This is Post 29 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found by clicking here.
The psychological function of Feeling, is symbolised in the Western poetic imagination, and in the esoteric lore of Western tradition, by the element of Water. Whereas the Indian imagination generally uses the element of Fire to symbolise Feeling, as I have described previously (here), I would like to now draw on Western tradition to very briefly acknowledge something that the symbolism of the Water element can teach us about the nature of Feeling. As the parallel with Water might suggest, Feeling is a phenomena that is almost always in a state of flow and change: like tides, or waves, or the tributaries of a river, or the eddies in a sparkling stream, or like a stormy ocean.
Feeling, like Water can seem chaotic, but it carries energy and moves with purpose – a purpose that may sometimes be hard to discern, but is nevertheless always present. Just as the Fire element in the symbolic language of India, can be seen to be reaching consistently upwards towards the Divine, so the Water element in the West can be seen as relentless and purposeful in its downward course towards the universal ocean.
Psychological Parts – the Apparent Persons behind our Currents of Feeling
It is perhaps helpful, to see Feeling as analogous to currents or tributaries in a body of Water, because Feeling is certainly not single. Feeling is also much more like a surging wave that recedes and appears to disappear, only to surge again when we don’t expect it. When we examine our experience carefully we notice that it is inaccurate to say “I feel sad” or “I feel afraid” – and worse still to say “I am sad” or “I am afraid”.
Both sadness and the fear are actually only single currents among the many currents of feeling that surge in us from time to time – but more importantly, if we look carefully at our experience, we have to acknowledge that the ‘I’ in both those statements, is always separate from those currents of Feeling. It is never the ‘I’ that feels sad or afraid. The ‘I’ is the imperturbable field of Consciousness within which Feeling is experienced. The conventional verbal forms “I feel …….. “, “I am feeling …….. “, or “I am …….. ” followed by words identifying the category of our feeling state, are not only inaccurate, but very unhelpful psychologically – because they encourage identification with Feeling rather than self-empathetic connection with it.
The components of the process of perception, which are Thinking, Feeling, Sensation and Intuition/Volition, are not necessarily personal phenomena, but they always tend to gather together to create apparent persons. And even as we learn to rest as Consciousness, so that we are no longer so strongly identified with those apparent persons, the perceptual components nevertheless usually seem to remain fused together as internal persons within the psyche. Because of this, one of our greatest assets on the path of the inner life, is the curious and paradoxical concept of psychological parts, or egoic parts – the apparent inner persons behind our currents of Feeling.
I have talked about psychological parts in a previous article (here). While this is an enormous subject, and one that is certainly not limited to this thread of discussion of the function of Feeling, I feel a need to return to an exploration of the phenomenon of psychological parts in this context. The process of differentiation of Feeling, and the healing of the Emotional Body are powerfully supported when we become able to inwardly step back from our feelings, and start to learn to relate to them self-empathetically as the Feeling component of our psychological parts.
This key intrapersonal skill of self-empathy is most easily understood and practised if we provisionally acknowledge these sub-personalities as a psychological and energetic reality within the psyche. And because we are often aware of several parts at once, and thus have several currents of Feeling running at once, the only accurate way to bare witness to them, is to say “Part of me feels ……… and part of me feels ………”.
Not a Single Self – but an Internal System of Selves
As we grow in self-awareness, we become keenly aware that we move in and out of identification with a variety of different psychological parts in the course of our days, and can even flip between parts within seconds as we respond to interpersonal interactions and life experiences. This does not make us feel crazy. Rather we find it is a path to a deep sanity in which we come to recognise who we actually are, ultimately, beyond these transitory selves.
The divided nature of the self is completely normal. In the course of our development in childhood and early adulthood, we develop not a single self, but an internal system of selves, each of which corresponds to one of the necessary egoic adaptations that emerged in the course of our developmental stages or developmental challenges. Much of the work of psychotherapy is an engagement with this internal multiplicity of selves, bringing consciousness to those of the internal selves that are no longer serving us well in our current lives.
While the creation of each of the psychological parts was entirely necessary at a particular time in the past, and each served to meet our needs and protect us in some way at that time, each part also carries an energy of egoic identification and of disconnection from Consciousness – a wound that ultimately can only be healed by an energetic return to that Consciousness.
Consciousness and Presence
As we rest as Consciousness and familiarise ourselves with that experience, we recognise that the non-personal field of Consciousness is the basis of our sense of being a person. As we rest and allow that non-personal field of Consciousness to bring our subtle bodies into alignment however, what emerges in our personality, somewhat paradoxically, is a sense of a true self, an authentic self, an un-contrived self – a spontaneous, creative, and un-willed self. And that self has a bodily-felt energetic quality, which we can call Presence.
