A human’s biological life is all about staying alive. Every base feeling we have is built around that pursuit. And because we have no fangs, claws, or shells to secure our food or personal security with, our angle on evolution has been a big brain and our instinct to cooperate.
We are more ‘zebra’ than ‘leopard.’ Evolutionarily speaking, animals with formidable personal defenses are less motivated to sacrifice their autonomy to gain the benefits of cooperation. But to our soft, pink-soled species, necessity naturally motivates us strongly towards trading some personal freedoms in return for our collective security. (If we’re really sick it helps a lot if someone is motivated to feed us.)
As cooperative packs of hunting and gathering humans, we would obviously have some fundamental ideas we would regularly need to communicate to each other in order to function as a group. Over time, it only makes sense that we would all congeal on certain sounds for certain ideas. As science has shown, these are a baby’s first sounds.
Those fundamental ideas about the world in principle would be the closest that language could get to describing ‘reality,’ because at least those sounds would only be expressing the very small collection of pure feelings we can experience in a ‘present moment’—which is ‘when’ everyone lived before the advent of words, (and it’s still where babies live).
As time has gone on, we have continued to subdivide reality by continuously refining our descriptions of it into more and more new words and concepts. Our brains then use those words and concepts to construct the narratives that go on to generate our emotional life.
As an example, humans can use words to time travel simply by creating complex narratives about some potential future mistake. This course of thinking generates the emotion of ‘anxiety’ in our very real and present moments, even if the actual event is in the future, and even if things are fine where and when we are doing our thinking.
Likewise, people can take what would be a beautiful, relaxing day in the present, and use its moments to regret a past embarrassment. Worse, we can do so to the point where the replayed memory depresses us for years worth of moments, each of which could easily have been better-spent.
These misalignments between our conditions and our mood only exist due to a lack of presence. By living inside the superficial illusion of thoughts, thinking about other times and other places, we become truly ‘lost in thought.’ It’s as though we cannot see through a snowstorm of our own thinking, even though in reality the weather is sunny and clear.
It is important to note that each of our illusory thought-based emotions can only exist because it is ‘narratively mapped’ onto some corresponding base feeling about reality. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the neurochemistry necessary to create any particular emotional reaction. But that’s also why the chemistry doesn’t line up neatly with our language. There is no single ‘happy’ chemical inside of us, for instance.
Our subsequent word-based confusion about reality means that most humans spend much of their life suffering through repeated attempts to increase their dose of the ‘supposedly superior emotion of happiness.’ Yet, if we’re paying full attention in our present moments, we would soon realize that, in reality, we often only feel good thanks to helpful authentic expressions of ‘grief,’ or ‘anger.’ Missing a person who has passed is a key component of loving them. To leave that out is to leave some of the love out.
Using ‘anger’ as an example: a natural sense of reciprocity, (or ‘fairness’), serves our connectedness as a pack. It is a helpful base feeling that comes to us in any present moment, even though it might be expressed as a threatening defence of our perceived ‘share’ of our group’s food. (When we experience those feelings collectively, these negative feelings emerge as things like political movements, or struggles for human rights.)
This helpful nature is why even animals that share the same group identity can nip at each other for a feeding position. As pack animals, we not only have a helpful drive towards cooperation. But we also have one that understandably prioritizes the independence required to protect our individual security.
This means that, whether it’s personally, or socially, even sad or angry feelings can serve us in very positive ways. And so it is with feelings. They are helpful. In contrast, emotions simply spin. They eat up our lives even when they appear to be about positive things.
An emotion-filled life is busy and exhausting. But one motivated by authentic feelings has a quiet-minded simplicity and certainty to it. Fortunately, we can learn to deal with our emotions. But to do so we must come to a better understanding of what our feelings are telling us. Because if we understand how they were meant to be used, even our supposedly bad feelings can be used as helpful guides through reality.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.