Getting Familiar with Your Feelings

Scene: It’s morning and we find ourselves at a neighborhood coffee shop, in (your town here). The shop is filled with individuals on their way to work, some adding cream and sugar to their coffees, other eating pastries at small tables while looking at their phones, while a long line of customers waiting to place an order. We find Tish at the register in her green apron as Harrison approaches.

TISH: Good morning, how are you doing today

HARRISON: Good thanks, how are you? 

TISH: Good, what can I get for you?

HARRISON: A medium light-roast. 

TISH: Oh, we’re out of the light-roast today, sorry. 

HARRISON: Oh, okay, the regular’s fine then.

TISH: Okay, sorry about that…thanks. Medium coffee, what’s your name? 

HARRISON: Harrison. 

TISH: Okay, Harrison, that’ll be $4.37, we’ll call you when it’s ready. 

(Harris taps his card on the square in front of the registers and moves over to the next queue of individuals waiting for their coffee. End scene. Blackout.)

I imagine that you’ve had one of these experiences before right? Not the bit about the coffee being out for the day, the casual interactions we have with people every day. The obligatory communication of ‘I’m a human, you’re a human, let’s say some stuff to each other that acknowledges we’re human and move on.’ We do this by asking, how are you? But that phrase has become a greeting not an inquiry into our actual human experience. 

Before we go any further, this article isn’t about trying to get you to change that common interaction. I’m not saying we need to open up to everyone we meet about how we feel, but we would do well to explore this within ourselves. To recognize how we actually feel in a given moment; how we feel right now. We get so used to this exchange that we don’t actually look much further. But ‘good’ isn’t a feeling at all, it’s our interpretation and reaction to the feelings we’re having. Feelings are tied to emotions and energy; happy, sad, joyous, anxious, ambivalent, punchy, rambunxious, unheard, etc. These are feelings and we can group them into ‘good & bad’ categories, but which category we place them in is up to us. 

One thing I’ve been practicing in and out of meditation is becoming more familiar with the subtle differences between feelings. I practice this so that I can distinguish and understand one from another in order to get more specific about how I actually feel. Because there’s a difference between feeling irritated and frustrated. There’s a difference between feeling happy and delighted. There’s a difference between feeling alone and lonely and coming to understand these subtle differences is an important step to feeling better. Why? 

Let’s say we’re in a ‘bad mood’ and we’d like to feel better. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you know why you’re in a bad mood and maybe not, but either way it’s helpful to take a moment and feel into your body. What are the physical sensations and how do you describe them? Is this bad mood because you’re feeling upset or angry with someone? Are you annoyed that your boss keeps piling on work with unreachable deadlines? Is it because you’re frustrated with your printer not connecting to your damn computer? Or maybe you had a fight with your partner this morning. All of these things can leave us feeling in a bad mood, but we’d have to take very different steps to resolve each one of these situations. 

It goes both ways too. We can use this discernment in order to know what kind of things allow us to feel joyful and fulfilled in our life and also recognize what things we think bring us happiness but may actually be something slightly different. A big one for me is money. I am usually happy when I’m making money but it’s not because of the money that I’m feeling this way. I’m in a good mood because the money allows me to feel secure financially. Now, this financial security is important to my well-being, as it means I can pay for my rent, utilities, and food but the money itself doesn’t make me feel good or happy or successful. Money is a neutral thing because it’s how we use it that makes it what it is (and that’s a whole other article right there). Now that I know that it’s not the money that makes me happy, I can take a deeper look into the things that actually make me feel good, which brings about qualities of harmony and joy in my body and mind. Money is still necessary but I don’t expect it to bring me joy.

But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. The key is to inquire with compassion. There’s a huge difference between, ‘Why the hell am I feeling this way. Why do I always feel so depressed?!’ and, ‘Huh, I wonder why I feel this way?’. The more that we can accept that these feelings are okay to have the more open we’ll be to notice the feelings within the body and mind. Where is there tension? How do we feel energetically, emotionally, and mentally and where might these be coming from? Get specific with the adjectives you use to describe the feelings and explore, without judging your feelings or wishing they’d go away. 

