The Difference Between Wanting To Feel Better and Understanding
Often on the self-help, spiritual and non-dual paths, there is the experience that one is on a rollercoaster ride of feelings, or feel like one is not progressing anymore, or very slowly. You might get into low moods, or react strongly to some situation, or in general are not as happy or at peace as you expect. You may feel stuck, disappointed or like a failure. One of the obstacles or detours seen along the path is a confusion about, or conflation of, feeling better, and understanding. There can be a lack of understanding and clarity about this key distinction. This article is an attempt to help with that discrimination.
This article will not go into “the glimpse” of one’s true nature as distinguished from the post-glimpse practice or effortless dissolving of the residues of the sense of separation in the bodymind (such as tensions and contractions). That is an inter-related topic, and needs it’s own treatment.
So what is the difference between wanting to feel better and understanding, and why is it important?
1. They are different kinds of aims.
If one keeps coming to a teaching or a practice wanting to feel better, it is a different level, than the aim or outcome of understanding.
Rather than go into an extensive intellectual discussion of feelings and what they are, and the practice of releasing them to the space, it’s more useful for the purpose of this article to briefly define feelings and the dynamics, from a non-dual understanding. In Advaita and non-duality, feelings are understood to be simply bodily sensations, such that when they are seen as a raw experience in the moment, seen with clarity, that is all they are. They may have an energetic charge of a passing emotion, or deeper resonances of the “feelingness” of the sense of love or peacefulness or joy – the perfume of one’s true nature resonating in the body – and many worlds of feeling in between. However, exploring all the nuances, the content or supposed meanings, is left for artists, poets and musicians (and psychologists). All that is added interpretation and not the raw experience: extra thinking, mind stuff, activity.
If one comes to feelings with the notion of getting rid of them (an agenda consciously acknowledged or not), or to change or to express it, that is different than simply experiencing. In the case of wanting change, there is a person, a someone that wants to do that, do something with them. Likewise, if one has the notion of “sitting with” feelings that arose, that again is a person or a someone in the picture. That someone doing the sitting is in fact keeping alive the feeling, because the feelings that one wants to sit with are ones a someone would want to do something about. The anger, fear, jealousy, anxiety, and so forth, are generally ones where there is a conscious motivation to change, or a subconscious effort to hold onto (as odd as that sounds, we do hold onto negativity, in a misguided survival play). And in that motivation and the assumption of someone having and sitting, the feelings are kept alive as an object. Why? Because the sense of separation, the seeming person, and the feelings that arose on behalf of that seemingly separate entity, arose together. If you believe in a mind, and feel in the body to be separate, then there is no way to avoid the wanting, the fears, and all the dynamics of that unstable situation. It’s unstable because it doesn’t exist, and has to be maintained.
In the Advaitic or properly done non-dual “practice”, there is no doing, and no one doing it. Meaning, there is simply observation, with benign indifference, like a curious child, artist or a selfless scientist lovingly looking at an unknown new animal. There is a letting of the feelings in the door so they can unfold and just be themselves, then quietly exit, evaporating into the nothingness from when they came. This detachment can be difficult to describe, but some suggestive words are “stillness”, “ease”, “friendliness”, “welcoming,” and so forth. It is all grounded and predicated in having a sense that which you are is not these feelings or these passing emotions, but something real and always available, namely the still awareness that is always aware. The knowledge and experience that it’s always available is very helpful. It could be described as “space” or “emptiness” or “presence, ” and is something totally fundamental, yet almost always overlooked in our culture, as well as our psychology.
In contrast to having a motivation such as wanting to feel better or “sit with” a feeling, understanding is a moment of clarity when intelligence, the 4th dimension so to speak, brings light. This is not from thinking. Thinking is information learned, from the past and repeated. Understanding is an Aha! moment that changes the mind. A moment of understanding can be about a small thing, such as a practical problem in daily life, or a big thing, such as the nature of the Self.
Understanding oneself as a person is a totally different ballgame than understanding the nature of what’s going on at what can be called a “spiritual” level. But since there is nothing separate from the “spiritual”, it really means what is going on in reality: that is, a fact, not a belief. So that is a very important moment, and a distinction, when beliefs are dropped for the facts of the reality of what is, which ultimately is the Self (of oneself as Self). The biggest understand is of the Self, the “Who am I ?” question, which is answered by understanding ever more clearly what you really know for certain as fact, versus what is mere belief.
