Working with emotions using meditation

The evolutionary background of working with emotions using meditation.

We are emotional creatures. 

From an evolutionary perspective, we’ve been emotional about 54x longer than we’ve been rational. And this is reflected in our bodies and brains. 

Evolution doesn’t work by clean starts. It’s always working with what  was there before. So when our hominid forebears stood up on their back legs and later began to think about 100,000 years ago, then they were doing so with brains that had spend millions of years working solely with emotions. 

This means that if we’re going to survive happily as humans in 2018, we probably should know how emotions work.  

A chemical dance orchestrated by the emotional tide

Our bodies are fundamentally emotional systems – moving towards things that sustain us, and moving sharply away from things that don’t. Most of the rest of the time we are zoning out stimuli beyond the ‘skin-sack’ that are irrelevant to our well-being. So this dance of moving towards, moving away from and zoning out, is chemically orchestrated by the emotional tide of our bodies. 

Notice, that I didn’t say brains. The brain is actually a much later addition to the emotional body. 

Emotions are not a brain thing.

Single cell creatures move around ‘emotionally’ but they are far away from having brains. In some sense, brains are a highly-evolved way of tracking and responding to increasingly sophisticated emotional bodies. And as modern science is proving, the brain is not just the grey matter in the skull. 

When we talk about ‘gut feelings’ I’m sure you are aware that we’re not talking metaphorically. The gut is full of neurones (the same cells that, in billions, make up the brain) and the information-processing power of the intestines and gut is becoming more and more central to modern neuropscyhology. To understand emotions we have to be in our bodies. 

For the ‘thinking mind’, emotions are a problem

You can’t ‘think’ emotions. You can only feel them. And to feel emotions you have to be in your body. Which is why I so value the insights of somatic meditation, taught to me by my teacher Reggie. Without the skills of staying in the body and the ability to ‘switch focus’ from the white noise of the thinking brain, then working with emotions remains a cognitive game of labelling and categorizing. And just as  you can read all the books in the world about riding a horse, but until you get into the saddle you actually know very little of use, – the same is true of emotions. Thinking about them doesn’t really cut it. 

From the thinking mind point of view, emotions are a ‘problem’. They disrupt the smooth running of the ego-show and make us feel things strongly. If we’re not in the body and not understanding emotions from within then this feels like an invasion or a possession. We want to live in the cool, calm apartment of our idealised self but the reality is a tsunami of molten magma burning everything up or a black river of sludge tearing everything down. From the rational mind’s point of view this is wrong. 

When, however, we gain the courage and skill of living from embodiment, then something shifts radically in the way we relate to the tidal swirl of emotions in the body. If we wake up each morning and  – instead of reaching for our mobile phone and disappearing into the conceptual matrix – we take the time to enter into our bodily experience – and stay there all day – then emotions make total sense. 

Panksepp’s 7 emotional systems

Fear for example is the body’s language of ‘movement away. It is telling us: quick or slow, something needs to change here. That creeping spread of tension in the chest, queasiness in the stomach, body slumping is a signal that there’s something wrong and the body is leading you to escape. To run away, to make  yourself big or make yourself small. 

In fact, it’s helpful to remember: all emotions are about motion. They are the body’s way of instigating some action. Which is why emotions like fear, anger, frustration or disgust feel bad. They feel bad because they’re meant to inspire you to do something – move or change the scenery. 

The late, great neuroscientist Jak Panksepp understood the motive power of emotions. Over many decades of study he was able to identify 7 core emotional systems that are true for rats, monkey and still true for humans. If we can become fluent in the feeling-tone of these 7 emotional systems then we become inheritors of the richest source of information in the world.

All emotions are sacred and sane

When we live from within the flux and flow of emotions-in-the-body then we make wiser decisions with our brains. We don’t stick in situations that are toxic for us and we don’t  spoil the enjoyment of a moment by worrying about feeling the wrong thing. With time and practice we come to a place, exulted by Chögyam Trungpa, where every situation and emotion is full of wisdom. Every bodily state becomes sacred. Even emotions that the thinking mind labels as problematic start to feel deeply sane. 

There aren’t enough emoticons in the world to describe the richness of human emotion

Ten years ago, I was hopelessly bad at identifying what I was feeling at any given moment. And now, 6 years of therapy and thousands of hours of meditating later, I’m a little better at it. But it  strikes me that many of my therapy clients are very confused about what they’re feeling too. And I think it’s an increasingly common experience that in our highly internet-saturated and concept-heavy culture, that the disjunct between thinking and feeling is getting wider and wider. 

Our social media emoticons say one thing but our bodies are feeling something completely different. There aren’t enough emoticons in the world to express the richness of even the most basic human emotions. That’s what so glorious about the somatic path. From living in an unsatisfying pastiche of smiley-face ‘likes’ and angry-faced ‘dislikes’, we can plunge each day into the swirling, whirling torrent of our real, here-and-now lives. They’re full of 3-, 4-, 5-dimensional experiences and a whole spectrum of emotional tones: laser-sharp responses to an ever changing world. 

It’s not our  biology’s fault when we lie in bed endlessly running over things

There is one thing that makes dealing with human emotions particularly hard. That is the fact that we don’t just emote about the outside world. We emote about the inside world too. As far as we know, monkeys don’t stress about what’s happening on the other side of the world. Rats don’t imagine that other rats in another country might be having more fun than they are. And – until further research comes out, – dogs don’t endlessly rehearse what they’re going to say to their fellow dogs when they go out for a walk. 

Humans have the stimulus of imagination, memory and future planning to trigger emotional outcomes in the body. This is not emotions fault. It’s not the biochemistry of cortisol and adrenalin that is at fault when we lie in bed endlessly running over a conversation we had with our boss, picking it apart and retro-rehearsing what we should have said. It’s not the body’s fault that it stresses up – it’s our thinking mind’s fault. 

Twenty years ago I had no access to my emotions

We can tinker with the thinking mind – à la CBT – but that tends to layer another matrix of conceptualisation over the first. Somatic meditation offers a much more potent method for working with these self-creating emotional coils. Enter into the bodily emotions itself and work with it from within. 

The range of practices that are now available to rest in the wisdom of the soma is really something. When I started meditation almost 20 years ago, I had no access to these things and my meditation and my emotions got really stuck. It feels like a completely revolutionary thing to be able to experience my emotional life through the body not the mind. 

Where to learn about working with emotions using meditation

If you’d also like to get the meditative tools to stay in your emotional body and learn from the deep wisdom that provides, I’m running a course called “Sitting with the Emotion” at the Buddhist Centre at Spa Road, Bermondsey on 15 and 16th September.   You don’t need to have any experience of somatic meditation or have studied with Reggie. Everyone is welcome. 

Get in touch

2 Comments

  • Donna says:

    So interesting and so true! I can’t wait to learn more in two weeks time. See you then, Alistair!

  • Cathy Jackson says:

    Alistair, might you be running this in Brighton too soon? I hope so. It feels too long since the last course. I hope your summer has been a fulfilling one. Love Cathy

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