What is feeling? Here’s what it’s not.

What is feeling? It’s hard to say, because “saying” requires us to put words to something that has remained ineffable for all of human history. It is impossible for us to turn our attention to a feeling experience, and for someone else to turn their attention to the same experience. My feeling is inaccessible to you, and yours to me.

In contrast, with the outer world, you and I can turn our attention to the same phenomenon and agree together on its name. The next time we see one another we can speak that name, even if the phenomenon is long gone, and we’ll know what we’re talking about. That kind of linguistic coordination is impossible in the supremely subjective world of feeling.

So how do we teach young human beings about feeling? Generally, we don’t. In the absence of precise pointers to experience, each person muddles through, and some people find their way to feeling while others do not. For the first group, doing Feelingwork feels natural and the work comes easily. But when someone from the second group wants to do Feelingwork with me, I need to take some time to teach them where and how to place their attention.

One of the most effective ways I’ve found to do that is to bring their attention to the various components of consciousness, one at a time, and as we visit each one, to designate feeling as “not that.” So let me name for you here and now what is not included in the realm of feeling:

  • External sensory channels including vision, hearing, taste, smell, and tactile sensation including proprioception
  • Internally generated representations of sensory experiences like memories, dreams, inner creations, or anticipated futures
  • Interior monologues, conversations or other verbal constructions
  • Evaluations, judgments or other mental appraisals
  • Interoceptive sensations from the interior of the body; examples include tightness in the chest, churning in the stomach, or a lightness in the head.

That last bullet point is very important. Although the body’s manifestations of emotional responses intimately interweave with the experience of feeling, they are not the same thing. In Feelingwork, we are focused on the actual, felt experience of feeling as available to consciousness, outside of somatic sensation.

A great deal of research has been conducted on this domain of what is called affect as it lives in the body. We’re stepping beyond that, across the threshold of consciousness into the realm of the purely and quintessentially subjective. In that realm:

Feeling is what remains when we set aside the contents of all sensory channels from both outside and inside the body, as well as what we usually refer to as mental activity.

The phrasing I often use to facilitate people’s access to feeling goes something like this, taking an orthogonal approach to the list above and defining “channels”:

“Right now you are fully conscious. Your senses are open, your inner world is active. Now let’s take one portion of this richness at a time, and imagine we’re closing it down, bit by bit, to find out what’s left.

“Let’s start with the visual channel. If you close your eyes, it’s easy to notice you are still conscious. If you were to also shut down any internal visual imagery, whether remembered or imagined, so you have no visual experience at all, you would still be conscious.

“Now let’s consider the auditory channel. If you were to close your ears, and to shut down any internal auditory imagery, whether remembered or imagined, so you have no auditory experience at all, you would still be conscious.

“Along with the auditory channel, if you were to release all verbal activity, all self talk, all remembered or imagined monologue or conversation, you would still be conscious.”

“Similarly, letting go of any taste and small activity, whether external or internal, remembered or imagined, you would still be conscious.

“Now consider the somatic channels. First letting go of an sensation from the outside, whether temperature, pressure, or other kinesthetic sensation. Then letting go of any internal somatic sensation, whether remembered or imagined, releasing all sensation including muscle tightness or other discomfort, hunger or satiation, all the information from your body, just letting that go. You would still be conscious.

“What would remain now, after closing all these other channels of awareness, is the fundamental, felt experience of being, what we call feeling. That’s what we’re working with.”

As you will see, the practice of Feelingwork serves very well to attune our awareness to the channel of feeling. Going beyond the explicit mapping and moving of specific feeling states, Feelingwork strengthens our awareness and capacity to include feeling along with the rest of the rich tapestry of consciousness. When we include feeling fully, in its role as the foundational medium for all consciousness, we find our experience of life greatly enhanced in many ways.

Want to participate in conversations about the feeling mind? Over the coming year (2019), depending on interest, I’ll be I’ll be hosting live, group calls where we can go much deeper into the material and practice the skills. If you think you might be interested, please reach out to me.