Don’t get discouraged if you have a hard time feeling what’s going on inside. This is a practice and it takes time to get familiar with the feelings we experience. In our culture and society, we don’t place much value on self-inquiry and investigating feelings. Oftentimes we’re asked, directly or indirectly, consciously or sub-consciously from ourselves or others to suck it up and deal with our discomfort. To subdue it and triumph over it by pure grit and determination. And this is what makes it difficult to understand the difference between our feelings. They’ve all been tangled up into one big ball of feelings, so we must show patience to ourselves as we begin to unfurl one feeling from the next. 

So…how are you feeling today? 

Cultivating Curiosity

My teacher has been emphasizing the importance of curiosity, both within meditation practice and life. At first, I had difficulty understanding what he meant. How could curiosity be used to enhance your experience? I’d grown accustomed to playing with the idea of acceptance, letting go of how I think things should be and simply be with what is, what I am experiencing at every moment without needing or hoping for it to be different. But when thinking about these two ideas in tandem, curiosity and acceptance, I felt that they were on opposite ends of the seesaw. Curiosity, to me, was a character trait attributed to explorers and scientists who set out to discover uncharted realms and on the opposite end sat acceptance—satisfied with things as they are, no need to go anywhere or do anything. The only way I could test this idea would be to put it to practice. I started to meditate on the feelings of curiosity and I began to see how these two seemingly separate ideas are deeply connected and can guide us into our natural flow. 

What does it mean to be curious? 

At its core, curiosity indicates the quality with which we approach something. For me, curiosity means to approach with an open mind and to listen deeply to what’s in front of you. Not necessarily listening with our ears or the little voice in our head but to the feelings of our heart and body. Curiosity is about imaginative exploration and being in a relatively neutral frame of reference so that any possibility could come into being, essentially, I don’t expect to know what’s coming next. When I am truly curious about something it’s as if my analytical mind takes the back seat and my creative mind guides me very similar to how I would play make-believe as a child. 

Did you play pretend as a child? Can you remember back to this time of your life? Before your attitudes and perceptions of the world developed from years of being told what’s important and what’s to be ignored, when you could seamlessly move from the pre-historic time of dinosaurs to the sci-fi future. Nothing was impossible. It was my curiosity is that guided me to imagine what it would feel like to be in those magical places. For many of us, this imaginative expression eventually fades away. As we go to school we are taught what’s important and what’s not and our doors of perception narrows, inhibiting us from questioning and investigating what’s around us, what we’re experiencing, and how that makes us feel. We’re told to focus our attention on a subject; math, science, band. But there can be no forced curiosity, it must come from a desire to know something more deeply. 

The feelings behind curiosity also include a great sense of wonder and awe. True curiosity contains that excitement to see what will happen next and the result is always unexpected, for if we find something we are expecting then we are not approaching it with true curiosity, we’re approaching it from a place of knowing or assumption. Curiosity gives rise to more curiosity as it builds and becomes a cycle of intrigue and appreciation. With each new discovery or insight comes wonder and gratitude. 

Even though some of us may have lost the desire to inquire in an imaginative way I bet that many of us have a hobby. It’s often in these hobbies that we feel our creative expression open and a sense of relaxation in the doing. This is when we may feel as if we are in the flow—when ideas or realizations are presented to us without any mental effort on our end. In meditation and yoga this curiosity allows us to truly listen to our experience and to allow that experience to guide us. In our daily life, curiosity can help us to connect with others in ways that might surprise us. With curiosity we become more empathetic to those around us instead of labeling them for who we think they are and what they’re capable of doing.

The unknown isn’t necessarily a comfortable place to be, which is another reason why we tend to ‘know’ things instead of being curious about them. The unknown scares us because our analytical mind likes to prepare for the worst possible scenario. We choose to label things that we don’t know and construct an idea of what it is before we’ve even experienced it so that we have a sense of control in our situation.

