As was discussed in the previous section, we need word-based thoughts in order to construct our emotions. But, because humans lived a long time before the invention of language, we can appreciate that these emotions are not a part of our natural sense of reality.
Discerning ‘emotions’ from ‘feelings’ is critical for understanding, and effectively working within, reality. And in order for us to experience reality, we must be able to tell one from the other—which means we must understand the origins of each more completely.
Just as a mirage is created by waves of light, emotions are created by waves of thinking about reality in terms of labels. ‘Person A,’ (someone separate from us), has suddenly gotten some beautiful, (as defined by society), new ‘something,’ (the thing they bought). We, as ‘Person B,’ can then objectify that experience by using life’s word-labels to think about that ‘event,’ (‘Person A’ gaining ownership), and that ‘something,’ (the thing that was purchased), in narrative terms that relate to us.
Egos always relate everything to us. So, even though we almost never need that desirable ‘something,’ we can use our thinking to narratively fantasize about having it, which creates an enjoyable emotional state of mind for as long as we dream the narrative in which we have it. Reality is made from our thinking after all.
Eventually however, life moves on and our reverie must end. At that point our thoughts often go on to unfavourably compare our previous fantasy, to our existing reality—in which we do not have the ‘something.’ Even though one is real, and the other is a fictional creation of thought, the gap in between these two realities is where our suffering resides.
Remember: our brains do not know we have created an illusory layer of reality with all of the words we’ve been teaching it. It’s thoughts about ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’ are treated equally. So, when compared with reality, our fantasy allows us to create an illusory, emotional sense of ‘loss,’ even for things we’ve never had.
Even worse than our personal sense of loss, we can even go on to think ‘resentful narrative thoughts’ about others who do have the ‘something,’ even though in reality we would be 100% fine without it. Again: in reality we are fine and have no reason to be in conflict with anyone. Yet in our thoughts we can suffer at the hands of fictional, thought-created ‘enemies.’
That process of using our sense of imagination to literally ‘create’ something in thought is how ideas become the illusory reality we experience. It’s a very valuable ability for our mind to have if we’re imagining different ways of defending ourselves against a bear attack, or for how to get to Mars. But if modern people don’t fully understand how to use the power of imagination, we can accidentally but very literally create painful illusions to live inside, both as individuals, and as societies.
The reason that these illusions—the ’emotions’—feel as real as our ‘feelings,’ is because our brains don’t have a system for ‘illusory chemistry.’ Being scared by a bear attack in real life uses the same chemical reaction as being scared at a movie, even though one is real and the other is just something our brain believes during the moments in which we feel the fear.
We can know our minds are capable of mistaking our thoughts for reality by the fact that we can realize after-the-fact that our own fears were really just misplaced, over-wrought thinking, possibly based on false information. And yet we cannot deny, we ‘really’ did ‘experience the fear.’ Unfortunately, because we’re taught to believe an outside-in idea about reality, our egos miss that giant clue, which points directly at the illusory—and therefore flexible—state of our ego’s sense of reality.
It’s because our emotional states appear to match the ‘outside world,’ that it never occurs to us to question the nature of reality. That apparent invisibility confuses our ‘reality sensing system.’ This is why, just like we had to learn about mirages so we didn’t chase them, we need to do the same with our mirages of thought, lest we try swimming in them, which is what most egos are doing when they suffer.
This subtle difference between emotions and feelings will be easier to understand once we take a look at how we, as the animals we truly are, can use our feelings to determine our actions within 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.