Feelings run our lives.
Nearly everything we do is for the purpose of feeling more of what we like and less of what we don’t like.
We seek out things like romantic comedies, mystery novels, and roller coasters for what we feel when we watch, read, or ride them. When you visit your family, take a vacation, or clean the house, it’s because of the feelings you want to feel or those you want to avoid feeling if you were to not do those things. If you dislike your job, partner, or hair color enough, you’ll soon find yourself dreaming of different jobs, partners, or hair colors, all because your mind tells you they will deliver different feelings. (Jobs, partners, and hair don’t create feelings at all, but your mind doesn’t know that.) Approaching what we call good feelings and avoiding what we call bad feelings is behind everything we do.
If our life revolves around feelings, you’d think we’d know what a feeling actually is, and what it’s made of and how it works. We use language to label and describe feelings, but deeper than labels and descriptions, what is a feeling?
There are many ways to answer that question, but for the sake of our exploration, consider that feelings are fluctuations of energy to which our mind attaches words and stories. Our left-brain interpreter labels and defines the energy dancing through us. So, when we talk about feelings and emotions, we’re experiencing two things: the movement of energy plus our mind’s commentary on that energy.
Thought and feeling are two sides of the same coin—one formless energy experienced in different forms of psychological experience. Feelings are the felt part of thought.
There’s a conversation that’s often retold between motivational speaker Tony Robbins and Bruce Springsteen. Bruce apparently told Tony that before a big show, his stomach is in knots, he feels nauseous, and his heart pounds. You might think The Boss has performance anxiety, but he doesn’t experience it that way at all. He said when all those physical feelings kick into high gear, he knows he’s pumped and ready to put on an amazing show. The energy is fluctuating in ways that a mind could call fear or nerves, but Bruce’s mind calls it energized and ready to play.
Feelings are energy moving through us, plus a subjective, biased story about that energy.
When the energy moving through you is low and your mind is thinking about your beloved cat who died, your mind calls the energy sadness. When your mind experiences low energy as stagnant and unchanging, it might call it depression. When your mind embraces low energy, you might say you’re feeling peaceful.
When the energy is faster and you’re walking into a job interview, your mind might call it nervousness. Feel that same physical energy at the top of a roller coaster and it’s exhilaration. The same one energy is the source of everything. How you experience it in any given moment is down to the interpretative story your mind happens to tell. Your mind goes through this interpretation and labeling process in an instant. As we’ve seen, it’s how it makes sense of life and attempts to keep you safe.
Vacillating energy isn’t good or bad, comfortable or uncomfortable, in and of itself. It’s just energy. The meaning our mind attaches to it is what leads us to like or dislike what we feel.
If fear, for example, were a concrete thing that felt objectively uncomfortable, how would we explain haunted houses and horror films? We pay good money and wait in line for hours to feel afraid. Humans love feeling a wide range of emotions, including terror, sadness, and uncertainty. What we don’t love are some of the stories that arise around those energy fluctuations. When our mind says the fear is because of something about to happen to us, all bets are off. When the sadness has a me-centered story attached, we push it away.
I once heard a physical pain expert say that what we call physical pain has heat and/or pressure at its core. Meaning, when we look beyond our subjective experience, some combination of heat and/or pressure is present when a person experiences pain. Heat and pressure are physical sensations. They aren’t inherently painful, they are just heat and pressure. Our mind calling sensations “pain” and then our resistance of them are what helps create our experience of physical pain.
In the pain = physical sensations + story and feelings = energy + story equations, it’s largely the negatively biased, left-brain story that hurts. Isn’t it amazing to know that no story is The Truth?
Feelings are constantly changing, as the root of the word “emotion,” “in motion,” suggests. But it doesn’t always seem like our feelings change quickly in part because the way our mind labels fluctuating energy can be habitual and conditioned. When we don’t know how our experience works, we take our habitual interpretations as truth, and we innocently create and recreate particular feelings, leading us to believe that feelings linger or need intervention in order to change.
Several years ago, I was preparing to lead a live workshop, and I went to the venue to check on some logistics. I experienced panic attacks for a long time, but at this particular point, I hadn’t felt anything I would consider anxiety or panic for at least six or seven years.
At the venue, I began feeling some strange sensations. I remember watching my mind try to interpret them. Was I overly tired? How much sleep did I get the night before?
Did I forget to eat lunch? Was I nervous about something going wrong at the event? Was I coming down with something?
My mind went through a long list of possible interpretations as I felt energy rising and buzzing through me. As the energy rose, my mind sped up its reason hunt. As my mind sped up its reason hunt,
the energy rose even more. As the energy fell, my mind slowed down. As my mind slowed down, the energy settled even more.
And then it hit me. I had a deep knowing that what I was experiencing was the sort of thing that would have become a panic attack in the past. The rising, buzzing energy was the same energy I used to feel all the time. My mind used to meet that energy with oh-no-not- again-I-can’t-calm-down-make-it-stop. Those interpretations kept me focused on the energy. Staring at the rising energy would give me the experience of it rising and buzzing even more. In my mind’s eye, on that day, I clearly saw how a harmless, meaningless shift in energy, plus a scary mind-made story, led to years of panic attacks.
On that particular day, I had a completely different experience of rising, buzzing energy. My mind was calm and curious. It wanted reasons and answers, don’t get me wrong, but there was no fear or urgency. With some space, I observed energy fluctuating and a mind searching.
Feelings are not states that exist outside of thought. Fear, insecurity, shame, craving, and excitement don’t course through your body—energy does, and then your mind slaps a label on it and determines what you experience.
When you see that the label is not as real or meaningful as it appears, that it’s only a mind doing what minds do, feelings don’t feel quite the same.