So how do we cultivate curiosity? As I said, curiosity can’t be forced, it must be genuine and even though it can’t be ‘put on’ it can be awakened. In meditation, you might begin to cultivate this curiosity by noticing when things are different and finding delight in those differences. Not expecting to find changes but just noticing any subtleties of experience that may distinguish this time from the last. In life, I find that curiosity grows when we learn about and practice an activity or thing we truly enjoy doing. Maybe you like making model cars or maybe it’s playing the violin or maybe you like baking. Let those activities pull you in and allow yourself to delight in the experience of doing or learning. It’s like dating. The only way you’ll know if you are compatible is if you ask some questions and get familiar with the thing.

We get to choose how we experience and interact with our world. We can choose to be stuck in the ordinary and mundane or we can see the underlying wonder in all things. We choose whether we live in a world of infinite possibilities or a strictly defined box. Get in touch with your creative expression and allow yourself to follow what interests you. Even if that little voice tells you it’s silly or a waste of time, follow the thread of curiosity and see where it leads. What do you have to lose? 

Choice vs. Habit

We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘people are creatures of habit’ but I’d like to add a prefix to that. We are ‘pleasure-seeking’ creatures of habit. And by pleasure-seeking, all that I mean is that we make our decisions based on comfort. (Interesting how when you read that phrase, ‘pleasure-seeking’, you may have thought of evil and disgraceful…when did pleasure-seeking become so shameful?) We make our decisions based on what we think will bring us security, make us feel loved and worthy, right? Or maybe you’re like one of my friends who makes decisions based on which option will bring the least amount of discomfort. 

So if we’re naturally pleasure seeking creatures, why do so many of us feel like we’re struggling in our lives? Why do we feel lost and confused, hopeless and helpless? This is where the second part of the phrase can provide some insight. We are also have the habit of making these decisions to come from a confused part of ourselves. One that operates out of opinion and knowing, instead of observation and curiosity. In short, we make our decisions from our minds not from our bodies and hearts.

As we age and develop we form opinions about what and who we like, what we don’t like, what we’re comfortable doing and what we’ll do anything to avoid. I’m talking about everything here – not just, are you a cat or dog person? All the little idiosyncrasies that make you exactly you – it’s incredible and beautifully complex! These traits are formed over years of experience and are shaped greatly by the information we receive from our culture, family, peers, education, and the list goes on. All of these opinions and thoughts we have about ourselves and the world – this is called our perspective, or, our frame of mind. 

It’s exactly that, how we frame something. Wow we view our world. It’s like looking out a window, we only see what’s within the frame. We see a very small picture of the world, our subjective view. We’re so used to looking through our particular window that we fail to notice that there are an infinite amount of windows that offer us different perspectives. And there are no rules about how we frame something, except the ones we create. It may feel like our perspective is predetermined due to the spontaneous ‘natural reactions’ we have to events in our life (we often call it a ‘situation’ or ‘predicament’, like we’ve made it a problem) but that’s just a habit and it can change.

Now, all that being said, we only feel good (read as; joyful, positive, peaceful) when we’re in a frame of mind that is open, dynamic, creative, and grateful. And oftentimes, over the years, our window, our point of view, becomes fixed and reinforced by habitually reacting in certain ways and finding ourselves in situations that we’re “okay” with. We consistently choose to see things in the same way we’ve seen them before and make our decisions based on what we expect will make us feel comfortable (or what will make us feel the least uncomfortable). We deepen the groove in which we feel comfortable and on either side of this valley lies the unknown. The more fixed our own perspective becomes the more frightening other perspectives feel. So much so that we very rarely step out of our ‘comfort zone’ to see things a different way. 

In order to shift our perspective we do well to nurture our curiosity and intuition while letting go of an expected result. When we are curious we are interested and engaged with our experience. Curiosity implies a child-like interest in what we’re doing. We’re fascinated because we’re viewing things from a neutral perspective, one that hasn’t been influenced by our habituated action/reaction cycle. Everything becomes incredible! It’s like we’re encountering each interaction and event for the first time again. Curiosity alone can help to break us out of our habitual thoughts and reactions to things.

