• on October 3, 2017

Why your attempts to make positive changes aren’t working, and what it means to truly trust how we feel

By Emily Holden

I’m committed to feeling more at ease in the world.  I don’t know about you, but I just love joy.  I love connection.  I love a spacious brain and a well-rested body.  I love health.  Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual health – on all levels, I want satisfaction, enjoyment, and just more of the juice of life.  And the thought that I might be able to engineer that – somehow enhance my own sense of wellbeing and hold space for others to do the same – is why I’m writing right now.

The thing about health, is that there are no guarantees.  I know three women battling breast cancer.  I have a friend who has chronic anxiety.  Other friends are taking medication for their depression.  Another one has debilitating allergies to almost everything.  Another drinks every night.  And the women I talk to, underneath the high functioning veneer of work, studies, partnership, and motherhood – there are undercurrents of body dysmorphia, body rejection, disordered eating, bingeing, purging…  A pervasive sense of “I don’t feel right and my behaviour clearly isn’t right and despite my best intentions I can’t just make it all go away.”

When our health is not responding to our attempts to “make things better”, our ability to be here, now, and commit to our lives is compromised too.  Who wants to live inside a mind that is sending you conflicting messages, all day long?  Eat.  Don’t eat.  Be happy.  I don’t feel happy.  Do more.  I’m exhausted.  Appreciate yourself.  I feel dead inside.  Be better.  There’s nothing worth striving for.  Lose some weight.  I just want to lose myself in the food.

And we’re right to be self-medicating.  Our vulnerable minds can’t hold these conflicting wants and desires with the felt-sense that sits beneath them.  Our left-brains were not build to hold the paradoxical and conflicting nature of the human experience.  We’d like a rational, logical programme please that will blast away all the bad bits, leave us with the good bits, and on we go.

Everything in my own experience leads me to believe that this approach, of bull-dozing ourselves into positivity and abundance, is unsustainable.  I do want to think happy thoughts.  I do want to cultivate supportive behaviours.  I do want to have aspirations and goals that I can focus on, get closer to, and finally achieve.  But bubbling underneath the surface, I can’t deny the flicker of fear, the jagged edge of insecurity, and the quiet sense of “Nothing is guaranteed.  All this could disappear in a second.”  Isn’t that the true nature of life?  That any of us, at any moment, could lose it all?

My left-brain can’t hold this groundlessness.  My left-brain would have me running round in circles, predicting and controlling, predicting and controlling.

But my soma (the body, and the felt-sense) is capacious in a way that my left-brain operating system can never be.  And my soma is the seat of my emotional life – grief, joy, frustration, delight.  Emotions are called “feelings” because we FEEL them.  We use words to describe them, but we are pointing to a somatic, body-based experience.  And these simple words can barely hold the complexity of what our bodies are feeling.

  • I can finally feel some softness and a release of tension around the head but there’s an empty feeling in my heart: the sadness/joy at the end of a project
  • There’s a tenderness within me that aches in a delicious way: the love/longing when I’m away from my partner
  • My whole body feels alive with energy and my eyes can’t look away: the wonder/fear at witnessing the raging sea
  • My belly is nauseous and untethered but my heart is settled and open: the sorrow/gratitude of remembering a lost loved one

And because we all possess a completely unique, open and ever-unfolding physiology (our cells are busy living/dying all the time), these moment-to-moment experiences of our bodies will be different for each person.  Maybe the sorrow is in your gut.  Maybe it’s in your throat.  Maybe it’s so deeply buried, all you can register is numbness.  Maybe you’re too busy to register the numbness at all.

And everything I’ve ever been taught, in my culture and society, was that this deep knowing of the body, to feel what’s true and paradoxical, was NOT TO BE TRUSTED and definitely not to be expressed.  Expressing emotions is messy, unpredictable, and potentially humiliating.  So it’s best just to say what you think about a situation and what you’re going to do to sort everything out and leave it at that.  Thanks very much.