2. The approach to them is different.
We can address the feelings, since they have a form in time and space, by various means such as observing them, doing practices with the body and awareness (various yoga for example), or use the mind to try and trace their cause or origin. Almost all of psychology, psychotherapy, self-reflection and self-analysis for example, such as going into the past, examining circumstances and mind– which comes from a misunderstanding and an presumption of identification with the bodymind and the cause of suffering – will generally merely adapt the person to society or upgrade personal skills, without a deeper seeing of true nature. Or we can try various physical means like diet, medicines, exercises, and so forth, if they seem to be related to the body being out of balance. The trick here is being able to distinguish between physical, mental and spiritual means. However this discrimination may not come until there is greater understanding, and concurrent practice and investigation, before or after a moment of understanding, that brings clarity to see the whole. A glimpse of one’s true nature is a moment of understanding, but of a more fundamental kind. In short, understanding oneself is different from an understanding of universal Self (of oneself as Self).
Trying to eliminate or change feelings at the level of the bodymind is like chopping off the mushroom from where they are growing, only to hav e them re-sprout somewhere else. And, the assumption of change or elimination itself is a spiritual quicksand: transforming or dissolving feelings into Consciousness has to be a passive activity, a letting go, a letting-arrive, an observing and allowing, a welcoming without the aim of trying to kill it or grab on: like an open palm for a butterfly to rest on before it flies away. While it’s there, you gently observe it, with curiosity and wonder, like a scientist or a child or an artist, with benevolent indifference and love.
There is a parallel in how chasing a memory or an understanding chases it away: the effort has to be released at some point in order to allow the clarity of consciousness to be present at the unfolding of the feelings. You are open and inviting, interested, without expecting, with no agenda. No judgement, criticism, fear, or worry about outcomes. No goal. It is a meditation.
But if those thoughts come in, saying it should be better, wanting to change something, that too is something to observe, from detached aware presence.
Notice how there is a parallel with love too: when we chase love, it runs away, or doesn’t last (or never comes). It cannot be grasped or taken, it must be given. If I believe I am separate and feel lacking, I need something. If I am love, then “my cup runneth over” as love is synonymous with the underlying reality behind appearances.
The detached aware presence is not a doing really, it’s always available – in a sense it’s a non-doing, which can be, ironically, challenging if we are from a culture that is all about doing, activity and accomplishment. What is the purpose of awareness? Well, it is it’s own purpose, as a whole with no purpose, since that would imply some other with which one has a purpose in relation to, another space or another time. Does awareness have a limit in space or time?
3A. Understanding will make you feel better, but feeling better does not equate with understanding.
Let’s take two examples to help illustrate. In scenario one, there is an understanding. The example goes like this:
You had been feeling worried and anxious that a charge on your bank account was from a scammer. Upon investigation, you realized it was an online order you’d forgotten about and had misidentified. You then understood all the similar charges, and more importantly, had a sudden insight into how you had always been imagining scenarios in the future that scared you, but were in fact purely projections from the mind. Furthermore this insight expanded into seeing that there was nothing wrong anywhere in the universe, nothing in the world that was going to hurt you, and you broke down laughing and crying from seeing all this. This insight, this understanding of of something true, would make an instantaneous change in you. It would play out in helping with similar situations in the future, and you would spend less time worrying, and potentially lose most or all of your worry. A lightness about life would be felt. Some intelligence has brought light to the whole thing.
Scenario number two: You feel worried and anxious about what’s going on with your bank account, and so do a series of yoga exercises, breathing meditations, talk to your therapist, take a run and a shower. Afterwards you feel lighter, refreshed. But, as soon as a thought about the bank account comes back, then the feelings start to arise instantly too, no matter how much you don’t want them. They might be different or better or worse, who knows, but the lack of understanding about what’s really going on in fact, and the play of the imagination comes back to play out on the stage you take to be you and your life. You could go do more yoga, or drink some herbal tea or take a swim, but the thoughts and feeling are simply going to come back again in one form or another.
Now you could say, “well it just means that if you are worried or guilty, or fearful or angry, that you should take action and fix it”. This is only true to the limited extent that it will, or might, change external conditions (for the time being) but overall your life with regard to the worries or feeling will remain at the same level, and it will not solve what we are really looking at: a permanent loss of a belief, from a moment of understanding. This is an entirely internal affair. This is not to say one should not take action. Often that is the case, but not always. And whether action is needed or not, feelings and understanding are relevant. We are all driven to do things in the world because of feelings and our understandings. Everything always comes back to what is going on inside. For instance the drive for wealth and fame and power and sex-as-love and adoration are driven by wanting to feel a certain way: to, feel alive, feel loved, feel secure, etc. There is nothing wrong with this as part of how life, how consciousness plays out, but it’s interesting to see if it actually leads to happiness and peace, or merely more pursuit of a feeling without an understanding (trying to get something internal from an external: happiness from the objects, the contents of consciousness).
