Being present to emotions is not as simple as we might think. That is because emotions do not merely have immediate short-term expressions.
The easiest emotions to master are the feelings that show up physiologically and immediately. You can plot them on an EEG machine, and they can be indirectly detected in the body through such things as respiration, heart rate, blood chemistry and so on. And dealing with these kinds of feelings is not that difficult. If you are angry at your spouse for example, you can take take ten breaths and calm down. If you are scared of using elevators, you can learn to breathe deeply and alleviate some of the symptoms of anxiety. If you are sad because your dog died, you can cry. Because these emotions are immediate and conscious, we have all strong awareness of them, and so it is not so difficult to process them.
But there are some kinds of feelings which are not easily detectable via our modern technologies, because they are not immediate emotional expressions. Here we are talking about the world of the unconscious – or the barely conscious. Trauma that is buried within the psyche is invisible, for example, and is very difficult to detect via neurophysiology. Some wellbeing practitioners may be able to identify such deep emotional baggage through physical symptoms such as chronic tension in the forehead, shoulders and abdomen, or via an examination of posture. Some might see indirect evidence in addiction and other adaptive behaviours; as indirect attempts to control difficult emotions. Yet it has to be acknowledged that these are all indirect indicators.
The dilemma is, how do we know our unconscious feelings if they defy direct detection and are by definition unconscious?
Please allow me to share a story.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross, who passed away in 2004, was perhaps the most well-known thanatologist of the modern era. She studied dying. Kubler-Ross learned early in life not to grieve for herself, not to cry and not to feel. Much later in life she realised that traumatic childhood feelings do not simply disappear. In the passage below, she writes of her earliest days in Switzerland, just before World War Two.
During my childhood we always had bunnies around the house, and I loved each and every one of them. The problem was my father was thrifty, and every six months he needed to roast a bunny for our dinner. I would have to bring the beloved bunnies, one by one, to the butcher. But I always made sure that my own special bunny, Blackie, was never chosen. He was mine, the one love object I had that belonged only to me.
Blackie got pretty fat because I kept giving him extra food, and of course the dreaded day came when my father told me it was time for me to bring Blackie to the butcher. I could not allow it. I begged Blackie to run away, but the more I shooed him away, the more he thought I was playing and would run back to me. No matter what I did he kept coming back, and my pain only escalated when I realized that he loved me too.
The inevitable happened soon enough when my father sent me off with Blackie, making me promise to give him to the butcher. I did it, crying the whole time, and in a few minutes out came the butcher with my dead Blackie in a bag.
“Here’s your rabbit,” he said, handing it over. I felt catatonic when I reached out to accept it. I could still feel Blackie’s warmth when the butcher remarked, “By the way, it’s a damn shame you brought this bunny in now. It was a girl and in a day or two it would have had babies.” That night at dinner when my family ate Blackie, in my eyes they were cannibals. But I would not cry for this bunny or anyone else for almost forty years.
It finally happened in a workshop in Hawaii. During the week, the landlord nickeled and dimed me for everything. For the next five days I felt unbelievable rage toward this man, so much so that I wanted to kill him. I struggled to contain the rage so it would not ruin the workshop, and when I arrived back home, my friends confronted me on my anger. After some resistance I talked out my anger and was shocked to suddenly find myself sobbing. The rage gave way to a deep sorrow underneath, and as I cried, I realized this was not only about the landlord. His cheapness had been the trigger that reminded me of my all-too-thrifty father. I was suddenly that little girl crying over Blackie. Over the next few days I cried for him and all the other losses that had gone ungrieved.[i]
Now you can contemplate how traumatizing being served your best friend for dinner must have been for a little girl. We can only imagine being forced to eat our beloved pet cat or a dog.
Nearly forty years passed before Elizabeth Kubler-Ross processed that trauma. Where was her pain during all those years? How would modern techno-centric medicine possibly have detected that emotional energy? How could anybody have even perceived of the grief and rage which she held towards her father, as well as the terror that must have been etched in her psyche, as a child experiencing how terrible one’s caregivers – and the world – can be.
And this is why learning to be present is not as simple as depicted in some naïve, popular versions of the practice. The art of presence invites us not only to be present with our immediate experiences and feelings, but also to deeper and more subtle emotions, including the trauma that sits within the psyches of all of us. These feelings can be very strong or even overwhelming, and the stories that accompany them terrible to recall. Developing the right relationship with the psyche can be very challenging.
This is difficult work for all of us. For some more so than for others, because some of us carry more pain than others. If we are merely present to immediate feelings, then we will not feel at the depth is required to heal.
And here we encounter a common misperception within some meditative and mindfulness philosophies. Silence does not heal. Not by itself. Quieting the mind merely presents to us doorways to healing. As the mind retreats into silence, we may find ourselves sinking into the dark cavern where the cruel goddess resides. Or rather, she appears to be cruel. Yet the frightening visions she shows us can guide us through the dark shadows of the cave and back out into the light of day.
Being merely silent and acknowledging only our immediate feelings and current story to be known, we cannot truly know our deepest needs for healing. We must descend into darker waters, or the greater story within us shall remain hidden, and frosty mountains within the psyche will remain glacier-bound, encrusted with the sleet of our frozen tears.
Here we encounter the paradox of presence. You cannot be truly present till you have developed the right relationship with your feelings; but you cannot develop the right relationship with your darkest emotions till you have invited your deepest pain to be present with you.
Thus, in becoming present an opportunity arises, a choice that you will be asked to make. All emotional wounds seek healing. All unfinished stories seek closure. These are unwritten principles of consciousness that explorers of the psyche well know. We see it in the wisdom of Jung and the teachings of modern mystics like Eckhart Tolle and Leonard Jacobson.
As you relax into presence that principle will seek to make itself known to you.
To learn how to feel deeply is not easy. Many of the more popular or academic practices of presence do not understand this secondary level of healing. This is, of course, due to the limited aims of most of these practices. The purpose of many current mindfulness modalities is to permit calmness, and they are not usually healing practices. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why some mindfulness studies indicate that mindfulness practice results in a small percentage of practitioners becoming more depressed, anxious or even suicidal.[ii] Mindfulness may allow us to relax just enough to leave us poised at the gateway of ancient caverns of the psyche; but ignorant of the cruel goddess. Those practices may not provide us with the proper tools to navigate our way out of that murky domain.
This is an extract from my upcoming book, Power and Presence: Reclaiming Your Authentic Self in a Weaponized World.
[i] On Grief and Grieving” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. (2005) Taken from: http://jameslau88.com/my_own_grief_by_elisabeth_kubler_ross.htm
[ii] Wilson, C. (2020). “Mindfulness and meditation can worsen depression and anxiety.” New Scientist, Aug
14, 2020. Retrieved Feb 10, 20121, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2251840-mindfulness[ii]and-meditation-can-worsen-depression-and-anxiety/#ixzz6mX1FZnPR.