By Suma Varughese
As we progress through the spiralling evolution of feelings, we will find our equation with them shaping and shifting as we gradually take charge, says Suma Varughese
Many years ago, while I was editing a lifestyle magazine, I had an ebullient young intern called Dennis. One day, Dennis came in to work looking rather wan and forlorn. His girl friend had ditched him, and Dennis was heartbroken. “I just don’t know what to do with my feelings,” he confided.
I, who had started walking the path only a couple of years before that, but already conversant with the central role of feelings on the journey, was blown away by this succinct expression of his situation. Or any troublesome situation for that matter. Isn’t the issue always just this: What do we do with our feelings?
Let’s face it, thoughts are not troublesome in themselves. Yes, they have an irritating tendency to buzz like incessant flies in our heads, but it is the feelings they stir up that really stymie us. What do we do with all those oversized feelings that threaten to submerge us, possess us, or force us to act? What do we do with the consequences of the damaging actions that anger, hate, greed, lust, jealousy, resentment, arrogance, guilt, shame, can enforce? And how, oh how, can we free ourselves of them?
Indeed, these feelings are considered to be deadly vices in most scriptures, including Christianity, Hindusim, and Buddhism. From the time we are old enough to understand, we are warned against them, punished for feeling them or acting on them, and indoctrinated to judge ourselves and others severely for feeling them. Indeed, society on the whole, has rejected these feelings so summarily that they form humanity’s vast shadow self.
No wonder each of us has to grapple with them for ourselves; and because we do not know how, we fear them, abhor them, suppress them, rationalize them, work on them, justify them, and strive to free ourselves of them. We recognize that as long as we are trapped within these feelings, we are not our own master. And that through them, our lives threaten constantly to spin out of control and submerge us in suffering.
In the beginning
So where do we start? Perhaps as little children, when for the most part, we are blissfully accepting of our feelings, lustily crying when wet, uncomfortable or wanting to be fed, and chortling and chuckling gleefully when happy. No issue with feelings at all. You feel them and let them go. How simple can it be? How loud our voices are as children. How unashamed and assertive. And how steady and assured our gaze. But socialising soon starts and not only do the decibel levels of our voices drop as does our gaze, but troublesome feelings take root in our bodies. Fear, anxiety, hurt, sorrow, greed, all begin to assert themselves and because we have by then learnt that they are not good to have, we resist them, and so they persist.
Meanwhile, life happens.
|Kumud Adlakha: Yoga helped her deal with the vicissitudes of life|
In my own case, I recall that I was a constant enigma to myself. I reacted excessively to what for others were just ordinary pinpricks. At the age of five, I attended my eldest sister’s wedding in Kerala. At the reception my new brother-in-law briefly held my sister’s hand while standing on stage. I broke into a loud wail and demanded to know who that man was who was holding my sister’s hand. My outrage could not be appeased and later when he and my sister came to our house in Bangalore, I hid under the bed so I would not have to meet him! At school any form of teasing no matter how mild, would induce nothing less than trauma in me. In comparison to others, I was fortunate to have been spared any large scale disaster, and yet the tiny turmoils of my life lodged like shrapnel in my heart and bled it prodigiously. My life, therefore, from my earliest memory, was filled with huge dramas, where hurt, fear, anger, and so on formed a deadly cocktail. I later understood that as the last of six daughters born to parents looking for a son, I must have been unconsciously subjected to rejection at birth, though to do them justice, my parents were the epitome of love and care thereafter. My excessive fears, poor self-esteem and a sense of not being okay probably stemmed from that rejection.
It is no surprise, therefore, that I had absolutely no idea about what to do with my feelings. They dominated my mindspace and controlled my actions.
Anjli Baxi, a Mumbai-based co-founder of Soul Route, a self-empowerment centre, also recalls a childhood fraught with emotional turbulence. “I was a very sensitive, timid child. I had difficulty expressing need for any material comfort. I recall numerous occasions of not asking for something I wanted such as toys, or clothes. I coped with the bottled-up feelings by falling sick often or crying.”
Harshada Khanolkar, a Mumbai-based yoga teacher, says, “My memories of childhood are mostly of loss and solitude. I loved being alone, staring at the sky, or creating my own make-believe world and playing by myself. Also, as I was the oldest I was expected to give my toys to the younger cousins, expected to understand when my mom cared for my younger brother more… all this gave rise to a feeling of loss which gradually turned to anger. I remember flying into fits of rage. I once tore my dress because I did not get what I wanted. On another occasion I banged my head on the side of the bed repeatedly because my mother wouldn’t listen to me.”
Nisha KripaJyothi Sangla, a Delhi-based healer, also went through a difficult childhood. “I was not allowed to speak for myself or take decisions, and this suppressed my self-esteem to such an extent that I developed a tumour in my left parotid gland which I got operated at 18 years.”
