Life is propagated by two main clusters of emotions. (*Yes I know it’s more like a spectrum but this is the poor simplification I am using for now)
The “good” feelings that we move towards, and the “bad” feelings that we move away from. (then there’s the neutral ones we hang around in sometimes but that’s for another time).
If you spend your life always running from the bad ones and always running towards the good ones, you may have a good life. You may have a life that just gets lucky and has more good than bad. Alternatively you may have hard things to do that involve feeling uncomfortable for short or long periods of time. If you are forever running away from the bad emotions, and forever addicted to running towards the good emotions, you are severely limited in your agency compared to if you have even a little bit of freedom to do something like, “avoid short term rewards”, or “put up with scary moments” on the way to other experiences. (see also The Trauma model of mental health)
The carnival ride example
Charlie the five year old goes on a carnival ride. Charlie the five year old throws up. Charlie the five year old learns that carnival rides make you feel terrible.
In (one of many) healthy worlds: When charlie turns ten, his friends ask him to go to the carnival again. Charlie realises that the carnival ride might be different now, he fuels himself with a bit of peer pressure and he runs a new experiment, pushing back on the terrible feeling that he would usually avoid and rewrites his inclination to avoid terrible things. Consequently charlie relearns that a carnival ride is only sometimes terrible and with the support of friends it can be good.
In (one of many) unhealthy worlds: When charlie turns ten, his friends ask him to go to the carnival again. Charlie remembers that the carnival rides feel terrible and decides not to go to the carnival. This reinforces the terrible feeling. Charlie feels entirely justified in avoiding a terrible thing, his friends don’t really care either way and life goes on. Charlie keeping a tiny reinforced experience that he should avoid terrible things.
Objectively speaking, a carnival ride is not terrible or good. Subjectively, the feelings we attach to such experiences are what guides us in future experiences. Rightly or wrongly, all possible futures for charlie are going to be guided by the possibility that those emotions will come up.
In an ideal world, our emotions, our s1 will be trained accurately from our surroundings.
In prehistoric times, we avoid the crocodile lake because we feel scared of the danger there. The humans who didn’t feel scared of the danger, didn’t avoid the lake, didn’t live, and didn’t pass on their genes.
Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world for emotional training, and despite the best of intentions we can still wind up with emotional maps that don’t help us to win at life.
The good news is that we can re-train our early emotional models of the world. The bad news is that it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and people spend years meditating on mountain tops for equanimity towards all experiences.
With that in mind – let’s begin.
The destination is the ability to feel uncomfortable feelings. The result is to get to the other side. Unfortunately like all cryptic journeys, you can’t be too focused on the result or you will miss the whole “value in the journey” thing that all those wise people talk about. You can think of this practice as a meditation on feelings
(This looks similar to ACT, that’s because it is.)
To start – ask yourself, “How am I feeling?”. That will give you an entry point. There’s always an entry point. Even if it’s confused, or I feel like not doing this exercise right now, or I feel like being distracted by that other tab.
Then ask, “What is it like being me right now feeling X?”. This question develops a relationship to the thoughtstream.
For our 3 examples above:
- Confused feels like Silly
- Not doing the exercise feels rebellious
- Distraction Feels exciting or Guitly
Repeat the question with the new find, “What does it feel like being me right now feeling X?”. Building the ongoing relationship with the thoughtstream.
- Silly feels like A clown that people would poke fun at (this is an example of a metaphorical pointer to a feeling)
- Rebellious feels empowering but then also scary
- Exciting Feels like missing out or Like being stuck in the classroom during lunch time when everyone else is outside playing (This is another example of the metaphor)
- Guilty feels like a heavy weight in my chest (this is an example of a physical manifestation of a feeling)
These paths further each might open up into other feeling paths.
- A clown that people would poke fun at
- What does it feel like to be the clown anyway?
- What does it feel like to be the person laughing at the clown here?
- What does it feel like to be poked fun at?
- What does it feel like being me right now, feeling empowered?
- What if I did the opposite? How would that feel?
- What does it feel like being scared like this right now?
- Missing out
- What does it feel like to miss out right now?
- Like being stuck in the classroom during lunch time when everyone else is outside playing
- What does it feel like to be stuck in the classroom?
- a heavy weight in my chest
- What does it feel like to be heavy in the chest right now?
- A clown that people would poke fun at
For the purpose of example, I’ve generated multiple paths. In practice I’d be looking to go down one path at a time. That might look like this:
- How am I feeling right now?
- I feel confused about the exercise
- What is it like being me right now feeling confused?
- What is it like being me right now feeling silly?
- Like a clown being poked fun at
- What does it feel like to be the clown?
And onward through several feelings. At some point, it becomes useful to not run from a feeling to the next feeling, and instead sit on it for a moment. That might be after 10, 20 or 30+ different stops along the journey.
(in the interest of being brief I’m going to stop at 8 instead of 30) At 8, that means feeling embarrassed, but instead of asking myself for the answer of what it feels like to feel embarrassed – I stop and try to feel what it feels like to feel embarrassed.
Instead of looking for a word underneath embarrassed, I feel the feeling of embarrassed. And wait. And it’s uncomfortable, but to get distracted by the uncomfortable feeling would be to leave embarrassed. So I go back to embarrassed. And it gets heavy. And to get distracted onto heavy would be to not be embarrassed any more. And it feels like something is crushing my chest, and it’s getting tighter. And it might crush me, and I might not breathe. And I wait.
And then it stops crushing. And it softens, and it eases, and it levels out to a different feeling. And I take a deep breath. And I feel calm. A very deep sense of calm. I feel like I’d be okay being embarrassed. As long as I remember that there’s a sense of calm underneath.
And I feel calm. And I feel relieved, and complete.
And that’s what it feels like to feel an uncomfortable feeling and get to the other side. That’s what it feels like to untrain the carnival ride effect.
Next post: Feedback from emotions