Are some of your feelings—feelings you want to have—difficult to sustain?
Most of us have one or more feelings or body sensations that we cannot seem to stay with, or even experience at all. These might include joy, self-appreciation, anger, fear, excitement or other emotions or sensations.
Maybe you would like to be able to receive appreciation or praise, or enjoy a beautiful moment, but you cannot seem to “let it in.” Perhaps you want to feel and express healthy anger, but somehow your anger always turns into sadness. Or maybe you feel numb in threatening situations, when an alarmed self-protective response would serve you better. Do you try hard to sustain the excitement and motivation to complete your projects, but find yourself falling into depression or boredom?
Often, our bodies have learned to automatically cut-off certain feelings and sensations.
It’s like those light switches that shut off after 10 minutes, or maybe we cannot find the “on” switch at all—how frustrating.
We can change this situation, we can re-train our bodies to allow those feelings back into our lives. Before we get to the “how” of that, we need to approach our bodies with an appreciative attitude and assume that our body is always paying attention to the environment, and doing its best to take care of us. Assume that your body had a good reason to shut down certain feelings.
For example, those of us who have been abused or oppressed by people or institutions that have power over our lives know how costly it can be to respond with anger. Our perceptive bodies may have learned to stifle anger in these situations. This is an intelligent survival strategy, but like all survival strategies, it has side effects. When it is finally safe to reclaim and express our anger—which is inseparable from our vitality—we may not be able to find the “on” button. We are not free to feel that anger fully.
Shutting down anger to survive systemic oppression might make sense to you, but why would someone stifle excitement?
One of my somatic coaching clients had this problem. He would get distracted whenever he started to feel excited about anything. As we listened to his body together, he gradually remembered a childhood pattern of getting excited and then being let down by his parents. They would say,“We’re coming to see your school play!” “Oh, sorry honey, something came up.”
This little boy learned that excitement was always followed by disappointment. Eventually, his body learned to automatically stifle joy and excitement so he couldn’t get hurt. A brilliant strategy that was now holding him back. He knew he loved his partner and they both wanted to build a life together, but he could not feel or express his excitement about this, and his partner was feeling rejected.
Even if you cannot remember the “story of origin” for your own automatic “shut down” habit, you can assume that it began because your body decided it was too dangerous or painful to experience that sensation.
If the body has already decided—years ago—that certain feelings are off-limits, how do we restore our choice? How do we give our bodies permission to feel what we want to feel? You probably have noticed that it doesn’t work to tell yourself, “Okay, I am going to take that compliment in,” or “It is okay for me to feel angry. I should feel angry!” Words are not enough.
To grant ourselves the permission to feel, we need to talk directly to our reptile brain (the brain stem), because that is where the original “shut-down” survival decision was made. We need to talk to the reptile-brain in its own language—the language of sensation.
We can use the language of sensation to increase our capacity or tolerance for those disavowed feelings. I like to call this practice warming up your feeling balloon.
Let’s say you have a balloon you want to fill up with air. You know that if you attach it to a helium canister and fill it up too fast, it will burst. So instead, you warm the balloon in your hands, stretch it out gently and slowly send air into the balloon, little by little. You give it time to get used to that air before adding more. Soon you have a big, full, sturdy balloon that will last.
In a similar way, here’s how to warm up your feeling balloon:
- First pick a feeling or sensation you want to work with. What emotion do you want to fill your feeling balloon with? What sensation do you want to be able to feel fully? For example, “I want to feel happy.”
- Think of something that reminds you of that feeling. For example, “I feel happy when my dog greets me in the morning.”
- Notice the sensations associated with that feeling—where do you feel them in your body? Focus in on sensory impressions or images such as temperature, color, texture, mood, size, movement or stillness. It doesn’t have to make sense. The language of sensation has its own sense. For example, “My dog is happy to see me, I see his bright eyes and wagging body, and a warm feeling fills my chest, like the sun.”
- Now that you know what and where the sensation is, find a way to remind yourself of this feeling. Find a word or an image or a story that will help you return to it. Now you are ready to start warming up your feeling balloon.
- Each day, spend some time recalling that feeling. Feel it vividly in your body.*
- Start small and put limits on your practice, so your body doesn’t stretch too much, too fast.
- Limit the amount of time you spend in the sensations. Start with five or 10 seconds, three minutes or whatever feels easy.
- Limit the intensity of the feeling. For example, “I feel a little spot of warmth in my chest,” or “On a happiness scale of one to 10, I am feeling a three.”
- Practice with your whole attention. Feel the sensations as fully as you can, then when times up, stop. Put your attention somewhere else—distract yourself.
- Then, notice and tell yourself, “Hey, I felt (the feeling) and nothing bad happened,” or “I felt those sensations and nobody got mad at me,” or “I felt that feeling and nobody got hurt.”
- The key to this practice is to start small, build slowly and repeat often. Be patient and remember, you are warming and stretching your sensation balloon slowly right now so it can hold more feeling—permanently.
With practice, you will gradually be able to increase the intensity and duration of the feeling or sensation while your body continues to feel safe. With even more time and repetition, your body will begin to appreciate the benefits of feeling this sensation, and will start choosing to feel it.
When you can choose to feel your sensations, your anger, joy or excitement balloon will be a true party balloon—for your own celebration. Now you’ve taken your body back. You’ve taken your feelings back. The freedom to feel—fully—is your birthright, and something to celebrate.
Vanissar Tarakali earned her Ph.D. in East West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). She is a body-whisperer who aspires to–with infinite playfulness and love–effortlessly create beauty and healing out of whatever arises, in harmony with all beings. You can connect with her or read her blog at www.vanissar.com.
Editor: Maja Despot
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