Our ego’s tend to perceive us as interacting with a fixed, external reality. This means that, rather than seeing reality itself, we tend to see our thoughts about reality. As a result, we then tend to see our emotions as being logical responses to that perceived reality: something ‘good’ happens to me and I am ‘happy;’ and something ‘bad’ happens to me and I am ‘sad.’
Using that outside-in idea of reality, external events essentially assign us our emotions. In that version of reality we function something like filing clerks, who are given experiences to file away as instructed, with no attention paid as to whether that role is rewarding for us in any way. Under that blindfold of ego, many people ‘file away’ years and years of anxiety, depression, or insecurity before they begin to question whether or not there is some other way to live.
In that outside-in scenario, we are obviously quite partial to the best-feeling emotions. This is why people go to doctors, or to people like me: to stop being sad. And what they want to be is: ‘happy.’ And that’s because ‘happy’ is good, and ‘sad’ is bad. Right?
That’s what we’re taught. But what if that lesson includes one confusing aspect that is hiding at the heart of most of our troubles? What if the best route to a better life isn’t to treat our emotions like colour choices, where some are our welcomed favourites, while we resist others as ‘ugly?’
Instead of wanting ‘good’ and resisting ‘bad,’ what if there’s a way to see things where every moment holds a kind of practical, sacred meaning that can give even the hardest times a special kind of contenting sense? Would the internal peace of ‘understanding’ be better than striving for a type of temporary, ‘emotional happiness’ that doesn’t even exist in reality?
Thinking about the world is not the same as being present within it. We can only achieve ‘understanding’ through presence because that is where and when reality always happens. To animals there is no ‘time,’ there is always only Now. And in that present moment, our feelings play a critical role in our understanding of the universe.
Our animal selves don’t use words, so that natural version of us can’t even think thoughts about trying, or striving to be ‘happy’ as some form of illusory, external goal. Our animal self lives in the present, and it is completely fine any time our basic needs are met. And if they are not met, then even our supposedly ‘negative’ feelings are actually helpful requests for solutions. They exist as ‘motivation,’ not as ‘problems.’
As an example, our bodies require calories to run. Even though we could interpret the feeling in language as a form of suffering, in reality ‘hunger’ exists to signal us that our body requires calories in order to operate. Today that feeling is complicated by a lot of thinking, as those battling their weight know. And it’s exactly those sorts of thoughts that make it harder to see how feelings were meant to work.
Our feelings simply provide us with a lot of the information that informs our living. If we are hungry, we are motivated to resolve that resistance to our happiness with action. The same if we’re cold, or if we feel an urge for companionship, or even a desire for a ‘sense of achievement’ can motivate us into action. In short, our feelings tell us when something integral to a good life is missing.
Sometimes that’s food. Sometimes that’s shelter. And sometimes its acceptance, or companionship; or a desire to be helpful, or creative; or to reproduce. Those natural compulsions represent our natural wisdom regarding what we know we need to survive and thrive.
As human animals, if we don’t think a bunch of ‘wants’ into existence, it is our nature to be happy anytime our basic needs are met. But as we all know, people today can create huge numbers of thought-based ‘wants.’ And in doing so, they also invent the notion of ‘a problem.’
To animals there are no such things as ‘problems.’ They have no word-based thinking to use to build the sorts of narratives we tend to use when discussing our resistance to reality with ourselves. For them, feelings simply exist as a flow of information leading from one present moment to the next. There are no ‘problems.’ Just calls to action.
We ‘feel’ hunger, we’re prompted to use our ‘sight’ and ‘hearing’ to detect possible food sources. Then we use things like our ‘sight’ and ‘sense of balance’ etc. to get to the food and prepare it to eat. And if the food is rotten and dangerous, our sense of ‘smell’ and ‘taste’ can warn us away with ‘negative’ reactions.
In language we deem rotten-smelling food as ‘bad,’ or as some type of ‘failure.’ But in reality, the ‘bad’ smell and taste are informative and helpful to the point of being potentially life-saving. This example illustrates how thinking humans can complain about a complex system of awareness that could be used to improve our lives if we understood how to use it.
Part of this confusion is because we see feelings like ‘happiness,’ as being different from sensing ‘hunger,’ or seeing ‘red,’ or hearing a ‘whistle.’ But now that we know what feelings are for, next we can discuss how to use them.
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.