For those who might be interested in more than commentary and observation, here is the outline of practice. It sounds simple, and can be described in three words – sense, observe and understand. Simple it may be, but it is also challenging. It always requires effort, and it always requires that we remember ourselves – that we have the presence of mind to sense our inner state. External things usually consume our attention, and our consumer society wants nothing other than your attention and your money. People desire your attention. Your boss wants your attention – and so on. The act of sensing how we feel goes against nature and is always a deliberate act requiring attention.
Your body contains all the information you need to sense your inner state. This is why it is critically important to become sensitive to how your body is feeling, and for most of us, this requires practice. It is not uncommon for people to be totally out of touch with their bodies, and consumed by imagination – lost in their thoughts. The key practice here is outlined in another post called the Four Pillars of Practice. It is called the morning sitting in the Gurdjieff tradition, and before that, simply explained as circulating the attention in The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma.
This is the starting point. Without a reasonable level of sensitivity, there can be no real awareness of emotional states. The emotions are in your body – clenched jaw, heaviness around the solar plexus, a rapid heartbeat. Unless knowledge of this nature is developed everything else will be imagination, and efforts will go nowhere.
For cerebral types, this practice will seem very unappealing. There are no new exciting ideas, no rabbit holes to explore, and a sense that the state of the body isn’t all that important. Well, we all come to this type of practice with a handicap. Emotional people will find it difficult to view their emotions with objectivity. Intellectual types really couldn’t care less about the feelings, and physical types will be unable to sit still for more than two minutes.
However, this is the starting point for anyone who wants to develop some sense of inner freedom. Just as we build instruments and observe the physical world to understand how it works, so we need to improve the ability to sense our state so we can move on to the next step, which is observation.
Observation is just that – observation. It isn’t intervention or judgment. If we have developed the necessary bodily sensitivity, we should be able to “feel” the emotions in the body. We just need to be able to observe the emotional state as we might observe anything else. We don’t think that we can change the formation of clouds by observing them, and neither should we try to interfere with our emotional state during observation. This is easier said than done. Because of our conditioning, we may be programmed to react against certain emotions. Maybe we have been told that anger is bad, and so when we feel anger, we automatically try and calm ourselves. This not observation.
The best source of information on observation is the book by Red Hawk. He goes into great detail on how judgment feeds our emotional states. The idea is simple enough. Mastering observation takes years, and maybe decades, and always requires effort. None of this is mechanical.
Using our understanding is like shining a torch in a dark, damp room full of bugs, fungus and maybe more. If we are totally in the dark, we may hear noises that alarm us, smell things that repel us, and be consumed by imagination.
I’ve mentioned many times that the essence of human beings is desire (Spinoza) or will (Schopenhauer). Generally speaking, we will do anything to stay alive – this is after all our primary desire. When survival prospects are diminished, even in a very indirect way, we will feel the so-called negative emotions – fear, anger, envy … On the other hand, when our survival prospects are enhanced, we will feel positive emotions. This is our life – swinging between positive and negative emotions as things go our way, or against us respectively.
Understanding the desire to exist and to manifest as much power as we can is the anchor point in understanding the emotions. And so if we lose our job and feel depressed, it isn’t too difficult to understand that our survival prospects have been damaged and a depressed mood is the result. This is not an invitation to try and make ourselves happy or modify our state; we simply want to sense, observe and understand.
This effort has to be outside the usual “doing” that constitutes our ordinary life. We are not trying to change anything; we just want to understand in the same way we try to understand anything else. In a sense, we have to become objective observers, as though we were looking at ourselves from the outside.
While I’ve outlined something that may appear very simple, there are endless nuances and traps. But patience is a virtue as they say, and as Gurdjieff said, it is the mother of the will.