And yet, in all the research I’m reading about how we heal and how we evolve as humans, we all keep pointing to exactly the same truths:

  • Emotions arise as feelings in the body.
  • Feelings arise in order to be felt.
  • Any “unfelt” emotions don’t go away, but get stored in our bodies until we become ready to experience them more fully.
  • The interplay between our conscious and unconscious minds protects us from knowing or feeling too much too soon.
  • Logic and reason work well when dealing with the conscious mind: what we are already aware of.
  • Logic and reason cannot change patterns of thoughts or behaviour that arise from our unconscious.

In the Tibetan yoga I study, the body IS the unconscious.

So maybe we should stop trying to reason with our bodies and start trusting them as the wise, truthful and uncompromising messengers they are?

And yet, would you trust a person who did not respond to logic, reason, or rationality?  I’m not sure if I want to either!

A woman once asked how she could possibly trust her body.  When she found herself in “normal”, non-threatening situations, her body did not respond logically or rationally.  Her body was jittery, sweating, fearful, and anxious.  Despite the lack of apparent threat, every message her body pointed to was saying DANGER DANGER DANGER.

Another woman told me that her life was perfect.  Beautiful family, abundance resources, comfortable living.  And her feelings were communicating, loud and clear – I’M BORED and I’m ANGRY.

Just two very simple examples of how our bodies refuse to compromise our deeper truths.  The truth of previously having been in unsafe situations that we weren’t able to hold.  The truth of having never been allowed to express any form of anger or frustration in our family situation.  Our bodies are pointing to these experiences, remembering what our conscious minds had forgotten.  “Get over it!” we cry.  “I’m done with this!”  But then why do we feel as we feel?

I’d love to put all your health issues into a neat little box for you, everything labelled and categorised, with a strategy for every symptom and a positive outcome for every challenge.  But that’s not the deal here, sister.  The deal is WE FEEL WHAT WE FEEL because WHAT WE FEEL REFLECTS THE DEEPER TRUTH OF WHO WE ARE.

And I suggest that we start to grow the only muscle that’s going to help you through these challenging times, whatever is showing up in your life.

Your ability to hold space for what is arising within you.

Holding space for anger to be there.

Holding space for joy to be there.

Holding space for hurt to be there.

Holding space for pride to be there.

You don’t even need to identify what’s arising with words.  You can hold space for a churning stomach, an achingly open heart, a belly that feels as heavy as stone.  You don’t need a story or a dialogue to explain why or how you feel as you do.  You just need a moment to allow your internal spaces to be as they are.  Permission to feel what’s there.  And the tenderness and compassion to stay alongside yourself in these moments of being truly present to the messy aliveness of life.

Our modern lives would rather we ate it, drank it, smoked it, watched it on TV, bought it, threw it away…  In today’s world, we don’t want presence with what is.  What want what we don’t have, instantly.  Society wants you to turn away from your internal movements and lose yourself in the stories, the products and the mind-altering substances that will take you far away from this uncomfortable place of being you and feeling you AS YOU ARE RIGHT NOW.

I wish I had a simple answer for you, darling.  To fix the hurt I have to feel the hurt?  God, no!

There are ways you can grow your own soft and spacious container.  Spaces where presence, compassion and gentleness are priorities.  Seek out those spaces.  Be with those people who don’t turn away from your hurts, and who don’t amplify them either.

On my recent retreat, a man was hurting.  He was overcome with painful sensations.  The two men next to him attended to him, helping him sink to the ground, touching his shoulders gently.  The man next to me said one simple sentence.  That was all.  My heart burst at the hearing of it.  He said:

“We’re together.”

We’re together.  We’re a community.  I don’t turn away from your hurts.  I’m learning not to turn away from my own, however much I’d like to just get on with living the super-happy, super successful and extra enjoyable life that I have ordered from the universe (!).  We all get to be human.  So I continue to think happy thoughts, and I take action to support myself.  But remember, what we feel underneath it all is true.  And valid.  And right.  And good.  And we have permission to feel it.

Come and feel with me:  5 yoga classes a week in Brighton/Hove, fortnightly Plant-Based Lunch Club and IEWIN food/body circles, or 121 support.

Our Facebook page has all our latest events.