Understanding Emotions - by Rik Midgley
It was 5 years into my NVC journey when I recognised my frustration with the complexity of how I was using language, the long words of which I struggled to clearly define, and my tendency to loose track. The mental stretch reminded me as to why I gave up playing chess! I was longing for simplicity, something that I could feel in my heart and bones, a skeleton that I could use in communication on which to hang meaning as it was revealed. I realised my longing was to translate my understanding of NVC onto an emotional landscape that I could feel my way through, and so find a tangible connection to the energy underlying my words and thoughts, and a trust in the words that that seemed to congeal from this essence.
I remember looking up at the kheet roofing of the forest hut in the Indian community in which I was living, feeling into this, and the moment when a penny dropped. The relief of my realisation that my every feeling and sensation has a positive, a life enriching message carrying love. The realisation that my body is my friend, with me in its wholeness, every part yearning for life. I relaxed as I found trust in my physical self, and spaciousness and compassion for the pain it held. I touched the acceptance that it is OK to be exactly as I am.
It is not that what I want to share here is right, rather, it works for me, and that is enough. It has enabled me to find the space to live and grow, to connect with my humanity, to feel whole and at peace. I share this now in the wonder – perhaps others will be touched by this too. I like to believe so, as I am longing for peace, peace in the hearts of all people in the world, the peace that comes from the befriending of our own hearts.
What is an emotion?
A feeling is a coherent region of tangible body sensations, such as a pressure, a tingling, warmth etc.
An emotion is the combination of both feeling and an element of judgement, such that it is an ‘e-motion’, an emoting, energising feeling. I want to explore the character of this judgement, as its subtleties are concealed within the cultural perception of an emotion and are confused by labelling using words.
There is a process to the arising of an emotion. It begins with a perceived stimulus, which is either from the senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling), from thinking in the mind or the feeling body. The mind then cognises this experience and evaluates it. This evaluation is unconscious, neurologically taking a few hundredths of a second, and is an automated reaction, learnt behaviour formulated from previous experience and inherent instinct. There is no choice in this reactivity. The mind assess the quality of the stimulus, of whether it is agreeable or disagreeable, liked or disliked, pleasant or unpleasant, and responds by projecting sensations onto the body. Our feelings are not chosen, rather they are the consequence of all that has gone before. There is no word in the English language to describe this reactive habitual behaviour, but the Buddha understood its significance used the Pali word ‘sankara’.
The mind continues in a cyclic process of perception, cognition, evaluation and projection of sensations onto the body. If the attention of the mind remains internally focused upon the tangible body, the sensations arising from the previous evaluation will be the mind’s stimulus for the its next rotation. The nature of the reactivity (sankara) will evolve as the sensations develop, perhaps with time resulting in a coherent physical expression which could be labelled as a named emotion. It is my understanding that for the majority of the time the attention of the mind is focused unconsciously and internally upon the sensations in the body and caught in this reactive cycle, and so has only occasional glances into the external world.
The contribution of the Buddha was that a spanner can be put into this reactive cycle by observing sensations. Unlike an evaluation, which has no observable properties, sensations can be directly perceived by the conscious mind. By bringing the conscious mind in contact with the body in this way, there is awareness of the next moment’s perceived stimulus. There follows the possibility of sustaining conscious awareness onto the evaluation of that stimulus and the breaking of the cycle of habitual reactivity.
With this conscious awareness of sensations, there is a pause of non-reactivity, a space for nothing to happen, an aware silence which invites the possibility of choice. This is the moment that we can lay down the chains of determinism of reactive behaviour, and step into the empowerment of free will, and to choose how we want to nurture our lives. The Buddha’s hypothesis was that the repetition of this process of observation without reaction would lead to the destruction of sankara, and ‘liberation’ from reactive behaviour.
Nonviolent Communication and emotions: One key distinction of Nonviolent Communication from other ways of communicating is the differentiation of feelings from thought.
The judgement living within an emotion has elements of both feeling and thought, in that it is rooted in the feeling body, and is evolved through reactive mental conditioning. The teasing out of the mental component of this judgement is a journey of self love and awareness, of subtly and clarity of perception, and of patients and forgiveness enabling the seeing it for what it is.
Another key distinction of Nonviolent Communication from other ways of communicating is the differentiation between moralistic judgement and value based judgement. Moralistic judgements are thought based (potentially independent of body awareness), and arise from mental concepts of right and wrong. Value based judgements are rooted in deeply held beliefs which emerge into awareness from their visceral home in the body. To a degree, these values are inherent, and common to all human beings, although they are also impacted by culture, trauma, and learnt behaviour which may lead to what is described within NVC as ‘core beliefs’.
The judgement within an emotion evolves into perception by growing through this cyclic reactive process. The nature of reactivity within each step of this process, the ‘quality’ of each sankara, is a combination of inherent and learnt behaviour and is a consequence of what has gone before. Inevitably it is comprised of both of value based judgement rooted in the body, and moralistic judgement originating from the thinking mind. Our awareness, our capacity for perception, is coloured by this natured and nurtured reactivity, by our library of sankara. It is as if we are all looking at the world through coloured glasses. I am saying this object is pink, you are saying it is green, and neither can appreciate that it is perhaps white. Our sankara colour the world we see, before we are aware that we are seeing. In his book, ‘A Language of Life’, Marshall quotes Krishnamuti ‘observation without evaluation is the highest form of human intelligence’. Perhaps, this is what he is speaking to.