Even those who can seem relatively composed on the outside can battle within themselves. Anuradha Ramesh, a Hyderabad-based holistic therapist, recalls arriving at the conclusion early in life that her feelings were not as important as that of others. “It was more important to take care of other people’s feelings…not to make my parents unhappy, not to get them angry, not to get in the way as they attended to my younger sister,” she says, adding, “I learnt to be good. I was obedient. I only remember having the nice feelings…happiness and good cheer. I was known in my family and the extended family to be a very pleasant natured, obedient, submissive child.”
At this point, there is no clear answer to the question, “What do I do with my feelings?” Children generally lack the self-awareness and self-control to distance themselves from their feelings long enough to deal with them. At the same time, if their self-esteem is sound enough, coping with feelings happens naturally. Self-esteem enables them to experience their feelings without feeling bad about themselves, and free themselves of them.
If parents and teachers could implant self-esteem in young ones by treating them with love and respect, by assuring them at all times that they are okay, they would be giving them one of the most precious gifts they possibly could. Above all, adults should consciously ensure that they do not pass on the old programming that negative feelings are bad and that one should not have them. Children should be encouraged to own their feelings and come to terms with them. Of course, this is easier said than done, for parents are struggling with their own programming, and the last thing I want to do is impose even more pressure on them than they already have. So parents, just putting it out there!
As for those of us who went through adulthood without the support of enlightened parents, we too eventually find succour. Watching over us and guiding us, is the Universe itself and somehow through the tortuous twists and turns of life we are led to what in retrospect, is a journey. Often, though, some of its first moves can seem like a descent into disaster.
My first attempt to come to some kind of terms with my colossal feelings happened when I left the cloisters of home and ventured out into a girl’s hostel in Mumbai, to pursue a BA.
An intensely shy person, the shock of dealing with strangers after years of living in the safety of a township, and the pressure of coping on my own, completely destabilised me. Unable to cope with the volcano of feelings festering within, I unconsciously chose to suppress or numb them so I would no longer hurt. The feelings became dimmer and dimmer until they faded away, and with them went my life force. I descended into a low-grade depression, where I lost all enthusiasm for life, and all capacity to feel happiness, love or empathy. The negative feelings, in fact, took over, only in a distant, dull way. I just remember feeling miserable most of the time, and wanting nothing as much as to die.
This became my habitual state of being for many years until a spiritual awakening blew apart my dim and dull world and filled it with the iridescence of love and life. For almost a year, I was able to put aside my ego with ease and be present to other people’s needs, feelings and desires. I was awash with happiness and gratitude. After years of being unable to feel anything at all, I embraced even my most negative feelings with gusto for they were all part of the life that was me. The depression gave me an intense immersion in misery, and a subsequent thirst for happiness.
Others too adopted different ways of coping with feelings.
Kumud naturally blossomed into a happier, more confident person. A fat kid when she went to
college, she was asked by a couple of seniors to join them in a college quiz competition and become a ‘team of fatsos’. That was a wake-up call that provoked her to go on a diet and discover her own will power. Quickly, she lost her excess weight, found a wonderful boy friend, and began to flower out in all areas. Despite a Maths Honour, she decided to pursue a fashion design course. “That was the time I was high on life. I felt I could do anything with my life,” she recalls.
However. marriage and motherhood brought its own share of challenges and a serious health problem surfaced. In her case too, it is spirituality that brought her the capacity to cope with how she felt no matter what was going on in her world.
“With yoga in my life, I find myself in control of my feelings to a big extent.”
For Nisha, her mother’s sudden death changed everything and forced her to change herself. “We just broke. My father shut himself from feeling anything and it was suffocating. My sister over protected me. Only after my sister’s marriage did I get the freedom to be on my own at some level.”
She too, found succour through spirituality when she stumbled upon the works of Osho and J. Krishnamurti. Through years of working on herself she began to heal herself. She says, “As I walked my path and became more aware of myself, I felt extreme pain in knowing how much I allowed myself to be suppressed by others. How much control I gave away of my feelings and my life to those who didn’t even know what they were doing.”
Anuradha’s feeling journey was a meandering one. Consciously working on herself even before the advent of spirituality into her life she healed some of the polarities of her character. Through reading Vivekananda, she taught herself how to meditate. However, an experience during meditation frightened her off for several years. In the meantime, she plunged into a free fall of despair and hopelessness that culminated in a depression.
A fortuitous shift from Dehra Dun to her home town in Hyderabad and an introduction to Reiki transformed her life decisively. “Reiki helped me understand reality in terms of energy. I understood that all thoughts and feelings were different configurations of energy. Knowing there is no judgement on the kind of emotion allowed me to breathe easy for the very first time in my entire adult life. I dropped the idea of a “bad me” and was absolved of the heavy burden of guilt I had carried until then.”
