Thoughts vs. Emotions
Last week I posted about the benefit of letting emotions come up, be released from the body, and my experience with learning the power of this process. This week’s post is “part 2″ on that topic.
Allowing feelings and emotions to surface is one of those “easier-said-than-done” things…and in the intenstity of the moment and of our emotion, how do we stay with the movement of our emotions? And, more specifically, how can the practice of yoga be a guide to allow you to explore this flow?
First of all, I would like to distinguish thoughts from feelings or emotions…. For the purpose of this article, I’ll define thought as the mental and cognitive process on the mind, including thinking, rationalizing, organizing, planning and remembering that our brains do so well. Feelings involve the subjective and physical sensation or reaction as it presents in the body (independent of the story around the feeling). An emotion is an intense feeling, and often involves a physical and mental reaction.
For example, let’s say I am driving, and almost get into a car accident. Immediately my heart races, palms sweat, and I feel my whole body is tense and clenched. It’s an instantaneous response, and I notice the physical sensations in my body. It is these instantaneous sensations that plunk me down right into the present moment. Within seconds, I cognitively process these sensations, and determine I feel afraid. I would even label these sensations as an emotion and say, “I am afraid.”
Then, the mind takes over – I replay the incident over and over – recreating the sensation of fear every time I remember how close I came to getting into an accident. I may try to deduce who would have been at fault, or rationalize how I narrowly avoided the crash. I might even start to imagine what would have happened if I was involved in the crash. Here, I have moved out of the feeling realm and into the thought realm.
Often, when we move into the thought realm, we are taken out of the present moment. This is because much of our thinking takes us either into the past (replaying the near crash in my mind), and/or into the future (how much would repairs cost and how would I afford it?). One way to know thought has taken the driver’s seat is to notice how thought makes you “time travel.”
Our minds serve great purposes – thinking, planning, even directing ourselves towards survival, growth and goal-directed behaviour. Especially when we are grieving, we search for answers, remember the past and wonder about the future. I do not want to discount the power of the mind in understanding and intellectualizing our experiences….but, our uncanny ability to “time travel” can also prevent us from allowing feelings (that arrive in any present moment) to flow through us – we can get stuck in our stories of our past and paralyze ourselves from stepping into the unknown future.
Letting emotion come up and out is a practice – an ongoing exercise in self awareness and authenticity...in all you do, on and off the yoga mat. When we practice letting our feelings come up – we are doing just that – letting them come up and out, without the linking story, memory or thought. That can be the tricky part, therefore I like to focus on emotion as it presents as sensation in the body, instead of the mind.
If you notice the sensations of a feeling or emotion, for example (back to my car crash), racing heart, sweaty palms, and clenched muscles, the practice becomes staying with the physical feeling of the emotion and watching it as it presents itself, peaks and dissipates. Bring your attention to the feeling of the feeling; I feel my heart thumping in my chest, and can actually hear it. I feel my thigh muscles are clenched and bracing. Ahhh, I notice my thigh muscles have softened now that my perceived immediate danger of the situation has passed. Now, I feel my eyes burn with tears, and heat rushes through my body. The practice becomes letting all thisbe my entire present experience – without avoidance.
From this moment-to-moment awareness, we can begin to witness the tendency of the mind to “time travel” – replaying an incident from the past, or linking it to an unknown, un-lived future. Perhaps the thoughts in the mind create a story of “shoulds” or “should nots” around the emotion. Practice becoming conscious of your inkling to change your experience because of these thoughts. And, if that happens, thank your mind for being such a good worker, and turn your full attention to your authentic, present, experience!
As you stay present with the sensation of your emotion, you will notice that it changes. In fact, thoughts, emotions, feelings and sensations are all impermanent. Yoga and meditation slow us down enough so we start to notice the feeling behind the feeling and the thought behind the thought. This level of self awareness empowers us to know that each moment, each thought and each emotion will eventually come to pass.
This emotional flow is necessary for our emotional, mental and physical well-being. Stephen Cope is an author, psychotherapist and yoga instructor, and says, ”All of yoga practice is about energy. The more alive we are the more energy we’re allowing to move through us – unblocked. Feelings are just a form of energy, and we want these energies to move through us and not get stuck. Posture practice on the mat is a kind of brilliant laboratory in which we get to let energy move through every part of our body, systematically.”
Even more often, off our mats and out in the “real world” we are faced with situations that test us, and bring emotion to the forefront. As we journey through grief, we must balance authenticity in allowing these emotions to arise, along with the safety and security of releasing emotions where and when we are comfortable, and even with whom. This is how slowly, but surely we move through our grief, to the heart of our pain.
With practice, we begin to see that our true selves rest is a place beyond our thought and emotions. We learn that our active minds, and our active emotions do not define or create us. We remember we are so much more than that.
