not the only one who finds it curious that certain emotions have gotten a bad rap in our world, and can only be expressed under “socially acceptable” conditions.

We can wax poetic about feelings of joy and elation pretty freely, but we’re not quite so comfortable on the whole with feelings like sadness and grief. Instead we have carefully crafted categories of acceptable anguish that we can move within when the conditions are right.

Language has evolved, arbitrarily one might say, to give expression to our sensory experiences. I see _____ and so I need to have a common way of communicating that if I see a bird in the sky you will know exactly what I am pointing to.

Language gives us a reference point, a way of attempting to understand the experience of another. But does the language of emotion actually tell us the truth of what we are feeling?

We have such an expansive vocabulary to talk about the myriad feelings we human beings may experience in any given moment – tired, ecstatic, depleted, excited, happy, melancholy, rejuvenated, nervous, calm – this list could go on and on! And mostly we have very clear distinctions between what feels “good” and what feels “bad” with a definite bias toward feeling “good” that is reinforced everywhere we turn.

“Drink this $7 latte and you’ll feel more invigorated!”

“Try this $100 face cream and you’ll feel 10 years younger!"

“Join this exclusive online community and you’ll never feel lonely again!”

Along with promising to land us in the territory of “good” these messages each show us something of the shadow, impressing upon us the standard that to feel tired is a problem, that it’s inherently bad to feel our own biological age and that feeling lonely is a state to be banished forever. There are “good” feelings and there are “bad” feelings, and our goal in life appears to be maximizing the “good” and eliminating the “bad”.

Yet what of the language of sensation? These messages, and infinite others just like them, point to feeling, but neglect to actually go there. To go there would mean going to the level of sensation, of felt experience, of the firing of nerves and the expansion and contraction of tissues in the body, where something really curious begins to reveal itself. These intangible, abstract words that are meant to give us a common language can actually divide us. However, when feelings get brought back to our bodies, a remarkable truth reveals itself.

When you start to track and articulate what you actually feel in your body, the edges quickly blur between the categories of “good” and “bad”.  Stripping the language of emotion down to the brass tacks of sensation leaves us with a more precise commonality from which to share about our experience.

For starters, you either feel something or you don’t. You either have the ability, in the moment in question, to be actively aware of some pulsation or movement in your physical being or you don’t. Neither of these is wrong. Neither of these is “good” or “bad”. You cannot force yourself to feel a physical sensation any more than you can force yourself to move from happy to sad in an instant thanks to sheer will. We’re just not wired that way. We cannot be forced, but we can be trained.

With practice and with an expanded awareness, you can come to recognize that happy and sad may actually feel quite similar in your body. Each emotion comes with its attendant physical sensations, and when you really allow yourself to feel these, labels like happy and sad start to fall away. You are left with raw, fundamental impulse, what I often refer to as aliveness.

Next time you find yourself feeling an emotion, see if you can get curious about the sensations that go along with it. Take your awareness away from the story about your feeling and instead bring it to the physical experience. The easiest tools for this experiment are breath and stillness. Here’s some simple guidance:

·      Give yourself a physical pause, finding a comfortable resting position, whether laying flat on your back or sitting upright. A long, straight spine is really helpful.

·      You may want to lay your hands on yourself. Let them instinctively float to your body wherever they may choose.

·      Take deep, slow, full breath into your body and allow it to release in the same way. I like to do this with an open mouth, letting my exhales come out with a sighing sound to help me relax even more.

·      After a few rounds, take three breaths into the center of your chest, the energetic heart. From there take three breaths into your belly and then three breaths down into your pelvis. With all of these breaths, feel the expansion in the body as the air moves full down and the contraction as it flows back out.

·      Allow the breath to soften to a natural rhythm now and in this space of relaxed stillness, begin to notice what’s happening inside of you. Bring curious awareness to your inner felt experience and stay there for as long as you’re able, tracking your sensations.

Through this practice, you will gradually begin noticing aliveness all throughout your body. It might be quite subtle. It might be pronounced. These sensations of aliveness, these indicators of true feeling, are what actually matter most. When we commune with them – the fluttering in our bellies, the flush of warmth across our chests, the tingling in the tips of our fingers- we are communing with vital life force. This is bigger than our stories could ever be. This is affirmation that we are alive!

With this understanding, we come to see that there need not be a preference for “good” emotions over “bad”. Sensation is sensation. It is our ally and our teacher, showing us that we need not despair when the feeling we’ve labeled grief (or any other categorically “bad” emotion) arises in our system.  We can simply bring our curious awareness to how grief feels in our bodies and find a space of equanimity within to be with those sensations.

I’ve experienced myself in the midst of sobbing tears that I categorized as “sadness” give way to waves of orgasmic ecstasy that I might have categorized as “bliss” when I’ve allowed myself to focus deeply on the felt experience rather than attach myself to labels and stories about my feelings.  When my focus is on aliveness rather than a story of sadness or bliss, I can access a space of boundless acceptance and peace. I am in a state of being, rather than doing, the doing often showing up as an effort to swap one “feeling” for another.

May we all experience being with our sensations, being with our aliveness. That is my intention and my mission here.