Posted on March 11th, 2013
Our birthright as human beings includes a tremendous, often untapped capacity for felt experience. As with many other higher functions, access to the full range of this capacity has to be unlocked in order for it to be consciously useful.
One key to understanding the range of our capacity for feeling is realizing that ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions’ are not the same. Even though these words are often used interchangeably, feeling is a larger concept. Feelings exist on a continuum, with emotions on the noisy side of the continuum. The strongest emotions—extreme anger or extreme joy—dangle at the end of the continuum.
The other end of this continuum is often less consciously noticed, even though everyone experiences it. Sometimes it is disregarded, and even more often it is misunderstood. An easy-to-grasp example of a quieter feeling is how you might be experiencing the room you are sitting in as you read this. The room might feel open or spacious or cramped or comfortable or familiar or foreign, among many other possibilities. These are all feelings, but none of them is an emotion. These are also not thoughts, although we can have thoughts about these feelings once we are aware of them.
Many other non-emotional felt experiences are more subtle than this and often more difficult to define, so we have to learn how to notice them. Often they need to be initially pointed out to us. All are awarenesses experienced through our bodies, but the sources of these feelings are not always easy to identify. Why do you feel uneasy around a particular person who appears to be relaxed and non-critical? Why does coming into some rooms open a sense of possibility for you? Questions like these are not always easy to answer.
More importantly, why should this distinction between emotions and other feelings matter to you?
They matter because these quieter feelings are accurate and useful information about yourself and about your world. When this information is conscious, you can act more effectively on your own behalf, and you can reach more deeply into the meaning of your experience. For instance, you can become more aware of subtleties in your felt connection with other people, and you can experience a greater degree of presence in moment-to-moment living. Beyond this, as you become skilled in being conscious of these feelings, they can open into greater depth, potentially unlocking higher levels of self-realization.
Therapy often begins by focusing on emotions. As you become more emotionally skillful and self-aware, it is possible to move on to a broader experience of the part these more subtle feelings play in your life. Through integrating this experience into how you live, you can open up greater possibilities for growth and fulfillment.