The previous section illustrated how we all innocently misinterpret reality. We use our personal narrative thinking to layer a lot of unnecessary suffering over our personal reality. That’s why it’s important that we understand the intended use of our feelings.
The second radical idea that this book will present is this one: both positive and negative feelings are beneficial. Essentially, our positive feelings exist to encourage ongoing beneficial behaviour. And our negative feelings urge us to resolve something that is missing from our lives, so they too are beneficial.
On the negative side, ‘hunger’ motivates ‘eating.’ ‘Loneliness’ motivates us towards a helpful sense of ‘connection.’ ‘Stress’ can keep us awake when ‘alertness’ is required. And ‘fear’ can put energy into an ‘escape’ or ‘fight’ that would not otherwise be there.
On the positive side, ‘lustful’ feelings ensure that ‘reproduction’ happens. Feelings of ‘joy’ help us ‘rejuvenate.’ And a ‘mutual sense of compassion, and shared feelings about mutual security’ create a ‘loving bond’ between two or more people that essentially has them operate as one.
That latter state creates one of the best places to ‘be’ in all the universe, which is: ‘in love.’ On a more social level, this exists as a shared feeling that is maybe best-described by the African term, ‘ubuntu,’ which essentially means ‘I am because you are.’ This feeling is the basis of familial and romantic love.
To understand how an animal, or pre-language human would treat their feelings, let us imagine that we’re a fairly weak little chimp in a group run by a violent, greedy leader that hoards most of the food. If we’re that little chimp, and our hunger becomes noticeable, then have what humans call ‘a situation.’
In the case of essentials, animals use their feelings to compare: the weight of the value of what they want, vs the weight of their resistance to paying the price required to obtain some life-extending thing, (like food, or companionship, or a mate). In short, if we’re not hungry, we aren’t motivated to walk very far to find food. If we’re starving, we’ll fight a wild animal over some.
If we are the little chimp, and we’re starting to notice we’re hungry, then we may also notice that the only remaining food is in the hands of the lead chimp; the one who leads with violence. For the chimp, that’s a bit like the human ‘wanting’ a beautiful ‘something’ that someone else has—but it’s not something the human can ‘afford.’ Fortunately, if we’re not strong enough to easily take it, and we’re not that hungry, then it’s easy not to think of the food.
However, if nothing changes and our hunger, (our ‘want’), increases even more, then we will have shifted from noticing that we are hungry, to being somewhat irritated by a stronger sense of ‘want’ about the food. Now we have what humans call, ‘a problem.’
It’s like the vase in the previous example. How it works is that, the time spent on those irritated thoughts, shrinks the number of moments that can be invested in imagining the lead ape’s ugly response. That makes the food seem more appealing and the lead ape then appears just slightly less threatening.
As our ‘want’ starts to shift towards a ‘need,’ we cannot ignore the fact that, to sustain ourselves, we would have to face the lead ape. Thoughts about that start ‘worrying’ us, because all of this thinking and feeling is ultimately about survival. The feeling of us starting to waffle and dither between our need and our fear is what humans call ‘being worried.’ That feeling is generally when our emotional narrative switches from irritation to frustration. We feel trapped.
If conditions continue, at a certain point, the hunger gets so extreme that we’re more afraid of starving than we are afraid of the violent leader. At that stage we amplify our frustration into active anger, or aggression. This means our thoughts about our ‘want’ turn into the activity of aggressively pursuing the food, which human egos deem as ‘aggression,’ or ‘anger.’ This is what primes our bodies and temperaments for the fight at hand. (It also incidentally explains why people get ‘hangry.’)
If we try for the food, and the lead chimp catches and maims us, then we as an animal in the group have ‘lost’ in reality. However, if we do manage to attain the food without paying too high of a price, then we as an animal have ‘won’ the right to continue with a better life.
In the first case, our ability to overpower the risk is unsuccessful and we ‘fail’ and may starve to death. That is losing in reality. In that latter case, if our abilities are greater than the risk, then we get the food, and have managed to extend our lives—in reality.
Simply put: our so-called negative emotions are in fact not negative because, just like our positive feelings, they are what drive our survival success.
In the previous section’s example, where the person is studying for the exam while dealing with a barking dog, we can see that the person goes through the same stages as the little chimp. But note: the chimp’s feelings are directly tied to survival. That’s reality.
In the case of the human studying, the person only thinks their survival is at hand. Can we see how the illusory thought system has hijacked our animal system for feeling? The human could fail the test, fail law school, and yet they could easily find a career and family that they would love more than they may have loved a life in law. There is no way the dog could threaten their future happiness. Yet it is treated like it could. That is to live in a state of illusion.
Applying life and death feelings to minor psychological experiences is why so many people live such stressed lives. To initially have that reaction is quite normal. But if we haven’t properly trained our minds, our thoughts can easily turn those initial molehills into life-long mountains. This is why quieting our narrative thinking, in favour of increased in-the-moment awareness, is so important.
We must be on guard and not mistake our thoughts for reality. The real us—the person doing the thinking—needs only our feelings. A deaf, mute, but experienced sailor will not have a lack of language impede their ability to sense a storm, and react to it intelligently by changing their sails, or direction etc.. The words we use for ‘seas,’ and ‘weather,’ and ‘boats,’ are only illusory layers of language laid over the reality of true sailing, which in practice is the management of the relevant forces at play in chemistry and physics.
While words and ideas can confuse us, they can also be important parts of a rewarding life. But only if they are viewed from the perspective of reality. Now that we know what ‘feelings’ are really for, we can start to look at how our misunderstandings about them lead us to suffer through perceived ‘bad experiences and emotions’ when there is another way.
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.