As we approach these everyday events through this lens of curiosity, experiencing for the first time, we’ll also practice listening to our intuition, to trust our gut and heart. This requires patience, honesty, and practice. We tune into the feelings in our heart and ask, ‘how do I feel?’. The little voice in our head will be spouting its internal monologue about its own opinion on the matter, but this is not our intuition. Intuition is felt not thought. 

Finally, we let go of expectation. If we approach any situation with an expected result then most likely we’ll end up finding it. Our intention lays the foundations for our experience. If I’m going to give a presentation and I expect to do poorly or sound silly because I’m nervous then I am approaching this situation with discomfort and no matter how well the presentation went, I’ll focus on the mistakes I made and label it as a failure. If I let go of the result and allow myself to be nervous, because it’s natural to be nervous speaking in front of a crowd, there’s not as much weight behind the nervous feeling. My mind won’t be on high alert for any missteps or stutters so that my attention is on my speaking and not on my internal critique of how I’m doing or how it’s coming across. But this is just an example and we only change through empirical evidence. We need to test the results through our own life and our own experiences. 

Ultimately, you have the choice to change how you feel. You can choose whatever window you want to look through. But there’s a catch, it takes honesty with yourself in order to feel and acknowledge what window you’re looking through right now. When I work with individuals, I never simply suggest that they view things differently. That’s the most frustrating thing, isn’t it? We’ve all been in a shitty situation when someone says, ‘well why don’t you just see the positives here?’. Not exactly helpful. First we have to accept that the way we feel now is logical within our frame of mind. It’s okay to be stuck. It’s okay to feel like you’re not where you want to be. It’s even okay to be suffering deeply. These are signs from your body to take a pause and look with honesty and compassion at where you are right now. Only then can you take a step out of choice instead of habit.

You Don’t Need to Go on a 10-Day Retreat to Learn How to Meditate

Anyone can learn to meditate and it doesn’t mean you have to go on a 10-Day silent retreat or become a monk in order for your practice to be fulfilling. Meditation takes time and all you really need is patience, self-compassion, and a few guiding principles. In fact, going on a retreat before having an established practice may be more of a disservice than a benefit. This isn’t a rule, as we all have different backgrounds and perspectives and for some, diving into the deep-end may be fine. But think of it this way – you wouldn’t enter a marathon without any proper training or experience, would you? Same goes for meditation.

When I first began to practice meditation formally I thought I had to sit on my meditation cushion with my legs crossed and an upright spine. I would sit for 20-30 minutes but after the first 5 minutes or so my body would begin to ache. My shoulders would tighten and my knees would feel sharp pains. My thoughts would become absorbed in these feelings of discomfort, but I would force myself to stay seated until the ending bell rang. I did this for months until finally, my knees began to suffer from the stress of having my legs crossed for so long every day. The only relief I felt in my practice was when I finished meditating and I could get up again. Luckily, I was soon introduced to my teacher who told me I didn’t need to sit cross-legged in order to meditate. In fact, I could do it on the couch – just like watching TV.

You see, my body was not prepared or flexible enough to sit in that ‘classic meditation posture’. And even more important was the realization that there was no correct posture. The ‘correct posture’ is one that we can maintain with little effort that provides us comfort and support. For me – and for many of us – that posture is not seated on the floor. The first principle we follow in meditation is that of non-resistance and this includes both physical resistance and mental. Anytime we are resisting something we are creating a struggle within ourselves. So I began to sit in a chair or on the couch and instantly my experience in meditation shifted. My mind was no longer absorbed in the physical sensations of pain in my body and instead could align with the feelings of comfort and support I now felt.

The purpose of our meditation practice is to experience more freedom in our day-to-day lives. What do I mean by freedom? In meditation, we cultivate the qualities of the mind that allow us to resonate and align more deeply with our true nature and desires. These qualities of mind allow us to experience greater resilience and adaptability to every event we experience in life. We come to realize that we have a choice (freedom) in how to view our circumstance and eventually we find ourselves gravitating towards viewpoints that offer us feelings of fulfillment and happiness. And this takes time. Just like anything, we need time to practice and integrate our experience. We will perceive this shift of perspective gradually and that’s fine. Meditation is a lifestyle practice, not an instant-salve.