For most of us, spirituality, or some form of personal growth, is our first glimpse into the tangled undergrowth of our inner world. For the first time, we recognize that there could actually be a method to our emotional madness, and that it is not beyond our capacity to master them.
At the same time, getting on the spiritual path poses its own set of challenges. Growing awareness shines an increasingly clear light on all the emotions we have suppressed, all the experiences that we have not come to terms with, all the desires that fester within. At the same time, if we are not able to accept them, most of us create even further polarity into our lives. From spirituality we learn how our thoughts create our feelings, which create the vibrations we put out, which determines our destiny. Negative feelings therefore, become even more repellent and we fight shy of them even more. At least in the beginning most seekers pretend to be happier than they are, fight hard against negativity, and struggle to be positive at any cost. In his book, God Loves Fun, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar narrates the story of a woman whose son had died but who refused to experience the grieving, claiming that she was feeling very positive.
At the same time, the spiritual path also gives us many tools and techniques we can use to come
closer to healing our emotions and bridging our polarities. Let us pose that question again. What do we do with our feelings? This time there is an answer or indeed a plethora of answers. A great deal of psychological and spiritual literature deals with just this subject, for thoughts and feelings are the calling cards of the mind. Jnana yogis like J. Krishnamurti and Eckhart Tolle would tell you to watch your thoughts and feelings. Excellent advice for those who can do that.
Here is a delicate story by Pema Chodron from her book, When Things Fall Apart, that gives us access to one way of confronting feelings
“Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, ‘May I have permission to go into battle with you?’ Fear said, ‘Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.’ Then the young warrior said, ‘How can I defeat you?’ Fear replied, ‘My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.’ In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear.”
But for those whose thoughts and feelings are too skittish to enable watching, techniques like EFT, Worry Buster, Sedona Method, the Journey method and so on enable you to heal from your feelings quickly and easily. Some are short term methods for the feelings will visit you again, but at least it means that instead of floundering with them or lashing out damagingly at the world, we can get a grip on them. All of them have in common the fact that you will have to face your feeling and own it, which indicates that this is the one thing we need to move towards, no matter what method or path we follow.
To know more about EFT, please go to www.eftuniverse.com where you can download a free booklet on how to learn EFT. Workshops on the subject are also regularly held.
The heart opens
As our feelings open up and we find ourselves becoming receptive to them, another thing happens. We slowly drop from our head to our hearts. Our decisions and actions are no longer based on drawing up a pro and con list. We decide on the basis of what our heart tells us, or what we instinctively know is right for us. Our decision making ability improves vastly. We no longer act blindly or impulsively as our feelings tell us, or impassively as our head tells us.
Says Anjli Baxi, “As my journey within myself intensified I had to take a stand for what I believed in, the person I was. This slowly led me to open up and express my true beliefs, my experiences and emotions. I chose to end some relationships, stepped out of a social group, prioritised spending time with my niece, and decided against colouring my greying hair! This slow acceptance of my being more free-spirited and nonconformist was my first brush with my true Self.”
This phase can often take a long time to happen in the case of the male sex. Many of them have been schooled from childhood not to give in to their feelings, not to cry or show vulnerability and to listen to their heads rather than their hearts. In an article on the website www.elephantjournal.com Keith Artisan writes that apart from this, men have been traditionally expected to play the protector by defending their women and children even to the extent of harming the aggressor. He points out sharply, “It is a double standard to expect a man to be emotionally available and to have him be able to harm another human being.”
For that reason men find this journey of feelings a minefield. Artisan pleads with women to be understanding and nurture men through this journey. He says, “Men don’t fall short in the emotional realm because we are emotionally immature. We are emotionally inexperienced. … when we find a woman who loves us and we love in return, it brings to life a living fire that had been suppressed for a lifetime. Yet fires burn, and the burgeoning sensitivities is akin to a child learning to walk. We fall down, we make blunders, and we are blind as to how to listen and communicate our emotions.”
Once we get in touch with our feelings we run the risk of going overboard with them. This is especially true in the case of the male sex, where the capacity to feel after a lifetime of blanking out can cause imbalance. A male friend who was impervious to the female sex, suddenly fell in love and was shattered when the relationship collapsed. He spent years in a depression before life healed him and brought him back to balance. Others fail to distinguish between the guidance of the heart/intuition and the whims of the ego mind. In mistaking one for the other, we often make wrong choices and bring suffering into our lives. For instance someone I know sold her house, threw up her job and sundered all ties to settle down in an ashram, soon after her movement into spirituality. After a few years she realised that what she wanted was the householder life and so she came back, but found it very difficult to make ends meet and find a footing once again in Mumbai city.
