At the center of ourselves, at the very center of our body and our soul, lives the heart. When we allow ourselves to stay in the flow of the feelings of life – feeling sadness when it reaches out like a child in the dark, feeling jealousy when it pricks the side of the eyes, feeling anger when it scalds like lava, feeling joy when it hums and laughs – the heart remains open and fully alive. In this openhearted state we’re more attuned to gratitude, we feel excited by life, we’re open to creative inspiration, we inhabit our bodies, and we’re more open to giving and receiving love with our loved ones.
But so often we plunge up our hearts like a cork in a bottle. We do this because we learned early in life, from a culture that doesn’t have the faintest clue how to guide its members through big and difficult feelings, to shut down. And when we shut down and cork the heart enough, the energy system of feelings is often forced to go upwards, into the head in the form of thoughts. This is when people often find their way here: when the habit of intrusive thoughts have taken hold to such a degree that the person feels imprisoned by their own mind. As Michael Singer writes in The Untethered Soul (and I’ve quoted this passage before but it so succinctly encapsulates how corked feelings turn into intrusive thoughts that it bears repeating):
“If you close around the pain and stop it from passing through, it will stay in you. That is why our natural tendency to resist is so counterproductive. If you don’t want the pain, why do you close around it and keep it? Do you actually think that if you resist, it will go away? It’s not true. If you release and let the energy pass through, and actually dare to face it, it will pass. Every single time you relax and release, a piece of the pain leaves forever. Yet every time you resist and close, you are building up the pain inside. It’s like damming a stream. You are then forced to use the psyche to create a layer of distance between you who experiences the pain and the pain itself. That is what all the noise is inside your mind: an attempt to avoid the stored pain.” (p. 105)
This noise inside your mind probably sounds like:
- I don’t love my partner enough.
- What if I’m gay?
- What if something bad happens to my baby?
- I’m not attracted to my partner.
- He’s not intellectual enough.
- What’s wrong with me?
- I’m too… [fill in the blank].
- I’m broken.
- I’ll be happy when… [I graduate; I take this test; I have the baby; I get married; I find a house.].
Instead of feeling the stored pain, which is raw and vulnerable, we spin up into the safe and familiar refuge of the thought-patterns. Instead of dropping down into the body, which is round and amorphous, we become caught in the illusion that if we could only answer this one question, we would find certainty. So we continue on in the pattern that began as a defense and protection – retreating to the somewhat safe haven of mind – and continue to avoid our feelings.
We become quite masterful at avoiding our feelings. In fact, most people will do anything and everything to avoid feeling the basic feelings of life. Much of this is because we still carry a litany of rules and shoulds about our emotional lives, beliefs absorbed before we even learned to talk. Some of these may sound like this:
- You shouldn’t be sad.
- You have a job and a great relationship (or whatever the particular externals), so you have no reason to complain.
- Feelings are weak.
- If you’re “overly” emotional you’re doing something wrong and/or there’s something wrong with you.
- Feelings are a waste of time.
- Feelings are an indulgence.
Yet if you’re a highly sensitive person – and it’s become quite evident to me that nearly everyone who finds their way to my work is, indeed, highly sensitive – you simply cannot continue to avoid your feelings. You may retreat to your head and the relative sanctity of thoughts for a while, but your feelings will eventually make themselves known. They will, in fact, demand your attention, until you are forced to stop, listen, and attend.
A significant aspect of the transformation from living in your head to living in your body/heart is embracing your sensitivity as the gift that it is. Alongside my work on relationship anxiety, it’s the conversations that I invite on high sensitivity that allow people to begin to quiet the inner critic and see the beauty of their true essence.
For example, I often tell the story of teaching my highly sensitive sons to practice the simple yet powerful practice of Tonglen when we see dead animals on the side of the road. The practice is to breathe in what’s unwanted – in this case grief, helplessness, heartbreak – and breathe out what’s wanted: peace to all beings. The practice teaches us to move toward our pain instead of giving in to the habitual tendency to push it away. For even though my husband and I never shame away emotional reactions to anything in life – and certainly not the true pain of seeing death in any form – our kids still fall prey to the natural response to retreat from pain. In this case, encouraging the practice teaches our kids that every feeling deserves attention.
When I tell this story, my clients will often say something like, “I would have been shamed if I had expressed pain about roadkill. Even if it wasn’t explicit shame, the covert message was to get over it, and that there was something wrong with me for feeling so deeply. I can see how I still give myself this same message: that my pain is too much or too big, which causes me to shame myself, and then I don’t make time to listen to it and feel it.
I then talk about guiding our kids through their grief, to which my clients often respond with, “I didn’t have anyone to guide me through my grief.” Nobody did. We are an emotionally ignorant culture. We focus on facts and left-brained information, on achievement and outcome, and completely ignore the value of feeling one’s feeling. The guidance isn’t difficult, but it would have required having parents who weren’t afraid of their own pain, and then parents before them who weren’t afraid of their pain. And so on, back through the generations, following the ancestral line of well-meaning people who were taught to deny their softest, most vulnerable selves.
How many times have you been shamed for feeling deeply about what others deemed “insignificant”? How often do you still minimize your pain, saying to yourself that you’re too sensitive and to just “get over it”?
The first, and most essential, step to feeling the difficult feelings that live in the heart is making time for it. Grief is like those animals that we see encroached upon by human domination: vulnerable, shy, afraid of the pace and sounds of our fast and loud life. Yet again, the litany of reasons why we can’t slow down:
- I don’t have time.
- I should be there for others first.
- Feelings aren’t important enough (I’m not important enough).
- It’s self-centered to take time for myself and for inner work.
- I should be able to handle everything; I shouldn’t need downtime or “being” time.
What many people don’t realize, or forget, is that if you refuse to make time for your deepest self to reveal itself – time to sit with your face upturned to the sun, time to sit and watch the world pass by outside your window, time to write in your journal or be in silence -the Self makes itself known in other ways. And this is when we find ourselves trapped by intrusive thoughts, anxiety or burnout. We go and do and achieve and burn the candle on both ends and eventually we will collapse. It’s not a sustainable model. And then you’re no good to anyone.
When you can move toward your pain, you will find freedom. When you embrace your sensitivity as the gift that it is instead of continuing to buy into the lie that it’s a burden, you will unfold into the truest and most impassioned version of yourself. When you make time to listen to the whispers and songs of your heart, you will discover a renewable and sustainable energy source that will fuel the passions and projects in your life: an enlivened way of doing that is birthed from the fullness of being. When we attend to soul she returns the gifts tenfold. But when we deny her, she rises up like the furious force of the natural world, and demands that we listen.