A Bit Of A Free Write About Why I’m Investing In Feeling My Sensations
Typically, we are taught that thoughts are our only way to take care of our feelings or more specifically our emotions. Healing is posited as doing the work to be able to clearly identify your emotions and then to clearly communicate your thoughts that would take best care of those emotions (what you might need, your boundaries, etc).
The story that most of us are taught is that emotions come first and then thoughts. And that thinking is a way of solving the thing that the emotions are representing. We also gather information in patterns so if the goal is essentially solving the emotion, then we gather information in our thoughts about what has worked and not worked at achieving this goal and store that away for use in the future.
Thinking gets real elaborate too. Sometimes we can activate our emotions by our thoughts as thoughts that originally originated to solve emotions now remind us of the feeling whether it’s happening in real time or not. This happens as we spend more time as conscious creatures and develop links between things.
We can develop whole chains of Emotions-Thoughts-Emotions that as time passes can become more and more practiced and automatic. These chains can feel very Real inside of us even if they don’t represent the truth of what is happening.
Example: Partners asks: Did you eat the last of the ice cream?
I feel: Embarrassed and guilty.
I think: They are mad at me for eating all the ice cream. They think I’m a pig.
I feel: Shame and judgment.
I think: They think my body is disgusting. They think that I am a glutton.
I feel: Worried and scared.
I think: They want to leave me. They want a partner who isn’t so gross.
While I’m on my endless quickly accelerating chain of thoughts and emotions generating more and more judgment and shame (the Shame Emotion drain), my partner simply wants to know if he should pick up more ice cream while he’s at the store. But in my Shame Emotion drain, there’s no space for that or him.
The coupling of Thoughts and Emotions chains get really complicated in a world of embedded trauma (meaning trauma that never had a chance to heal or unwind) and oppression. In particular, because when you introduce embedded trauma into the Thought-Emotion Chain, often times thoughts don’t act as ways to address our emotions but often become the instigator to the emotions and the the spiral that takes us down the Shame Emotion drain as seen in the above example. Embedded trauma also means that Emotions are not neutral indicators that we need to problem-solve but rather often danger signs that we need to avoid at all costs.
The reason we pull apart Emotions and Thinking is to create a bit more space to recognize that what is terribly Real inside of us is not always True outside of us. Healing requires that space. Healing requires de-automatizing the idea that for Every Emotions, there should be an Automatic and Immediate Thought.
So generally Sensations are not part of how most of us are raised. I know very few People who were taught them growing up (although I hope that is changing!). And if you do have a relationship to your sensations, it’s generally one of noticing when you have pain or something hurts. Many of us struggle to even know how they are different than Emotions or Thinking. Many of us are professionals at Thinking our Feelings, be them Emotions or Sensations, without even realizing we are doing it.
Sensations, one might say are the building block components of Emotions and Thinking. They happen in the present moment. And when we build our capacity to sit inside of them and be curious about them, they are the key to sourcing more Choice and fundamentally more Freedom in our lives.
To make it a bit more concrete,I grew up in a family that never asked about nor respected the places where I said “No.” We did not learn about boundaries or the idea that everyone gets to have boundaries. It wasn’t even a possibility for me to state any kind of boundaries and expect that they would be respected. In my childhood, letting others know about your boundaries (your tender spots or desires) had much worse consequences than hiding them and staying quiet. Part of my brilliant survival strategy growing up in my family of origin was to numb out the entire front of my body so that even if I had to sacrifice my boundaries, I would feel that less and could hide closer to my back and minimize the damage done. Most of us don’t pick up our survival strategies consciously but rather have our instinctual drive to survive takes over. Figuring out what our survival strategies and how we do them is thus part of the healing.
This became deeply practiced to the point it is an automatic default whenever I’m with other people. Being numb and being with other humans became coupled for me to the point where I didn’t know how to feel myself and also be in connection with others. You can imagine that this had huge implications both in my ability to take care of myself and also my ability to take care of others.
When I started learning about sensations and using that knowledge to inform my boundary setting skills, I also start to learn, on a visceral level, that there were people who actually wanted to know and wanted to respect my boundaries. Gradually, I learned to pay attention to the sensations in my body that corresponded to my “no’s.” I started to practice saying that “No’s” when I noticed those sensations. And I started to notice what happened when I practiced those “No’s” with other people in my life. One might say that all those practices, the sensations of ‘no’, the aloud expression of ‘no’ and the people who respected and wanted to know about my ‘no’s’ landed on my skin.