My Fight To Not Be Stoic
I read a quote recently, that I had recorded in an old journal from 7 months after Cam died. I can remember, how angry this quote made me, and how it still makes me angry 5 years later. This quote was written by Doug Manning in “The Pain of Grief.”
“They were expected to be sad for a short time, then buck up, put it all behind them, and get on with life. That is how grief was done. Stoicism was the key to all healing. Stoicism meant character. Stoicism meant faith. Stoicism meant friends did not have to be involved in the uncomfortable intimacy of devastating grief.”
This quote represents a widespread misconception of grief; and, fortunately, my experience in yoga allows me to know emphatically that this is not a healthy way to process grief.
I remember in a yoga class, we were standing in Tadasana (mountain pose). The teacher put us in groups of 4. One person standing (that was me) and 3 people supporting the stander. One person was to my left, one to my right and one behind me. The supporters had their hands on my shoulders, and upper back, offering energetic and physical support. We were instructed to close our eyes, and be curious of our internal experience.
Sure enough, as the tumultuous waves of my life settled into silent, simple, supported standing, emotion began to come up and I fought like hell to keep it down. I didn’t want these people to see me breakdown and cry…I mean, I barely knew them. And, for that matter, none of them knew my story, my loss, my reason for being there. I was fighting to stay stoic. Emotionless. Strong. I was fighting for me; afraid I would be completely and helplessly consumed by sorrow, and afraid of looking incapacitated by weakness – a weakness that I felt internally in the face of my emotion.
My teacher was in front of me watching. Looking back now, I’m sure she could see my internal fight written on my face and in my posture. I remember clenching my toes, and squeezing my leg muscles as quietly as I could to stay composed. Back tense, fists clenched, palms sweating, throat closing. I swallowed to relieve some pressure.
“Don’t swallow it down, Sandy,” she said.
Damn it. She caught me. My secret was out; I was dying inside.
“Let it come up,” she coaxed.
And I did. It felt so good to feel so bad. It was such a relief to let my emotion flow out of me. It was such freedom to be supported and encouraged to not fight the internal pressure of emotion that was building up. Finally, my outward behaviour was congruent with my internal experience – I no longer had to pretend to be emotionless and stoic. I was even more surprised that when I started to cry, my supporters didn’t run away. They stayed with me and supported me. It was beautiful.
That was a pivotal moment for me, both in my yoga journey and my grief. The strong opposing visceral experiences of fighting my emotions and then flowing with them, is one that I will never forget. Where I thought I would be consumed by emotion if I let it out, I realized that letting it out was a release, and holding it in would eventually devour me.
At the start of each class, my teacher would say, “Your emotion is welcome here.” To me, that meant, I was welcome there. Me and the entirety of my experience…even the hard, painful, emotional parts.
The other thing my teacher would say, which I needed to hear was, “You’re perfect just the way you are.”
This created a template for my yoga practice. This class taught me that yoga was where I could let my guard down, and really pay attention to what I was feeling. And further, whatever I was feeling was OK because it was my experience. It doesn’t get much more pure and honest than that.
Most importantly, this experience changed my perspective. Instead of seeing stoicism as strength, I saw emotional openness and honesty as strength. It took way more courage, sturdiness and stamina to allow my emotion to come up, and to trust myself, my teacher and the people around me. It was a leap of faith that day in yoga class, and I came to realize that the only thing that will happen if I let my emotion release is that….it will release. What a blessing and testament of grace.
Yoga teaches patience and gentleness. It teaches you to open up to yourself – not only by providing a place to explore your emotion and body, but comforting ways to be supported in the process. It teaches you how to move away from the societal pressures to be stoic. It teaches you how to stay with emotion and non-judgementally watch it move through you….which it will. By really paying attention you will notice that emotions are impermanent and constantly changing. The intensity subsides if you give it an outlet…let it release, set it free.
Learning To Be With What Is
Yoga and Alzheimer’s: Learning to Be With What Is
This article was posted on a Facebook site that I follow….a real honest look at how we (as individuals and a society) numb ourselves in an attempt to avoid pain. Unfortunately, we can’t selectively numb ourselves, or our experience. Our pain and our losses are parts of us that cannot be ignored…and in that respect, when we work to ignore or change the inner experience of our lives, we cease to honour ourselves as we are.
This article explores the difference between running from our pain, covering it with work and life, and hardness in the heart, and leaning INTO our pain instead of away from it.
Paradoxically, only by leaning INTO our experiences can we find our footing to stand.
Yoga brings you to this space to go deeper within yourself, and to be with whatever your experience is. Paradoxically, we learn to feel…and stay present with our pain and our loss. By feeling our pain, it moves through us, and we learn to live with everything life brings us.
Read the article here: Yoga and Alzheimer’s: Learning to Be With What Is.