If I were to step into a bath of water that was far too hot, I’d immediately know from the uncomfortable feeling against my skin. After stepping out and deciding to add some cold water to make it a better temperature, I might notice that I begin to rationalise or explain what had happened: I had gotten distracted and forgotten to check the temperature, or maybe I’d tell myself that I can never get the temperature right. Perhaps this leads to frustration.
But the feeling, when I first stepped in the bath and noticed that it hurt my feet, has passed. The feeling was unavoidable and unpleasant, but short-lived; the emotional component of frustration came afterwards, caused by the conscious process of telling myself a story about the feeling.
Painful feelings can be caused by other people too, but these still pass quickly if recognised without bringing history and future into the mix, turning a feeling such as anger into sticky emotional response based on a “you always do this,” or “you never seem to care.”
A very helpful thing to be able to do is to notice when we’re turning a feeling into an emotion, so that we can acknowledge the feeling and allow it to move past instead of attaching narratives to it. While feelings are caused by things outside of us, our emotions are our responsibility.
If we can separate the two and acknowledge our feelings without attachment, then we can avoid getting stuck with unhelpful emotions. We can also begin to own our emotional responses instead of blaming another for making us feel a certain way.
It’s curious how normal it is to hear people talk of discomfort, aches, and pains: headaches and sore backs, stiff necks and tired feet, but so much more rare for us to share pleasurable sensations. We talk about feeling relaxed or comfortable, but these descriptions are not as visceral as the way we often describe the less pleasant – shooting, stabbing, dull, burning.
On a very basic level perhaps focusing on pain was important to our survival, but the emphasis we place on much of the discomfort we feel is disproportionate to its lasting effect. It could be that noticing unpleasant sensations more keenly has been vital to our survival as a species, but we also have the capacity to become aware of this and train ourselves to notice pleasure as well.
How different would our experiences be if we were tuned into pleasure more? And if sharing pleasurable sensation, in any context, was more common?
To be able to find out requires us to be able to feel pleasure in the first place – often harder than it sounds when we are out of touch with our bodies (unless they’re in pain). Shame especially can be a particularly large obstacle in the way of allowing us to feel and recognise pleasurable sensation.
Another challenge might be overcoming the vulnerability of joy: the fear of acknowledging that something feels great, that we feel great, in case it doesn’t last.
Obstacles worth overcoming, surely. Perhaps we’d be able to enjoy and appreciate our bodies more, and feel less inclined to try and change them. Maybe we wouldn’t crave external things as often to make us feel good. And sex would be all about enjoying how much pleasure we could feel, instead of focusing on a particular goal.
Certainly we’d be able to enjoy all the tingling, vibrating, bubbly, rippling, fizzing, tickly, gooey goodness.
Last year I was asked the question over and over again, “what do you want?”
The truest answer I gave was, “to learn to feel more deeply.”
I’ve had an on-and-off meditation practice for over ten years, and while I appreciated learning to focus my awareness and develop compassion, it never felt very connected to my immediate experience. I was never taught to go into my body and feel what was there, as an embodied practice.
For me, being unable to feel into myself cuts me off from many things. It makes it hard to make the best decisions for myself, because I think through everything instead of understanding my needs from a deeper place. Thinking through things instead of feeling into them leaves me susceptible to getting caught up in stories around what I ‘should’ want.
Disconnection from my body also makes it harder to notice pleasure, or for pleasure to be reduced to a very narrow type of sexual pleasure: a type that relies primarily on tension and urgency. Becoming more aware of how my body feels from the inside not only enhances more relaxed, expanded forms of sexual pleasure, but also opens me up to noticing many other pleasurable sensations that aren’t necessarily related to sex. And the more I notice, the more there is.