And more stuff
There are other movements in the tortuous journey of feelings. For one thing, evolution is spiral-like and not linear. The same situation or the same set of feelings may confront us over and over again, though with each visitation the time taken to learn the lesson or overcome the feelings progressively reduces. Secondly, as our journey of understanding ourselves deepen, the deeper and darker side of ourselves gets flushed out.
Says Anjli Baxi, “The journey became more terrifying when I had to engage and own my shadow Self – my true beliefs, feelings that had been buried since my childhood, or rather, for many lives had to be faced and accepted. The shadows are trapped with the intense energy of fear of rejection, failure and shame. The only way out was to learn to be compassionate and loving to my own self.”
Anuradha Ramesh shares her experience of suddenly accessing her shadow side after almost 10 years of expansion and growth “Feelings of anger, resentment, insecurity, anxiety, gripping fears of losing loved ones, low self-worth – a plethora of feelings that I thought I had done away with resurfaced – some more starkly than before.”
At first resistant, she finally accepted that her spiritual awareness had in no way neutralised existing darker emotions and that she would have to work on healing them. In many ways that freed her. “It made me completely fearless, being able to face up to the darkest shades of my personality. It called out for a new level of strength, courage and a secure sense of self. It taught me to be vulnerable and sensitive.”
It takes yet another turn of the screw which may, in fact, take years to happen to reach the level of
balance, self-control, self-knowledge and self-love needed to accept our feelings and thoughts. This is a huge shift, for it means that we are no longer fighting against negative feelings, or craving positive ones. We are now going beyond the pendulum swing between craving and aversion which is the very crux of the human condition. Resistance slowly fades away. We are now expanded beings with space inside ourselves for all that we think and feel. This capacity, in turn, frees us of the hold that others have on us, for if we can accept whatever we feel and think, it simply won’t matter what others say and do. We realise then that our problem was never with what others said or did. it was with our inability to accept what we felt when others said and did what they did.
We are now vested in the most precious of attributes – peace, and a sense of integration and completion. Not perhaps a lasting peace, for spiralling evolution will cause us to take several rounds through this zone before we find ourselves capable of equanamity in all circumstances. But peace, nevertheless.
In his book, Unattended Sorrow, Stephen Levine beautifully explains how the process of acceptance begins.
“When we turn away from our sorrow, we intensify our pain and close off parts of ourselves. One of the great barriers to becoming whole once again is doubt. Because we are powerless against our pain, we think we are stuck where we are and cannot move in any direction. But it is the kind investigation into the acceptance of that powerlessness that can offer the hope.”
At this stage, were we to pose that question again, “What do I do with my feelings?”, the answer will come gladly and easily. Experience, them, accept them, assimilate them.
Says KripaJyoti. “My relationship with feelings changed when I understood and accepted them. I realised that it did not matter whether my feelings were acceptable to others or not. What I felt was my personal space and it was very important for me to take charge of my own feelings. When I accepted my feelings and stopped begging others to accept me, I also stopped them from hurting me.”
Not our feelings
We have come far into the journey and our suffering may have muted, but there is still one more level we have to ascend in our feelings journey. One fine day, we will discover experientially what the sages have always said, which is that we are not our feelings and thoughts. We are something other than that. And thus is born the witness, who watches the play of thoughts and feelings rising and falling in the mind, but in no way identifies with them.
This can be an astonishing experience for one used to identifying with one’s feelings. These days, I am in the process of disidentifying with the very feelings that have given me so much grief in so many ways. As anger shakes me, or feelings of inadequacy grip me, or a strong desire fills me, I remind myself that I am not these, but am instead the ground that contains all these. And instantly, I feel a separation from the feeling and me. It strikes me that I am in the process of vacating my mind. It is another thing that perhaps it will take me a few more revolutions on the spiral staircase before I can get established in witness consciousness.
Says KripaJyoti, “I am at an amazing point on the feeling journey completely in tune with who I am and what I am doing here. I have reached a point where I have total control of the way I feel. I feel what I want to feel. When I feel triggered by pain I allow it go by watching it instead of acting on it. The only emotion which still bests me is anger triggered by the other’s insensitive behaviour towards me. Still, I accept this anger and I sit in this anger instead of reacting.”
At this stage if you were to ask yourself that question,“What do I do with my feelings? ”, your answer will be a placid, “Ignore them, for they are not who I am.”
Perhaps, in time, we will reach a stage where we will only be and emanate our true nature, joy, love, and peace. Negative feelings are nothing but the absence of positivity we are told, so in time they will dissolve like mist at sunrise, never to cross our paths again.
Journey’s end? So the sages say!
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