“Give me the feeling that comes with that thought,” I’ll say to a client.
They stop, look perplexed for a moment, then say something like, “I can’t believe he would do that to me!?”
“That’s a thought,” I say. “Give me a feeling.” The client looks more perplexed, the frown deepens and they shake their head. Sometimes they lean closer and look at me like I might be a little crazy. So begins my lesson on feelings verses thoughts.
We all get stuck here. It takes real effort differentiating the two, but it’s really important to do this. Our thoughts, and the feelings that follow, work within a millisecond of each other. They’re so closely intertwined, we can’t see the pattern. Yet, distinguishing between the two is the difference between constant engagement with conflict and illusions or peace.
One is made up in your head. The other is the energy that arises in your body as a result of what you made up in your head. Do you see the difference? A thought is made up in your head. The feeling is in response to the thought and carries different energies through your body. Many times, neither of these reflect the truth.
The reason I use the simplistic term, made-up-in your-head, is because a majority of our thoughts are based upon our own versions of reality – the lens by which we see the world. That lens has history to it, because our brain is using past references to pull forward a schema it understands so it can stay in control.
You might think because your spouse slammed the door too loudly that she’s mad at you. If you stay with that thinking, feelings burst forth based on how you felt when your parents argued and slammed doors. Now, what kind of feelings rise up inside you? Anger, fear, sadness, guilt? Suddenly, you’re back in that place where parents were shouting and throwing things and you’ll respond accordingly to your wife. This is the illusion.
The narratives we make up (say it together), in-our-heads, cause all sorts of problems. If you challenge your thought and investigate why the door slammed, you might find the poor woman standing with a handful of groceries and having to use her foot to shut the door. Or maybe the wind slammed it shut. Or maybe she was so happy to be home from work that she pulled the knob too hard.
There’s a third part to this breakdown. It’s the emotion that occurs as a result of the feeling. Our language uses emotion and feeling interchangeably, however there’s a difference. Within that millisecond we talked about, where a thought occurs and a feeling is felt, we also respond. That’s emotion. Emotion is the rejoinder to the feeling, be it a smile, frown, yell, or freezing in place. This process feels so natural, it’s hard to imagine there’s a pattern at all. Though seeing this pattern can help us change ours. If we observe our usual process and not engage in it, we break the illusions that were driving us.
It’s also important to remember that a person or situation evoke a thought. If we can grow more aware of what’s occuring around us, we can pay closer attention. We can then slow down and observe what we’re thinking. In Buddhism, the way to peace is through the Eightfold Path. The first four of these eight are; right understanding, right thought, right speech and right action. If we’re to understand outer stimuli evokes us, then we can be aware of the thoughts and feelings that arise, and not speak or act in harmful ways.
The most damaging aspect to this is when we stay convinced that our thinking is the only truth. Then we cling to the feelings and emotions that flare as a result of that illusion. We rationalize our choices out of shame and maintain the attitude of the victim. This way we don’t have to reflect deeper on the nasty words or actions we spew onto others. We justify and spread hurt and darkness.
If we’re willing to acknowledge that our truth is subjective, then we’ll be more willing to notice what stimulates our thoughts, feelings and emotions. We stop engaging in blind ways that keep us running in circles with no clarity. In this way we spread light and we allow our own light to burn brighter.