And what was profound was that as I started to understand where my “No’s” existed and to practice them with people who wanted to know about my boundaries and wanted to respect them, the whole front of my body started to thaw. I started to be able to both feel myself AND be in connection with others.
Obviously I don’t live in a world where everyone always respects my boundaries. But through starting to de-thaw and to notice my sensations and through all the repetitions with people who did respect them, my body learned to not automatically assume that everyone would cross them nor that everyone would respect them. I started to cultivate and to practicing having a Neutral Body (ie. a body that neither pre-supposed Bad Things or Good Things but was able to gather the information about what was happening in the moment). And with a de-thawed front-side, I could pay attention to how people were actually reacting to me in the present moment. Paying attention to my Sensations meant that I actually had more information to take better of myself with. And building my capacity to be with my Sensations also meant that neither my Sensations nor my Emotions were things that needed to be immediately solved or eliminated. I could Feel without having to immediately Act. This frees up tons of energy that then I can use to making choices about how I Respond and to make sure my Responses are in line with my values.
Even though many of us have Survived and no longer live in the context of Danger, our bodies are still stuck in Survival and responding to everything and everyone like it is Danger. Or our bodies are very easily Activated into Survival mode regardless of whether Danger is happening presently or not. They can respond to our very Feelings and our Sensations like they are Danger, doing everything they can to try and quickly solve or eliminate or change or avoid them. Building our capacity to feel our Sensations means that we can decouple Feelings with Acting. We can create more space. We can create more choice. We can create more alignment. Our values become more concrete and practiced. We take more responsibility for ourselves because we have more tools to sit with ourselves without feeling like we are going to die. We have more space to apologize when we get it wrong and to build new skills to get it less wrong the next time. We have more space to honor our Survival and to move towards the skills of Living. Freedom becomes a little closer.
One of the first practices I teach my clients is a head to toe body scan. Over the course of our work together, in many different contexts and with many different prompts, we will do this practice together, hundreds, sometimes thousands of times.
This practice can be deceptively simple—observe without changing, your bodily sensations: temperature, movement, pressure. Stay with the sensations as best you can. When you notice yourself in your thoughts, gently tug your attention back to your sensations. Open up your curiosity. Observe in minute detail what the tops of your feet feel like and how those sensations juxtapose to the sensations in the circumstance of your ankles. What are the sensations of the tops of your feet and your ankles on the surface of your skin? What are the sensations of the tops of your feet and your ankles deeper in, close to the bone? Are these familiar sensations? Are they new? What emotions are currently in the tops of your feet and your ankles? What sensations tell you that those emotions are present?
This is a fundamental practice in starting a journey to making space for what is. This is a practice in creating more choice in your life. It is invaluable and incredibly difficult. And like most difficult things in life, it brings up all our smoke screens and excuses and habits and cultural norms.
So many of us have become familiar with a culture that teaches us to think our feelings rather than to feel. We have become familiar with a culture of figuring out what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. We have become familiar with a culture that is far more fixated on why than how. For some of us, these habits and cultural norms are unconscious, they are as invisible and as matter of fact as the air we breathe. For some of us, we can point out and notice these habits and cultural norms, but shifting them or finding an alternative is elusive and slippery.
Googlemaps is a familiar tool in many of our lives. An app or a url that lives on our phones and in our computer, Googlemaps boasts the ability to map directions from Point A to Point B. As it has evolved, there’s fancier things that come along—now my phone changes to night mode after a certain time if I’m navigating directions, I have options to change the route if Googlemaps discovers something faster, I can choose whether I’m walking, biking, using public transportation or driving for even more accurate directions and an estimated time of arrival.
In order to work though, whether in fancy night mode or in Beta, whether on your new IPhone 6s or on your Dell desktop that connects to the Internet with dial up, Googlemaps needs two things: a Point A and a Point B.
We live in a culture that is observed with how to do things faster and faster, most of us spend way more time on Point B than Point A. Some of us spend our entire lives trying not to think about Point A. Naming and being where we are presently is excruciatingly painful, full of shame and regret, and just not productive. (That productive comment has come out of my very mouth.) It’s far better to observe and focus and figure out and obsess over Point B.
We learn that Point A, i.e. the ways we hold our breath, the ways we shut down our sensations, the ways we tense our muscles, the ways we avoid our feelings can be skipped over and avoided. We learn that there is a right and a wrong way to be in our bodies and our sensations, that in fact there are right and wrong bodies and sensations themselves.