This judgement within an emotion is neither fully owned and value based, nor is it a fully projected critique of the external world. It lies in a continuum between thought and feeling, between moralistic and value based, between being projected on another and owned by the self. Here lies our vulnerability, nothing is known, we perceive the world as best as we can by utilising our wisdom both from our body and from our mind. This is the wonder of being human. Awareness of the actual position of this judgement on this spectrum lives in the heart of the speaker alone, and cannot be expressed with clarity!
Linguistically, some emotion words lie towards extremes on this spectrum. For example ‘abandoned’ and ‘rejected’ hold strong implications that another person is responsible, while ‘love’ comes from a yearning in the heart of the speaker and so lie on opposite extremes. Emotion words are caricatures of an infinitely complex inner world, and all hold elements of both self-responsibility and projection, of both wanting to connect and wanting to be heard for one’s pain, of both reaching for the other with vulnerability and seeking safety through hiding or suppressing what is uncomfortable. This unknown is where our vulnerability lies in our self-expression.
How an emotion is perceived underlies how we are in life, the quality of our being. The invitation here is to welcome our emotions as the bringers of information that are potentially useful and meaningful. This requires differentiation of the perceiving and receiving an emotional ‘message’ from the mechanism by which it is brought. The power to make this distinction depends upon the capacity of the observer. For example, if these sensations are ‘observed’ as fear, is there sufficient self-connection to register ‘fear’ and respond accordingly, or is there overwhelm or a triggering of a safety response which numbs the feelings and so shoots the messenger?
Perceiving feelings for what they are, with a welcoming gentle curiosity is a skill which is nurtured through empathically embracing ourselves and in the of befriending the body. We cannot choose our sensations, but we can choose the quality of our experience by how we respond to our sensations. Here lies our empowerment. Can we simply observe the sensations for what they are – felt expressions of life flowing though us? Jumping into reactivity by wanting to avoid or suppress unpleasant sensations leads to the creation of more similar sensations in a stress inducing cycle. Reacting to pleasant sensations with craving at first can to more pleasant sensations. However, the world is in flux, everything is changing, and after some time, our feelings will change too. In our addiction to feel the comfort of pleasant sensations which are no longer there, we feed a reactive cycle that also leads to stress.
This is a journey of self love and understanding. Of stretching to perceive all sensations, both pleasurable and painful, without judgement or preference. When we can hold pleasure and pain in one hand, with one heart, as expressions of life that arise from the gift of being alive, only then can we let go of the craving for things to be different than they are, and so relax into being in the now. With this journey of taking responsibility for our feelings comes freedom and presence.
I believe that our bodies are hard wired for life, that our deepest yearning is for life; to be safe, to thrive, and to live both in fullness and in harmony. In a billion years of evolution we have not evolved to have negative emotions, no self self destruction buttons. Any emotion with a negative message has long since been evolved into extinction. Our emotions our underpinned with these longings. My every feeling, my every sensation, is positive and life enriching.
In my love of life, my yearning for social change, my gratitude to the Buddha and all who have contributed to the creation of understanding NVC consciousness, I want to honour my body by stretching and attempting to observe my tangible sensations in the way I believe that nature intended me to do. I want to hold my emotions as gifts of the life which flows through me, that supports me to find harmony in being. In doing this, I want to transform the element of moralistic judgement within an emotion, by focusing on the positive life enriching message it carries. I want to lean into its yearning, its lust for life, to trust it, to trust my inner self.
In NVC it is understood that ‘a feeling points to a need, a universal life enriching longing’. If that feeling is a part of an emotion as defined here, there will be an inherent evaluative component which may appear to point towards an unmet need. One practice in NVC is to transform this judgement to find the beautiful life enriching need within it. However, this transformation is not required if the way of perceiving emotions is transformed in the befriending of the body and acknowledging that all emotions carry a life enriching positive message. I am in agreement with Marshall. It is the natural law that a feeling points to a life enriching need.
The purpose of emotions is to energies and incite a bodily response, to promote a life serving action. Let’s consider basic life such as an amoeba. There it is, happily doing its thing, when at some moment the external world changes, for example, the media it is in begins to get warmer. If the amoeba has the capacity to sense this change, the purpose of its initial ‘emotion’ is to wake up, to be aware of that change. Next, in response to the perception of the change it will be to energise to do something. Finally, within its capacity, it will act to adapt to the change. This same simple cycle underlies emotions in human beings. Emotions are a series of processes which are initiated by a perceived stimulus, motivate to respond:
Awakening. This cycle begins with a perception through the senses, a thought in the mind, or a body sensation which stimulates the body to enliven, to become more aware and alert. In awakening, the initial feeling is one that holds the sense of the uplifting and enhanced presence shared within both in fear and elation. The exact nature of this feeling is based upon the quality of the reactivity that has created it, of whether it is deemed pleasant or unpleasant. It is a felt impulse to enliven and bring focus, and is connected to life in that it is to serve the body to meet a perceived external change.
