Selfhood and emotionality – Part 1

Resentment. By Lotus Carroll, Austin TX

Photography: Lotus Carroll, Austin TX

Emotions are thoughts tied to feelings

Let’s begin this article by clarifying what is meant here by use of the term ‘emotion’, and what the experience of being emotional actually is. An emotion has two components – a thought and a feeling. Usually, in experiencing an emotion, the thought component can be said to be a memory. It’s often a recollection that’s triggered by contact with a particular person or situation. It could though, be a novel thought that we’ve not had before, but which itself is powerfully evocative. And what is evoked either by any such novel thought or by a memory, is a feeling.

Feelings are either pleasant or unpleasant

This feeling component of any emotion is never neutral; it’s always charged with positivity or negativity. We can of course experience most memories and thoughts without any emotionally charged feeling; there’s simply a neutral response made by the nervous system. So the feeling aspect of any emotion is always some deviation from this neutrality; there’s always some positive or negative charging that runs along the nerve conduits. Such felt responses are either pleasant or unpleasant, and together with the thought, comprise an emotion.

The self and awareness become enveloped

What tends to happen when we experience an emotion is that our awareness clings to it tenaciously. This means it can feel as if we become immersed in it, as if we’re engulfed in an entirely self-contained psychological ‘sea’ such that with a deeply negative emotion, even breathing can feel as if drowning us further in the feeling. The immersive quality hijacks our sense of self as it becomes entirely enveloped from the commencement of the emotion to its passing. So within all strongly felt emotions, the self is absorbed uninterruptedly.

Feelings cling to selfhood and the two perpetuate

This last point is important so let’s expand on it a little. Whether we’re experiencing a strongly positive or strongly negative emotion, our sense of self takes on a constancy, so co-presenting with an apparently continuous stream of feeling into which it absorbs. This is caused by the mind identifying the feelings as ‘mine’ and as happening to an enduring self-entity. In this way, the feelings integrate into a personal narrative of selfhood – a fictionalised experiencer of these feelings. This narration cleaves to the feelings it arises with and so together they perpetuate.

Emotions are sustained by our sense of self

It should be stressed that selfhood isn’t the cause of our emotions, but is rather the perpetuator of them. It’s vital for our survival, and indeed our well-being too, that our body and mind together produce emotional responses. So there’s a very strong correlation between selfhood and emotionality, but there’s not a fundamental causal link. Emotions are still experienced within any selfless state, and may even be more keenly felt as the self-censoring mechanisms run idle. However, in this absence of selfhood, the emotions arise and pass through without perpetuating.

We need to stay mindful of our intentions

What’s key to our emotional well-being is that we understand this perpetuating effect that selfhood exerts. The process of coming to any such understanding involves mindfully observing our intentions as emotions arise. We’ll cover the details in part 2, for now just saying this is a passive act of observation; it’s not a controlling one. The very idea of active control sustains our sense of selfhood and so with it any negative emotion too. So what’s required is something quite challenging, which is passively allowing all feelings to exist – even deeply negative ones.

Avoiding conflict and escapism are key

The process is best understood in terms of what’s detrimental to us – these same negative emotions. What happens when they arise is that the mind, having noted and judged them, then immediately activates a controlling mentality. There’s the idea that we must overcome these feelings, and we immediately project ideas about how our imagined self will be released by means of conflict or escape. Our awareness clings tenaciously to this narrative, blinding us to what’s central to the matter, which is just the two components of emotion – thought(s) and feeling(s).

Emotions dissolve in contemplative awareness

We discussed this predicament in an article on how presence alleviates stress and anxiety. Here though, we’re exploring how emotionality initiates and perpetuates, and as it applies more generally. The answer requires on-going contemplative explorations of how our sense of self comprises only a fictitious narration with no counterpart in reality. That sounds a little fanciful, because our sense of self is so fundamental to us that we never question what it actually is. In fact, it’s nothing beyond a phenomenally convincing tale that we edit and modify as life unfolds.

We need not make an enemy of our emotions

And it’s this narration of selfhood which is clung to in awareness and is regarded as the sole means of overcoming unpleasant emotions. The self projection believes itself to be a controlling agent – the initiator of conflict or the seeker of escape. Paradoxically, it’s this same creation of selfhood which, in seeking escape or victory in battle, sustains and perpetuates the very thing it sets itself in opposition to. Logically, we can see that any enemy requires a counterpart to regard it as such. Without this, there can be no conflict; and the counterpart is the self.