What happens instead when we focus on Point A, when we start with Point A? In my work with clients, that is precisely where we start. It is a challenging, sometimes terrifying place to start but I give my clients lots of strategies about how to toggle in and slowly build their capacity.
When we start with Point A, folks have a tangible skill that can change their lives. Instead of a costume, the practices are sourced and built and created from their core. The healing happens from the inside-out instead of the outside-in. This means folks are able to create brilliant, highly unique, super specialized ways of being with their sensations and heal at a pace that actually is sustainable to their unique self.
Creating healing practices that make space for where we begin, also makes more space for all of us. These practices make space for all our brilliant, funky, creative nuances and all the amazing, fierce, tender ways that we survive/d. They make this space without having to rush to a set agenda of what we wish was and what we think should be. And in the act of making space for what is, the possibilitiesand ripple effects that can unfold are far brighter, far bigger and far more enticing.
There is a postcard sitting on the windowsill above my desk. It bears Isak Dinesen’s words: “The cure for anything is saltwater — sweat, tears, or the sea.”
It’s beautiful and poetic. It makes me think about water, specifically large bodies of water — one of the places I feel most myself. The quote itself is used in a gorgeous piece of art that Shreya Shah drew. It reminds me of my west coast extended community. All those things are nice perks. But at its most basic, I keep it on the windowsill as a deeply practical, constant reminder.
Note that it doesn’t say “the cure for anything is doing and solving...” However, so often in this complex world where things are devastating and unbelievably unjust, doing and solving is something that we are deeply practiced at when faced with Big Sensations or Big Emotions. We reach for doing and solving even when faced with situations that really have no solution.
Think back to the last time something riled you up, made you so angry that your muscles clenched and wouldn’t let go. Think back to the last time you faced immense grief and sadness. Or the moment at the park where, in the gleaming glorious sunshine, you were totally encapsulated by pure joy.
What did you do next?
What did you do with that anger? Did you create opportunities for it to move, to just be? Did you scream in your car, or out in the forest? Did you throw plates, or punch a punching bag or a pillow? Did you find a friend who could sit with you, who didn’t once interrupt or placate while you rhymed off every single thing you were irate with? Did you wail on a piece of concrete with a sledgehammer, or stomp as hard as you could on the sidewalk?
And that grief. Did you let yourself sob, and focus on seeing if you could sob in your feet as much as you could in your throat? Or did you crawl into the smallest space you could find, or burrito wrap yourself into a blanket? Did you hold your breath until you felt like you were going to burst, compress your hips or the sides of your head with both hands?
What about the joy? Did you pause and appreciate the it, notice the way it felt on a cellular level, let it be without having to plan or scheme to make sure it lasted as long as possible? Did you challenge yourself to choose something different than scarcity or panic, and instead breathe into abundance and possibility?
If you said no, you are decidedly not alone.
When my Dad died late last year I searched frantically, sometimes rabidly, for something to do, something to say, someone to fight. All so that I didn’t have to feel my feelings. In fact, I can now tell when a major bout of grief is rearing its head by the growing sense of discomfort and dis-ease I experience and the feeling that I must do something. Immediately. There Is Something to Be Done.
But the truth is, nothing I do will bring him back. Nothing I do will give me a different childhood. Nothing I do will make all the Feelings go away.
So many of us have been taught explicitly and implicitly that sensations and emotions are to be solved, as if they are mathematical equations. Feeling angry? Find someone to blame. Feeling sad? Lock down your jaw and throat. Feeling jealous? Make your partner promise something that will give you a momentary sense of security. Even in joy, we are so panicked about its fleeting nature that many of us don’t make space to actually revel in its presence.
Part of freeing ourselves is to realize that the emotions/sensations, and our reactions to them, can be separate experiences. Feeling sad? How can you find a way to feel the sensations of sad a little more? Feeling angry? What can you use in your physical environment to let that anger be bigger without hurting yourself or anyone else? Feeling jealous? Where in your body does that jealousy live? Can you sit with that place where it’s living and the movement it’s making for 30 seconds? What about for 5 minutes?
