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.
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