In-Sourcing Blog

Be mindful of the distinction between what you are feeling… and the event you are experiencing

I often see a wrinkled brow of puzzlement when I reply with a sympathetic but cautionary rejoinder to a client’s emotional, often teary description of a particularly emotional experience. “I understand how you are feeling,” I empathize, “but remember, you are not your feelings.”

Seeking clarification, invariably they protest, “But Arlene, when I’m feeling rage or despair, that’s me; that’s who I am at that time!”

Initially I probably confuse them further by answering “Yes” and “No.”  Yes, to the extent that their feelings are “real” and can be pleasant or unpleasant according to how the events that prompted them are experienced. And no to their conclusion that the feelings are true (or false) accounts of the elemental nature of reality itself.  In other words, feelings exist, but only as expressions of an individual’s experience, whatever that experience happens to be.

When you are absorbed into your sadness these feelings become confused with your self-hood (who you are; your sense of having a distinct identity, i.e., “When I am sad, I am sadness,” the feeling now personalized as distinctly yours). But if you think of feelings simply as processed responses to events, they lose their hold on you; they are observed rather than absorbed.  When you can observe your feelings rather than being the feelings, the burden is eased.  What is, simply is.  Your reaction to a sad event doesn’t identify you as sad, it identifies the nature of the event.

Observation gives you distance and allows you to disengage; allows you to be in the present moment.  Said in simple terms, when you see it, you’re not it… instead, you’re mindful of what is existent in the here and now and fully aware of the distinction between what’s seen and the conscious person seeing it.

It’s this understanding that enables people to learn to live with emotions they might otherwise find intolerable, such as feelings of anxiety.  Looking at anxiety doesn’t lessen it, but accepting it, seeing it as an entity separate from you, helps one to realize that anxiety isn’t by itself devastating.  By being mindful of our anxiety, we can see beyond it, see the totality of who we are, other than anxiety as our identity.  Our feelings are put in proper context; our focus shifts to what matters; awareness of our true, inner values, empowered to live a meaningful, committed life.

The great 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi, offers a more lyrical take on welcoming your feelings:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture.

Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.