In 2000 I left my home on the east coast, headed west and landed in San Francisco. I left behind my career as an organizer in the non-profit sector and began seeking. I realized that I had been feeling numb for a long time and I wanted to feel connected to myself and my emotions, I wanted deeper relationships and I wanted to reclaim my sense of purpose. I quickly found my way to the three practices that have guided me on my personal journey of understanding: yoga, meditation and dance.
Early on I was taught to watch my feelings, feeling being a combination of physical sensations and emotions. Teachers of each modality asked me to notice my feelings, to sense them in my body, to witness them and ultimately to let them go. I was taught that if I do not cling and I do not resist, then the feeling will rise and fall of its own accord. Simple as that. And I was taught that my feelings have the power to transform. If I can allow each feeling to arise without clinging to or resisting, then I will experience deep change in my physical and my emotional worlds. And now, after ten years of avid practice, I can say that, Yes, sometimes it is as simple as that. For example, this morning when I first sat down to write this article, my computer froze, erasing everything I had just written. I was angry. I could feel heat rise to my surface and radiate off my skin. I could feel my muscles tense. And I could feel my breath as the sensation naturally dissipated slowly back to calm. Years ago, I would have clung to tension for hours, still complaining about the experience at dinner or the next day. In my ability to acknowledge that I was angry and to let that anger move I felt free not only to start over, but to experience joy shortly after anger. This practice has absolutely led me to deep transformation.
But what of the emotions that we seem to get stuck in? The ones that do not seem to dissipate on their own? In my own practice and in witnessing others in my work as a somatic therapist, I am aware that some emotions seem to sweep us off our feet and hold us captive. They appear to be a constant, always there just beneath the surface and quick to overtake us. We might be immersed in the thick murky quicksand of hopelessness, or feel the constant burn of irritability, or even the sweet, glassy eyed sensation of love and not ever notice a rise and fall of these feelings. The feeling is somehow cycling through us without a beginning or end. What makes this feeling different and why can’t we let it go?
After all of these years of study I have come to understand that, yes, in fact, there are different types of feelings. There are feelings that have the power to transform us, to literally set us free, while others hold us in their grips and do everything in their power to keep us. And…it was our own doing. We set them up in our own unique ways to ensure our personal survival.
First, there are the Core feelings. These are the natural feelings of joy, anger, fear, shame, and sadness that flow through us. It is the birthright of every human being to experience each of these emotions fully. When we allow them to rise and fall naturally we absolutely feel transformed and more at ease. Second, there are the Defensive feelings. These are feelings that do not transform, but cycle around us. They keep us stuck in their groove and protect us from feeling one or more of our core emotions. At some point in our lives, it became apparent that one or more of those core emotions was not OK to feel.
Imagine you grew up in a family where, every time you expressed your innate feelings of love with words or a hug, you were ruthlessly teased. If, in your family, any physical or verbal show of love was seen as too mushy and not just rejected but made fun of, how might you respond? A natural response could be that you decide that love is dangerous. Every time you note the sensation of warmth in your chest that you associate to love, instead of opening to it and expressing it, you become very afraid and suddenly tense in order to hold that feeling of love back. It really hurts to be made fun of so you begin to do everything in your power to hold love back. Pretty soon, you forget that there ever was a natural core feeling of love and only know that you are often tense and a bit frightened. Now the truth is, that feeling of fear began as a healthy fear. Nobody wants to be made fun of by the people they love. However, as an adult, you may wonder why it is so difficult for you to express love. You may really want to express love, but somehow stop yourself in fear every time.
So, it is true that our feelings have the power to flow and transform us. Allowing this to happen with ease is a process of reclamation and often requires the support of an experienced guide or teacher. Following the previous example, for you to reclaim your ability to feel and express love you will first acknowledge that love feels slightly out of reach. Like I once did, you might notice that you feel a little numb or disconnected. Second, you will recognize your fear as a healthy resource. It has served to protect you even if you notice now that it is not always necessary. Finally, you play with allowing yourself to feel love both physically and emotionally. You will notice the fear that arises and slowly learn to consciously allay that fear. And, for moments at a time, you will begin to feel love along with a sense of freedom and ease in your body.