Feeling and Naming our Experiences

I have often spoken of experience, and particularly of the deepest experiences, whether of joy or of sorrow. I’ve also stressed the importance of being in touch with our experiences and feelings and allowing ourselves to feel them. I’ve also added the precaution that we need to do so in a safe place, whether by listening to ourselves in a quiet place, or entrusting our experiences–including thoughts and feelings–to an intelligently caring other.

A key element in this process is that it is important to recognize that such feelings are neither good not bad, but just are. The whole range of human feelings belongs to every human being. In addition, these feelings can teach us where we are at the present moment, but not necessarily what to do. There is a profound difference between awareness and entrusting of feelings, and unleashing them on another person. I believe it was Albert Camus who said that the freedom of your fist ends where my nose begins. In a similar vein, debates about Covid need to take into account not only alleged rights of individuals, but also their responsibility to respect others rather than inflict oneself upon them.

I have often used the image of tears as instructive. Tears well up within us at moments both of profound joy and of profound sorrow. As an example, when we are truly at home with someone, our conversation can range from being hilariously funny to deeply serious and back again, without our hardly noticing the transition. This reality suggests that there is a place within us deeper than and prior to the differentiation of feelings. Listening to beautiful music, for example can evoke a response that seems at once to combine both joy and sadness

Many years ago, at a spontaneous writing workshop, the image arose of several children within me, the playful, the lonely, the angry child, and many others. With that experience came the sense that each must be given its voice but none should drown out any other. In part, it was a response to the dominant social image of self-mastery or self-control with one part of us dominating the others. Instead, this was an an image not of domination but of cooperation. At the same time, there emerged an image of a child behind a wall. This seemed to be the basic self beneath all the other selves. In a kind of conversation with that child, it seemed that this core child was the unique self as it emerged from the universe and whatever underlies the universe.

The model of understanding that followed was one of recognizing, coordinating, and naming all our experiences, and them deciding whether or how to express them outwardly, perhaps in trusting words, perhaps in actions. Yet underneath all of these lies this sacred self of intrinsic worth.

I mentioned last week reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book. Leaning to Walk in the Darkness, She brings out positive aspects of darkness, as do some folk tales. She refers also to a book by Miriam Greenspan, called Healing through the Dark Emotions. I have begun this book which also stresses allowing ourselves to experience and name our real feelings. At the same time, she brings out that feelings reside in the body and need to be felt there, that in allowing them to be felt they gradually modulate into different feelings. Over time for example, grief at the loss of a loved one slowly transforms into gratitude for that life as well as for our own life. She also mentions that feelings can be inter-generational. This thought was also expressed by another author, who described this effect in terms of his grandmothers hands, which bore the marks of an enslaved person compelled to pick cotton.(My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem)

Greenspan also brings out that, while deeply personal, our experiences also contain and are impacted by the wider world in which we live. One helpful practice she suggests is meditation, including the lovingkindness meditation. This is the meditation stressed by Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Centre. She advocates as well that we can practice such meditation, not only by extending the wish for happiness to others near and far, the significant and the so-called neutral people in our lives. But we can also practice it towards ourselves as a child.

One therapist, whom I encountered at a Creation Spirituality workshop, also suggested this practice. When people came to him who were grieving over a difficult or even abusive childhood, he suggested that they talk to themselves as they wished their parents had talked to them. I have also used the expression that we should never speak to ourselves in a condemning way, but only how we might speak to a hurt or angry child on our best day. Greenspan also mentions that children can absorb in a fear-inducing way the cultural problems of a society, such as climate change. Another author, Robert Lifton, has said that we best help children and give them hope by working in some way, however small, towards a solution. My young six year old friend expressed it in these words.”Whenever you pick up a piece of garbage or recycling, then you can see the earth smiling.”

There are certainly many considerations here. One is that we all bear wounds from our life experience, both internally and in our relationships, and as a member of our society. But the move towards healing and growth, though difficult, is always possible. Another consideration is that it is vital to allow ourselves to feel our real feelings, but always in the safe place. And in all things, it is essential to hold on to a sense of worth, even if we cannot feel it at the time.

May any difficulties, pain, or wounds you have experienced, as well as all your joys and gratitude-evoking experiences, give birth to a fuller sense of worth for yourself, for those who are close to you, and for the earth on which we live out our lives.

Norman King, August 15, 2021