Simply observe passively, not indulging the self

Whilst we can always adopt the real-time remedy of applying presence in the face of immediate adversity, the emotional conflict invariably returns when conditions are repeated. A twofold approach to unwelcome emotions is therefore useful. First, applying presence in the moment, and second, contemplatively observing the controlling intentions of selfhood. Conflict isn’t the solution, and neither is escape. Those methods of control have been used time and again, and yet the emotional imbalance keeps returning – proof that the self has no answer.

Continue reading in Part 2

13 thoughts on “Selfhood and emotionality – Part 1

  1. Yes, it is a real struggle. I am going to read Part 2 to see if there is any hope. I think, but am not sure, that Mooji would dismiss feelings as the ego and the mind, so not the self; and to become immune to them knocking at the door while being in presence. But this is easier said than done after a lifetime of being emotionally driven. Okay, on to Part 2. So glad you addressed this issue. Not an easy one.

    • I truly am humbled Ellen that you have once again given of your time to consider my words. Whether they chime with your own character and disposition, only you can tell of course.

      I would not know what Mooji might say about emotionality and its relation to selfhood, though am sure it would be deeply insightful and well worth attending to on some level. I also would not know whether you might agree with me here, but I think it can be something of a mistake to mix and match different people’s opinions; certainly in the area of spiritual discovery in any case. That is not my terrain as you know Ellen, and I make no claim whatsoever in that regard. I like to keep matters grounded in what can be readily absorbed by the averagely intelligent reader, and in so doing, stick to the warp and weft of life as it is actually lived in ordinary, mundane experience.

      You are perfectly correct of course, dealing with the emotional side of life whilst keeping a healthy perspective on matters is indeed challenging. It can require degrees of patience and attentiveness that are largely conditioned out of us by the demands of modern living, as well as any familial and societal expectations made of us. Small steps in the right direction are all that can be expected; though if we can bring this about, then in time the cumulative effect can be transformative indeed. You are, I feel sure, already a long way towards achieving this Ellen, despite the particular obstacles you face and of which I am well aware from your own writing.

      With all my best wishes, gratitude and respect as ever.

      Hariod. ❤

      P.S. Do remember the 'print' option for the article if it helps Ellen.

  2. Oh, Hariod, it is I who should be thanking you. I have such a high opinion of your thoughts and writing. Thanks for pointing out not to mix and match spiritual thinking of different teachers. For now, I will try Mooji. He may be my only chance for hope. And it was you who brought me to him. I am doing Satsang for an hour or so a day with him. I feel very far away from achieving anything and it has taken almost a full lifetime to just make the baby steps towards improvement but, I suppose, with a couple of mental illnesses I should be happy of that.

    Best wishes and gratitude to you, Hariod! xx oo

  3. So insightful, Hariod, thank you! And agreed, how conflict and escape are far from the answer, far from helpful, and yet are so very comforting for so many of us – unfortunately grouping myself in with the masses here.

    Lauren. 🙂

    • Thank you dear Lauren, for once again considering my offerings and for adding a reflection of your own. Emotional solace is of course sought wherever it may most readily be found, if only at a superficial level, and this is our universal and quite understandable response. This reliance upon expediency is how we learn early on in life, and as with the way we adopt particularised ways of bodily movements, so it is that we too adopt and persist with whatever of our psychological traits and automatic responses appear to have some degree of efficacy.

      As you well know though, by mindfully attending to experience we come to see what results only in unhelpful habituations – such as those adopted expediencies – and what otherwise may conduce to any more enduring sense of psychological balance. I like to think of the passive approach to emotionality as being a more respectful way of allowing the nervous system to have its say, to speak as it must, and in so doing come to the end of the particular story it is attempting to convey.

      With my best wishes and respect as always.

      Hariod. ❤

      • Thank you so much, Hariod.

        Your words, as always, are so grounding, so calming and so inspiring. I learn anew each time I read your work.

        In gratitude,

        Lauren. ❤

  4. Very inspiring words Hariod, and insightful – a good reminder. Although I must say I’ve given it up to the universe in regards to my ‘spiritual evolution’.

    • Thank you very much for reading and also for your most generous and kind reflection Susan – I greatly appreciate both. I think you likely have made a wise choice as regards your ‘spiritual evolution’ (whatever that means), as whenever we get involved we invariably corrupt something pure within us. Spiritual seeking is something of a conundrum I feel, not least of all because in the end, the seeker-construct has to dissolve in order that the goal may be reached. All along we had imagined that goal as ourselves being a subject acquiring, or absorbing into, an object (of knowledge), and yet this dichotomy is transcended in that same goal. In other words, we had it wrong all along.

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