"But shouldn't I go with my gut?" The woman sitting in front of me asks.
"I'm not sure that's a great idea," I say, "honestly, it could just be a bad case of indigestion."
She laughed. And then she started to cry a little bit. "The thing is," she says quietly, "Everyone says 'trust your feelings,' but MY feelings are saying horrible things...I'm not sure I CAN trust them...I think I'd be dead if I did."
This is the scene I recently came from. A lovely young woman who has attempted to take her own life multiple times, beyond all the occasions of self harm that stopped just short of suicide. What she's telling me is that her feelings are informing her what to do, and that every time she acts on those feelings she really gets hurt.
Of course this may sound extreme, but I see it every day. People in the same boat. Addicted to following their feelings wherever they may lead them. Told by a culture that bows to the altar of human emotion, that "being true to themselves" is the same as obeying their instincts.
I'll be honest. It's always a bad idea. Here's why.
What are Feelings Anyway?
From an organic perspective, feelings are a part of a complex web of functioning which we are constantly involved in. The truth is that our emotions are sort of like the taste buds of the psychological processing that happens in our minds. When working properly our feelings relay messages about what we're currently engaged with or just experienced. They're apart of a feed back loop. If I'm involved in something tragic, I FEEL sad. If someone hurts me, I may FEEL angry. If I win a million buck, I'll end up FEELING happy. Notice, the feeling FOLLOWS the phenomena. The danger though, is when we reverse the order, and start allowing our feelings to do the leading, constructing our life around our emotions. For one, it's putting the cart before the horse, for another, it's risky business.
Because feelings are a part of a feedback loop, they're constantly in process. Again, my analogy about taste buds works. It's like a piece of candy that has multiple waves of flavor attached, and changes as you keep it in your mouth. Feeling really operates the same. If we stick with an occurrence or event, our emotions are liable to fluctuate greatly to reflect what's really going on. And that's exactly how they SHOULD work. Because they're tiny reporters of experience. Emotions are meant to be DESCRIPTIVE, not PRE-SCRIPTIVE.
I spend time with people who are starving, and report to me they don't eat because they don't FEEL like it. Yet it's essential for life. Without it, they'll die.
Or people who are isolated, lonely, and empty--but who don't spend time cultivating relationships because they don't FEEL like it.
You name it... when people follow their feelings around, they're literally trading their higher functioning for an un-evolved reptilian mind.
The truth is that emotions are VERY important. Being connected to our emotions, being in touch with what is going on, is part of what gives us information--raw data we need for living. But following them around...well...that means being controlled by our emotions, rather than having control.
I tell a story about watching wild dogs occasionally run by the park my house sits in front of. Strays, passing by my window. And at the point I have a choice. I can either follow the wild dog, chase it down and let it lead me around town. Or, I can notice it, observe it, appreciate it, and let it pass. The choice is mine. I don't have to be victim to my feelings. They don't have to control me.
I am increasingly convinced that the will is simply the spirit in physical form.
So if not feelings, then what?
Spirit, essence, or "wise-mind" (as we call it in my clinical practice as a therapist) is that part of us which connects to not only the "more-ness" of the universe, but also to the "more-ness" of our own beings. There's something intangible and ineffable about Spirit. It lies shrouded in a realm of mystery. We simply sense that it exists and is at both the center and circumference. I suppose there's no evidence I can offer to support this claim...except perhaps this thing called "the will."
We act on that which is essential to us. Air, food, drink, relationships...these are somehow absolute needs--and so we act, automatically. Breath, which shares the same word in Hebrew as spirit, is the most basic expression of being alive. So too, the will, the ability to form intention, choice, and action, is the absolute core of humanity. As breath is what enables us to live, so too our ability to make choice, take a stand for that decision, and bear the consequences, is what enables us to be most human. This is why I say that will is simply our essence, or spirit, in physical manifestation.
I can tell you the spiritual maturity, or nature, of someone based on their ability to intend and carry through. It speaks of our willingness to allow our convictions to come forward and play out.
Our culture worships feelings, and praises the passions. We value that which is automatic and undecided. The medicines and healing we pray for is something BEYOND our control...We wish for a miracle, or to be fixed, put back together by hands larger than ours. We cede control to governments, representatives, and agents who will know better than us... We wish to be in relationships, where the other makes the decisions for us--to stay or to go. We read endless books and websites to gain more information in order to convince ourselves, and be swayed. We want a person to blame beyond ourselves.
We lack will, culturally.
It is the thing we must regain, if we are ever to resurrect deadened spirits.
And that brings me back to feelings.
Being in wise-mind or in spirit, doesn't invalidate our feelings--doesn't shame or punish us for having feelings. Instead, it listens to them. It appreciates them. It observes them, and honors them. But it also doesn't let them dictate the course of our actions. Getting out of bed in the morning doesn't rise or fall on how I feel about it...because the truth is--I rarely feel like it. I have to depend on another criteria. I also incorporate reason, and intuition to make a decision.
People who consistently "go with their gut" often assume they're being "AUTHENTIC." I hear that so much. But, I have to comment here that in fact being authentic to their "feelings" or emotional mind is only one part of being real... I practice deep-democracy, where I honor not only my feelings, but also my rational mind, and my intuition. I listen to multiple parts of myself, and let them have voice too. I don't let any one part dominate me. Feelings included. If I just went by my feelings, I wouldn't be authentic to my other parts, such as long term goals, or higher values. And maybe that's OK...maybe that's the choice I want to make in that moment... But it should be a decision, not a tsunami-like emotion pushing me into something I may regret later.
The work that I do is constantly trying to get people to pause and operate from their WISE-MINDED self--their will, or spirit in action. It's where the heart and the head find balance. And it's only when we inhabit that place in which we're able to find lasting fulfillment.