Binge Watching Netflix is a Meditative State

For everyone who thinks they can’t meditate: have you ever watched Netflix? If the answer is yes, then you’ve most likely been in a meditative state. In fact, any time we become engrossed in something, whether we consider it work or play, we may enter into another state of consciousness. Our attention becomes absorbed in what we’re doing. Time moves more quickly or slowly than usual, and maybe, for a moment, we lose ourselves in the activity. We no longer form judgments and opinions about how we’re doing. In other words, we’re not thinking, we’re just doing and this is a meditative state.

Now, the absorption we feel when binge-watching the new season of Stranger Things is a state of meditation, it’s not the practice of meditation. In other words, you’re not residing in your own experience but the character’s on the screen. However, the principle is similar. In meditation, we intentionally tune into the feelings of the body and allow the thoughts to become background noise. Just as we allow our own internal monologue to become background noise when immersed in Eleven’s battle with the demogorgon.

There are many reasons meditation feels ‘hard’. Here are the three excuses that I hear most often from people who are interested in meditation but don’t have a consistent practice. ‘I can’t sit still for that long’ or ‘I don’t have time.’ ‘I can’t quiet my mind.’ ‘I don’t want to sit and observe my thoughts, I’m afraid of what I’ll find.’ I get it, it seems daunting, especially if we have this view that meditation is peaceful and bliss and calm. But it takes effort to start any new habit and develop a new skill, so let’s look at these three excuses more closely.

If you feel like you can’t sit still, are you the same person who is watching Netflix? Many of us sit for hours straight at work or while watching TV in the evening. You won’t form a meditation practice if you don’t really want to. Just like you won’t become good at the guitar if you never pick it up. For those who feel like they don’t have time, are you the same person who is watching Netflix? Many of us have the time, we just need to reevaluate and reallocate where we’re spending it. You also don’t need to start off sitting for 20-30 minutes. Because it’s a practice meant to be practiced throughout your life, you’ll have plenty of time to get there. Start with just 5-10 minutes and build gradually by adding a minute or two a month.

For those who say they can’t stop the mind, good news, you don’t have to! Meditation is not about becoming empty or free of thoughts. It’s about letting go of our desire to engage with them. Meditation is an art that has no end, not something to be achieved. I found that one of the hardest parts of meditation was not getting frustrated when thoughts arose during meditation. This is part of the practice too, we practice letting go of trying to manipulate a result and our expectations as a whole. Yes, it can be a long process, but the impacts of our meditation will start to show in our life much before we become ‘good’ at meditating.

Many people have adopted a Western Medicine view of meditation, that it’s like aspirin for a headache. So when these folks try to meditate, they’re barraged by all the stressful thoughts and feelings that are typically in the background but are brought to the foreground when as they tune into their experience of mind and body. This is more of a problem in expectation. As we start the process there will be a point in which we are very aware of our thoughts, and if those thoughts are self-deprecating then the experience may not be enjoyable. This is also part of the practice. To be self-compassionate and hold space for ourselves to be vulnerable. To know these thoughts do not determine the type of person we are or what we’re capable of.

One thing that I emphasize in teaching meditation is how important consistency is in practice. Meditation is a life practice that continuously evolves and impacts every area of how we operate and interact, but only if it’s part of our everyday routine. If you were to only go to the gym once a week you may feel good after going but your body won’t change all that much. Or, you may just be in pain because you’re not used to the physical activity! Meditation is the same, we won’t see long lasting results unless we practice every day, even if it’s for 5 minutes. In fact, it’s best to start small, with an easily manageable amount of time and to increase the length over time.

You can read all the books on meditation and attend talks with famed spiritual teachers but it won’t change a thing (except maybe your desire to start meditating!). Meditation is not an intellectual exercise and the knowledge that is found as a result doesn’t come through research or knowledge. It comes through direct experience and engagement with the practice. So, the next time you’re watching Netflix and the credits roll, you have a choice. To let the autoplay loop continue, or to turn off the TV and tune into your own experience.