Previously in these articles I have been using the term embodied Consciousness in place of Presence. Presence is a useful term however, so I would like to make a clear distinction between these closely related, though ultimately perhaps inseparable, phenomena of Consciousness, and Presence. I prefer to use the capitalised word Consciousness to refer to the objective and universal Consciousness in which we rest. The word Presence, on the other hand, is best reserved for embodied Consciousness – the bodily-felt energetic reflection of the universal Consciousness, in the apparently personal field of the body.
This is a hugely important distinction to make, because Consciousness is always there when we look for it, and is equally available to all of us at all times. Presence, or the other hand, is that state of energetic alignment with Consciousness, which is cultivated through meditation, and revealed over time, through the healing activity of resting as Consciousness.
Presence and the Brahmavihāras
The common confusion regarding the terms Consciousness and Presence, and the failure to define and distinguish them correctly, is very unfortunate, because many practitioners of meditation struggle unnecessarily in that endeavour, precisely because they are seeking to cultivate that state of psycho-physical integration, which we call Presence, without first recognising Consciousness – which is actually our only means to achieving it. It is very important for those who are new to meditation practice to be shown that Consciousness is always easily and universally available, and not a distant goal that can only be achieved after many years of meditation practice.
Once Consciousness has been recognised, and we have learnt to rest as Consciousness, the cultivation of Presence is relatively effortless – it just requires a commitment to the practice. The transformation of our energy bodies, or subtle bodies, takes time, but can be achieved relatively easily by the power of Consciousness. As we learn to rest as Consciousness, we start to break our habitual identifications with our psychological parts – and the energetic components of these psychological parts (which we carry in our Thinking Body, Feeling Body, Volitional Body and Subtle Physical Body) start to dissolve and integrate. Those who have been following this series of articles will be aware that the psychological energy of the four functions of Consciousness (Thinking, Feeling, Sensation, and Intuition/Volition) is reflected somatically, or energetically in these first four subtle bodies – the four surface bodies.
The four brahmavihāras – Equanimity, Sympathetic Joy, Loving Kindness, and Compassion – which we have been exploring in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, can be thought of as the four main component qualities that make up the experience of Presence, and also as the four archetypal powers inherent in Consciousness that bring healing to the four surface bodies. As explained previously, each of the brahmavihāras therefore have a absolute and a relative expression. They are both four attitudes of Consciousness, and four energetic states, or aspects of Presence that become increasingly predominant in the four surface bodies as we start to dis-identify from our psychological parts.
Dis-identification – Holding our Psychological Parts in Kindness and Value
Without a capacity to rest as Consciousness, we oscillate between states that involve either some form of identification with feeling, or some form of denial of feeling. When we learn to rest as Consciousness and recognise that Consciousness is the basis of our true identity, an empowering awareness arises. Perhaps the most important dimension of this empowerment is our awareness of our capacity to love, to be warmly present with anything that is arising in our lives – inwardly or outwardly.
When we begin to heal the Emotional Body and integrate the aspect of embodied Consciousness that Indian tradition calls mettā, everything in our experience is more valued and more keenly felt than before. We also recognise however, that we are no longer identifying with our thoughts, sensations, feelings, intuitions and volitional impulses in the same way. While ultimately, we may appreciate that these are just categories of cognitive-perceptual data arising in Consciousness, initially we are likely to find it necessary to respond to these disconnected internal persons just as we experience them as a bodily-felt and imaginal reality within the psyche – to love them self-empathetically and to appreciate the somewhat outmoded and dysfunctional way in which they are trying to meet our needs.
To the extent that we fail to value and bring Consciousness to them, our internal psychological parts are a little like the denizens of the Ancient Greek underworld – in that they are doomed to endlessly repeat their behaviours, and seemingly incapable of learning and change. When we relate to them with kindness and curiosity however, they in turn start to relate to us – they become aware of us, and aware of the ways in which our life has fundamentally changed since they established themselves and adopted their strategies for meeting our needs. As we empathise with them and they empathise with us, they usually dissolve, releasing the energy that they have held – glad to be relieved of their desperate aloneness, or their relentless tasks on our behalf.
Self-Empathy – Learning to ‘Love Ourselves’
I shall be talking much more, in my next post and in subsequent posts, about this capacity to bring mutual self-empathetic healing to our psychological parts, which comes with the development of embodied Consciousness. For me, a key paradox of the psychology of non-duality, is the fact that our process of integration requires that we first acknowledge our disintegration and relate to our psychological parts as if they are separate from Consciousness – in order to subsequently re-integrate the energies of Consciousness that each part has been carrying in a disconnected and unconscious way.
These articles are best read in sequence. To go to the next article in the series just click the ‘Next’ button at the bottom of the page. For an overview of the whole sequence of articles, with short summaries of each one, click here.