Learning to feel more deeply means turning up the dial on the rough as well as the smooth, though. For me, this meant allowing myself to go deep into the panic and really feel it from the inside, and allow myself to grieve. It hurt, and it felt lonely. There was anger and frustration there that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel before, and I could feel it now. For a long time, whenever I meditated, I felt a tight, dense knot in the centre of my chest. Every time I noticed it I pushed it away, not wanting to allow that discomfort, not wanting to admit to contraction and tightness.
Eventually I began to understand that feeling anything there at all was a sign that I was indeed learning to feel more deeply, and I began to accept it as part of the process. As soon as I approached it in this way instead it began to loosen. The memory of that moment reminds me to accept discomfort now in my practice.
So how can we learn to feel more, and develop a more embodied awareness of ourselves?
1. Practice Compassion
First of all, we must be in a place where we can accept everything we feel, or might feel, without trying to suppress it or judge ourselves for it. We must understand that learning to feel ourselves will mean allowing for the anger and grief as well as the pleasure and joy, and feeling challenging emotions or sensations can be taken as a sign that we are making progress. It’s a way of practicing intimacy with ourselves; allowing all of our experience to be seen, acknowledging it, and meeting it with kindness.
There are many ways to go about this, but my favourite is through an acknowledgment that the ‘negative’ feelings are there for a reason. We feel anger to keep us safe. Feeling grief is proof that we are capable of forming deep, emotional attachments, and it also teaches us about what’s important to us. Viewing difficult feelings in this way can help us to accept and welcome them.
2. Notice Background Pleasure
This is a simple practice that Michaela Boehm talks about often in her podcast. Throughout the day, whenever you remember, and no matter what you’re doing, feel for some pleasure. Even if you’re uncomfortable or a little too cold, or your foot’s gone to sleep, find some place in your body that feels good, and focus your attention there for a moment.
Making this a daily habit helps to keep our attention more in our whole bodies, as well as tuning us in to the pleasure we can feel.
3. Practice Embodied, Active Listening
Noticing how our bodies respond while we’re in conversation can be a really helpful way to connect with others more deeply, as well as ourselves, in a more embodied way. We’re being given so much information, all the time, by what we can feel – even if it’s numbness.
Next time you have a conversation see if you can feel any sensations while you’re listening. Is your body echoing emotions that the other person is displaying? Or are you getting a more felt sense of your own attitudes towards the person? Perhaps you’re able to pick up on what the other person is feeling before they’ve even made it explicit.
Practice noticing this experience that your whole body has in the presence of another person, without judging or attaching stories to feelings that come up.
4. Discover Your Somatic Markers
It’s called a ‘gut feeling’ for a reason. Our body can give us so much information about our needs if we pay attention, but it can take a little time to tune in to this wisdom if we’re not used to listening to it.
We can develop this sense through practice. One way I like to do this is to start with fairly inconsequential things: what kind of tea would I like to drink right now? There’s always a story attached (I never drink peppermint tea in the morning… I’m trying to drink less caffeine… last time I drank camomile tea I was too sleepy afterwards…) so it becomes a practice of gently moving my attention away from these thoughts and towards how my body feels. Does anything light up inside when I think about each option? Do I feel any closing or opening? Do these senses conflict with the stories my mind is playing through?
A helpful way to use this for me recently has involved decisions around how I spend my time; whether I really want to go out and be sociable, or whether I’m feeling obligated and actually I’d much rather stay home. Often I’ll know I’d rather take some me time when the thought of running a bath leads to a feeling of openness and relaxation in my belly.
Conversely, for me, agreeing to do something with someone who my body knows will drain too much of my energy right now is often indicated by a subtle tightness in my chest, a sensation of wanting to pull away, or a dropping sensation in my belly. I can notice these feelings in other situations too, and recognise them as a sign that I may not be doing the best thing for myself.
This is very much an ongoing journey for me, and sometimes it’s not possible or appropriate to do as my body says in this way. But developing and maintaining this sense is extremely helpful for when it is needed, and opens me up to being more present with my body and its needs.