Most of us look to the outside world to “give” us pleasure. We believe that earning more money, having relationships with more attractive partners, watching more entertaining movies, and other similar activities would make us happy. By the same token, we tend to assume events in the outside world “hurt us” or make us unhappy. Significant others we argue with, difficult coworkers, mechanics who don’t fix our cars properly, and so on, we believe, cause us to experience pain.
Because we have this outlook, we’re often angry at the world. We feel the world hasn’t given us our “fair share” of pleasure, or that it’s saddled us with more than our fair share of pain. We envy others who are taller, have more money, are members of happier-looking families, and so forth, believing the world shouldn’t have given them more pleasure than it’s bestowed on us. We become distressed when our loved ones and friends “make us unhappy” by not treating us the way we’d like.
As we so often overlook, the idea that events out in the world “make” us feel certain ways is untrue. Pleasure, pain and other emotions are sensations we feel in our bodies, created by the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters in our brains. In other words, other people don’t create our pleasure and pain—our own bodies do. When we keep this fact in mind, we start to doubt the idea that the universe is unfair or that we’ve received the “short end of the stick” in life.
But at a deeper level, “pleasure,” “pain” and the names of other emotions are just labels we slap on the sensations we experience. Whether a sensation in our bodies is “positive” or “negative” depends on how we interpret it. For example, to some people, the idea of jumping off a cliff or from a plane is terrifying, but to bungee jumpers and skydivers it’s the ultimate rush. As psychologist Chris Johnstone says in Find Your Power: Boost Your Inner Strengths, Break Through Blocks And Achieve Inspired Action, “facing fear is so thrilling that some people do it as a sport. The attraction behind bungee jumping is that there are two sides to fear: one is terror, the other is excitement.”
As is often said, it’s best to think of the word “emotion” as short for “energy in motion.” Our various emotions are simply different ways we experience the movement of biochemical energy in our bodies. That energy is neither good nor bad—it’s simply an aspect of how our bodies work. Calling some manifestations of this energy “negative” and others “positive” would be like saying our hearts were “good” but our lungs were “bad.” Michael Sky expresses this point nicely in The Power Of Emotion: Using Your Emotional Energy To Transform Your Life:
All of our emotions manifest as moving (arising, vibrating, gathering, flowing, expanding, boiling) energy. When we have a feeling—any feeling—we experience a tangible movement of vital energy. The energy moving through us comprises the feeling; such energy-in-motion is emotion.
When we learn to see our feelings as nothing more than forms of energy we experience in our bodies, our perspective on emotions shifts. The feelings we used to see as “bad” no longer seem so problematic and threatening. We no longer need to go to great lengths to dodge “negative emotions” by holding back from taking risks, avoiding interactions with “difficult people,” and keeping our minds constantly occupied to distract ourselves from how we’re really feeling.
Of course, it’s hard to experience this shift in perspective just by thinking of emotions as energy patterns—understanding this at an intellectual level isn’t enough. But I’ve found that, with a simple practice, it’s possible to really experience this fact in your body. To do this, the next time you feel an emotion you’d usually think of as “bad” and want to avoid, such as anger, fear or sadness, pause for a moment, take a few deep breaths and allow the sensations to be there.
Next, take your attention off the labels you usually put on the sensations, like “happiness” and “despair,” and focus instead on the location of the sensations in your body. For instance, do you feel them in your chest? Your neck? Your shoulders? Notice what the sensations feel like—for instance, do you feel a tingling, numbness, warmth, heaviness, or something else? Keep your attention on your direct experience of what you’re feeling, rather than what you’ve learned to call it and the ways you usually distract yourself from it.
As I and others who have done this exercise have found, shifting your focus in this way creates a sense of calm and acceptance around your emotions. Every sensation we call an “emotion” is just a natural part of the human experience, there’s nothing wrong with it, and it won’t harm or destroy you. You don’t have to spend your life stressfully and frantically chasing certain kinds of sensation and running away from others.
We feel more free to pursue our goals when we see our fear as just another form of energy moving through us, instead of a threat to our existence. We feel less distress when we don’t get something we want, because we can accept the sensations that come with the loss without judging or rejecting them. Seeing our emotions for what they really are helps us live more peacefully and courageously.