Energising. Once awakened to a perceived change, the the next process is to energise for a response. The resultant feelings on the body carry the energy of stimulation and activation which is shared in both anger and excitement. Again, the quality of the activation is determine the character and intensity of the evaluations.
Adapting. The final process in this pulse of life is to adapt to the change, and adjust to how things are in the now. Its focus is upon adjusting the intensity of the energising process, with the relaxing of those processes that are no longer serving. The relaxing is process of letting go and allowing for space to be created for the natural rejuvenation as the flow of life continues. It may be labelled mourning or sadness.
Harmony. With a growing acceptance of the external world there is a settling of the judgemental mind, and a sense of peace arises as the intensity of the above process diminishes. There follows a return to our default mode of joy.
Neurologically, it may take a full half second in the evolving cycle of sensation and reaction for a pattern of sensations to emerge that is recognisable, and can be labelled by the conscious mind as a named emotion. This labelling is more than a conscious process in that there is also an habitual unconscious reactivity. This reactivity is characterised in the Modern World by being afraid of intense feelings, particularly those which are labelled as negative, and may show up as a denial of responsibility or a numbing. For example, the resulting emotion may look like being afraid of our fear, projecting our anger or an inability to move on. It is in the period of time while the emotion is still evolving, the space between stimulus and response, that we have greater freedom to observe the sensations as the physical expressions that they are, or simply to sense into the body and to be with ourselves, however we perceive ourselves, with an energy of acceptance and non-reactivity. Awareness within this moment supports the perception of feelings as life enriching phenomena. For example, in the initial moments of my awakening process, my fear points to my lust to be present, to focus upon and care for how I am within this changing world, my anger points to my longing to protect what I consider as of value, and my sadness holds both my mourning for what has been painful and my celebration of things that have worked.
My intension is to perceive my emotions with an open curiosity, to welcome my sensations as gifts of life, bringers of life enriching information. I want to befriend my body by reaching beyond the world of judgement and remain in awareness of the tangible flow of bodily feelings.
With this, I trust that I grow in resilience as the compulsion for mental reaction subsides. I am grateful for this insight, it has been a life changer for me and I feel honoured to share it here. In doing this, I am concerned that this could be read from an intellectual perspective and loose the intimacy of the meaning that I intend. To support your connection with what I am longing to share, I invite you to pause before further reading. A pause to allow a slowing down, to allow the touch of the breath to draw awareness to your tangible self. A pause to open your heart to welcome all that is physically alive within, with an open acceptance, acknowledging the purity and love in every tangible expression. To pause and to simply allow. From this place of self connection I invite you to feel into what I am attempting to share.
Fear is a wake up call to be alert to perceived changes.
Anxiety arises from suppression of fear.
Anger energises in response to protect something that is considered of value.
Depression results from the suppression of anger and is characterised by the numbing of feelings.
Shame is a variety of anger which recognises the value of our interdependence, and holds a longing for acceptance from others as a strategy for safety/survival.
Low self esteem results from the suppression of shame.
Sadness is a letting go, inviting the process of mourning which allows space for rejuvenation, adaption to accept what is.
Pain is a feeling in response to physical trauma and mental stress.
Discomfort (other than physical) is the longing of the body for attention, to be felt and heard in its own language, to allow the natural healing process within sadness.
Suffering arises from how pain is held; pain happens, suffering contains an element of choice. It is the suppression of sadness, a non-acceptance of life.
Happiness is the celebratory relief of having a previously unmet need met.
Joy is a liberated way of being which is independent of whether needs are met or unmet.
Love energies action (including thoughts and words) from the energy of compassionate joy.
Other emotions are combinations of the above, or slight variations on one, e.g. irritation, frustration and agitation are varieties of anger. Some emotions are responses to physical stimulus and are simplistic examples of this cycle, e.g. hungry – wanting to eat, tired – needing rest
Examples of feelings mixed with moralistic judgements
Scared, abandoned are fear mixed with a projection.
Jealousy is a mix of judgement with some fear, anger and sadness.
Rage, disconnected anger are not emotions. They are states of dissociation, they are violence.
Hope is an anxiety, a longing for presence and a concern for wellbeing
Excited another mix of fear and projection. I am including this as a final example, as with such words I find it fun to distinguish and own my piece, to take ownership of the beautiful need that is being met in my life.
I feel hope and excitement as I thank you for reading this far. I have only just written this and would love to hear how this has landed in you, where were you touched, and which pieces do you think may benefit from further explanation.
May you go with loving kindness in your heart.
This article is a reflection upon my self discovery over the last 30 years or so. I would like to express my gratitude to all those involved in the keeping alive of Vipassana Meditation for its life transformation impact upon me. Also, my gratitude to Marshall Rosenberg for his sharp insight and passion in the creation of Nonviolent Communication and to so many of the trainers that have contributed to my growth, and I would like to name here Robert Gonzales, Gayano Shaw and Miki Kashtan.
For information on NVC in the UK CLICK HERE
For information on NVC in the worldwide CLICK HERE