3B. Understanding is permanent, feeling changes are temporary.
As another example, let’s say you attributed the fog in the morning around your house to an alien conspiracy that blocks you from seeing what’s really going on, and you felt frightened, paranoid about it. Then one day, a friend who is a meteorologist and very patient and loving, walks you through all the facts and knowledge about fogs, clouds, condensation, water vapor, local conditions and so forth. At some point, you stop fighting what he is saying, or the mind full of opinions, old knowledge and beliefs releases it’s grip, and you see all at once the simpler, more rational explanation that it was just the clouds, wind, natural conditions, the cycles of nature and an impersonal process, and not some complicated alien plot. From then on, your understanding is permanent, and even if some emotional trigger temporarily tempts you back into alien-conspiracy land, it won’t last, and your clarity and calm will return.
Real truth never changes.
As an experience, a fact, awareness is always aware: you cannot be aware of no-awareness, for that is awareness being aware.
4. Without true understanding, you will still be on the rollercoaster and aren’t headed off it towards the end of the big rides, to the summit.
If one is strongly identified with the body, sensations, feelings and the contents of perceptions, then no matter how much one “purifies” the body and mind and has longer moments of relative peace and clarity, you will still be battling the ups and downs of sensations, body, feelings and perceptions. If the mind is telling you they are you, are important, or need constant work, then the “I” that has them has not been fully looked into.
There is a way out of the battle, the struggle, the constant work, of trying to maintain good feelings, or of suppressing or getting rid of them, or calming down bad feelings, or trying to let them go of them, or somehow get trying rid of the cause of them via the body, sensations, and perceptions.
There is a way out of the endless game of addressing feelings via the contents of the mind.
If there is a sudden glimpse, or a quiet understanding, and it is of something fundamental enough, it will shift the whole field of experience upward.
The glimpse may come from, for example, asking who is the doer of all this? Who am “I”? Where is the will and where is the perceiver? If one goes deeply into these questions, keeps asking them, inquiring with the reason and with the observing, and if there is a teacher that can help you past the obstacles and stubborn ego, there is the possibility of making jumps upward, either slowly or in great leaps. Some can do this without teacher; and in reality Life is always a teacher if one is open. Some have taken great leaps on their own – it is alway ultimately impersonal Grace – but we must do our very best as a seeming separate entity to see what we are. One cannot fool oneself that you don’t believe what you believe, and feel and think and act how you do. That would be a hindrance. So a first step is the honesty and clarity to start from where you are. See where your feet are on the platform of the rollercoaster, and find a ladder-way up it. Some day, the whole ladder can be let go of, and you wont’ be so interested or bothered about rollercoaster rides.
NOTES / QUESTIONS FOR INVESTIGATION:
What is “releasing” a feeling, such as the approach Lester Levenson took, with respect to understanding and feelings: does it come before, during or after understanding? Doesn’t one also need sometimes to take an action before having an understanding that releasing won’t address? In other words, is releasing enough on it’s own. It seems that sometimes an action is necessary after a release, a dissolving of feelings in love and welcoming awareness, that leads to clarity, or that the release comes out of the opportunity the action presented, or sometimes that no action is needed at all.
Sometimes I wonder if the practice of yoga over long periods, the focus on it, when it’s approach is about the body and sensations, or energies (Siddha yoga, kundalini etc) – not just Americanized physical yoga but Eastern ones brought in too – make it more difficult for one to come to the nondual understanding that one is not the body, because the identification and investment at that level is so strong?
Truth be told, many of us are attached and are secretly enjoying the drama of our feelings and emotions, and assume it’s just the way things are, the way life is, and that it’s normal. Yes it is normal, but not natural. This seeming normalcy is a self-reinforcing loop, if you are identified with mind and body: after all, what you see in the news and with your friends, family and society as well as what we tell ourselves is that it makes sense to participate in it, reinforcing the reality to one of a madhouse human world. Or your yoga practice makes you feel temporarily better, so it seems like the path home, if only X (do it better, more differently…). In other words, at bottom we love the body, the feelings, the emotions, and consider this the real life, the earthy realm of juicy pleasure and pain and the stories to be told. We enjoy it. Everybody loves a good story (including myself). This belief though, of the inherent value of paying so much heed and importance to unhappy states as telling us something real, or that the sensations are a source of happiness, or that negativity is what is natural, is one to submit to the chopping block of wisdom and clarity. Of course you are free to indulge and feel and think and do whatever you want, but if at the same time you complain, or wonder why life is such a drag more often than it should be (or worse, be complaining about others or the world) and want to proceed more quickly up the path, it may be time to look at your spiritual practices and ideas, and your own way of approaching the life of feeling and understanding.