When we create space and time to feel our emotions, we don’t have to shut them down and vacate our bodies. But we also don’t have to put them in charge and react to their every whim. Fundamentally there is more choice. More space. More room. More freedom.
originally published on the Wise Body Facebook page
dear my LGBTQ loves,
in the face of all the suffering, the trauma, the overwhelming grief and rage, the numbness and disbelief, i go to work and i touch people.
in the face of all the political opportunistic cooptation of our grief, the overwhelming silence of the majority of our straight friends and family, the unchecked white supremacy, ableism, islamophobia and anti-immigrant undertones of vigils and actions that are somehow supposed to make us feel better, i go to work and i sit with people and their stories. i go to work and i sit with people and their trauma.
sometimes i sit besides them while they weep.
i hold their head or their shoulders or their feet while they heave and shake, sometimes with sound, sometimes soundless, mouths gaping and reaching for words and guttural sobs that will not come, ears and hair soaked. i let them know that there is space for whatever comes and that whatever comes is the exact right thing for that moment.
my job is to sometimes remind folks over and over that there isn't one way to grief, there isn't one way to rage, there isn't one thing to do or not do and that this world indeed can be cruel and senseless. my job is to help folks come into their bodies, to feel their sensations, to open up a little more space for their emotions and sensations to move in so they don't feel continually like they are being swallowed or consumed. to open up a little space in their bodies so that the huge bits of devastation and fear can live next to the small bits of hope and joy, so that there is space for all of it.
my job is sometimes to remind folks that numbing out in a world of systems and institutions that often want to kill us, hurt us, shame us, numb us, pit us against each other, take away our choices, imprison us, institutionalize us, isolate us makes a ton of a lot of sense, AND that when we are to awaken into our emotions and sensations, we have lot more tools to take down that world and build something else.
my job is to check myself wanting to solve and to fix, and to pull myself back and find my own ground and breath and make a little more space to breathe and be with folks. i am endlessly amazed at what is possible when we take a moment to step back from solving and fixing and just find ways to sit with each other.
my job is to help folks sit in the uncomfortable without having to shut anything down. my job is to work hard myself to sit in the uncomfortable without having to shut anything down.
it's deeply humbling work. work that constantly kicks my own butt to live my words; to live my politics; to live inside of my own skin; to acknowledge my mistakes, apologize for them, and to do better next time; to sit inside the sensations and emotions; to build more resilience practices into every moment of my day.
work that sometimes i do fantastically and sometimes i do less fantastically.
this week i have had to fight hard to get to work. this week i just wanted to build a wall of thick plexiglass between me and feeling. this week just getting out of bed felt like a lifetime achievement. this week i endlessly scrolled my newsfeed, ignored friends' text messages and locked the dogs out of my room. this week i worked super hard at not feeling. i made myself go through the motions of feeding myself, getting in my car and driving to my office. i made myself empty the trash and refill the tissue boxes. i made myself change the sheets on my table and bring another chair in for the new couple i was seeing at 3pm. i sat in my chair and felt myself thaw as i got to sit with my clients. i thawed as i touched my clients feet. i thawed and i felt tiny sensations within my gut. i thawed as i sat with someone as they wept. i thawed after i finished a session with a client who is just starting to be able to feel her pelvis after years of numbness and disassociation. i thawed and felt the pinpricks of tears.
i am still thawing but more and more of me is returning. and i am remembering why i keep on returning to my body. i am remembering why i keep on returning to this work.
this work helps me have something besides rage for the straight and cis people who have said nothing about the murders of my gorgeous, glittery, fierce queer brethren. this work helps me feels the rage and also feel the compassion and the love and the hurt that that silence has caused and continues to cause.
this work helps me rage and vent and yell and sob and scream about the opportunism and the oppression thinly disguised as healing that has run rampant in the last week. and when i open to all that rage and fear, i can also open to other things. when i make space to feel the heat in my face and the shaking of my legs and the loud thudding of my heart in my throat, there is also space to notice the quieter, smaller sensations. there is space to feel the rage and respond from somewhere else. there is space to hold complexity and contradiction. there is space to feel and with that feeling, let things move and change. there is space to soften. when i make space to feel my sensations and emotions, there are More Choices. fundamentally there is space for More.
i want to honor and mourn and celebrate the lives of our dead from that place of More. i believe that in the More, we all get to Thrive and not just Survive. i deeply believe that this place of More makes our movements better, our organizing better, makes our relationships better, makes us better at living this complex, heart-breaking thing called life.
i draw so much inspiration and hope from all the brilliance that you all do everyday. i know that i only see the littlest tip of the iceberg of our collective genius, and i am still blown over and moved to tears by all the ways that you have survived and continue to survive. by all the ways that you reach towards and embody justice. by all the ways that you are working to heal. by all the ways that you are working for and believing that we deserve More.
thank you. i see you. i'm with you. i love you.
and i believe that we will win.