“Trust your feelings”
“Listen to your body”
“Follow your heart”
“Do what the universe is doing through you”
Let’s be honest… this can all sound like nonsense.
What do you mean trust your feelings?
(One might say)
When people listen to their feelings – not thinking before they act – it causes all kinds of problems!
Someone feels like eating too much food, so they do. They feel like being lazy, so they do. A feeling is what makes a person gamble away all their money or argue on the internet. These people should think more instead!
This may be true – but when you hear those hokey sounding (but true) things above, these aren’t the kinds of feelings they’re talking about.
They’re talking about something else – not an impulse but something deeper that is grounded on an entirely different level.
These deeper feelings are worth listening to – they help guide you on your path in life, push you in the right direction and pull you back on track when you stray too far…
But how do we get in touch with these deeper feelings? How do we avoid acting on impulse?
And how do we tell the difference between the two?
That’s what this post is about – the second in a series on meta skills.
(The first was about breaking down attention to detail)
Let’s look at impulses –
Impulses arise quickly and can disappear just as quickly, if you let them. Impulses usually concern short time frames and are often based around gaining short-term pleasure or avoiding short-term pain.
Impulses are often related to evolution and the biological drive in humans for survival/reproduction. Humans evolved in environments where resources were scarce and survival was often under threat – today, in the developed world at least, we are safe and have plenty of food.
So there is a mismatch between our evolved biology and the modern societies we live in, and you see this played out in many different ways.
For example – food that is high in fat and sugar tastes good because it provides a lot of energy to the body. In an environment where food is scarce and you don’t know when your next meal is coming, it’s advantageous to eat a lot of high calorie food.
In today’s environment there’s plenty of food, but the biology is the same. You still want to eat a whole box of cookies in one sitting, because your body doesn’t know you can just go to the grocery store tomorrow and buy some more.
Another example – you want to be faithful to your girlfriend, but you still have the urge to try and sleep with other girls. At the very least, you are still physically attracted to them. Again this is a mismatch between the modern value of monogamy and the evolutionary drive to have many offspring.
Evolution and biology aside – because it is usually based around short time frames, acting on impulse usually has a negative effect in the long run.
If you’re healthy and reading this in 2016 you can expect to live for at least ~100 years – our lives are long and seeking short-term pleasure/avoiding short-term pain is almost reliably the wrong thing to do.
How to Resist Impulses
If one aspect of discipline/willpower is making yourself do the things you don’t want to do, but know you should, the flip side of that coin is resisting the urge to do things you want to do, but know you shouldn’t.
Not acting on impulse is the latter.
An impulse is a thought or a feeling, or a combination of the two. And like all thoughts and feelings, it is not “you” – this is the important part to understand.
There is the impulse and then there is the part of you that decides how to act – these are two separate things.
We can imagine consciousness as a box with these two elements inside – impulses and the part of you that decides how to behave.
The consciousness of an average person might look like this.
There is some overlap between the two elements – sometimes this person is able to resist impulses and sometimes not.
The consciousness of a person with no discipline would look like this.
There is almost complete overlap between impulse and the decision to act. Someone with little/no discipline may not even realize it is possible to separate the two.
The consciousness of a person with a lot of discipline would look like this.
There is no overlap between the two – the part that decides how to act observes the impulse with no obligation to act a certain way.
An extreme example of this is the famous picture of the burning monk in Vietnam.
How is Thic Quang Duc able to light himself on fire and sit perfectly still while burning to death in agonizing pain?
There is an enormous gap between his impulses and the part of him that decides how to behave.
This comes from a lifetime of practicing detachment and is beyond any ordinary person. But it points to the fact that the key to resisting impulses is widening the gap between the impulse and the part of you that decides to act.
This is something you can practice, and learning meditation techniques is probably the best way to do it.
Meditation is – among other things – just practice moderating your response to stimulus in your consciousness. This could be external stimulus (sounds, sensations) or internal (thoughts, feelings/emotions).
But in all cases the practice is the same – you just have to let things arise and let them go. With everything that arises, there is always the option to just watch it arise and let it go.
Impulses will often disappear as quickly as they arise, if you let them.
It may come back, it may come back strongly and often, but the process of letting go is always the same.
You can actually experience an impulse fully without the need to act on it – that is the discipline part, which can be trained over time like building a muscle. You get better the more you do it.
If there’s a particular impulse that keeps arising you can add another step – tell yourself something like, “I don’t need that” or “That’s not me anymore” when the impulse arises. After enough repetition that thought/sentiment will become the automatic response to the impulse arising.
What I’m calling deep feelings you might also call “intuition” or “instinct” – although they’re not necessarily the same.
Deep feelings are a little harder to define than impulses – it’s trying to look at something intangible and intuitive through the logical perspective of the rational mind.
Hard to define – but let’s give it a go.
Deep feelings are less sudden and immediate than impulses, but more persistent over time. They don’t come and go – they’re an undercurrent you feel subtly most of the time (and sometimes very intensely) that’s trying to move you in a certain direction.
A deep feeling is an inclination towards or away from something – an activity, an idea, a person or group. It feels like something inside you is pulling or pushing – that you are being pushed or pulled along one trajectory or away from another.
If an impulse is a sharp spike that comes and goes quickly, a deep feeling is like a wave moving gradually in one direction and picking up speed.
The subject of a deep feeling is also broader and more spread out than that of an impulse. If an impulse is pinpoint specific, a deep feeling is more general.
It may feel like deep desire or even longing. We usually experience longing for something we’ve had before, but I think the feeling of longing for something you’ve never experienced is a strong sign you should be moving in that direction.
How to Understand Deep Feelings
The most important thing to understand is that you don’t have to do anything to make deep feelings appear, they are already inside of you.
Provided you have some self awareness – which you almost certainly do if you’re reading this website – then you are already at a place where you have the tools to begin uncovering these feelings.
If it’s difficult or it feels like they’re not there – it’s because there’s too much other stuff in there as well.
In modern life we are inundated with distraction and our minds are filled with junk, often against our will. The mind is not a passive receptacle for information – it takes what you give it and then spits it back out at you later.
If you put garbage in, you get garbage out. So the first step is to start clearing away the external garbage, all the distractions and the stimulus you don’t need. Clear away the noise and begin to listen for the signal.
After the external noise, you will find there is internal noise as well. You can sit in a room in perfect silence yet you’re still “listening” to the chatter of your own mind.
It’s meditation again that’s the best way to quiet this internal noise. Meditation isn’t the only way to do it, but it is one effective method and it’s my preferred method. Other ways of getting out of your head and getting into your physical body are also extremely helpful.
Clear away the noise and begin to pay very close attention to what’s happening inside you – inside your body and inside your consciousness.
Become attentive to your inclinations and the recurring patterns of thought, emotion, behaviour – begin looking and seeing deeply into what’s really there, without the commentary of the mind.
Again this is hard to really describe – but the answers will just start to show themselves to you. This is what I meant when I wrote nowhere has the answers for you; they’re all inside you. You will understand the deep feelings because there’s nothing in the way anymore.
As an aside – I think experiencing compulsion on a repeat basis is an indication of a deep feeling finally coming to the surface.
The feeling has been gathering as an undercurrent and then it’s finally given the opportunity to be expressed and it explodes out because there’s so much intensity built up inside.
You see this often with people who quit their jobs to start a new venture they care much more about. A person, who couldn’t find the slightest bit of motivation at their day job, is now suddenly wide awake every morning literally being pulled out of bed by their compulsion.
Again – the intensity of the deep feeling had been building up and now it has the opportunity to get out into the world. Repetitive compulsion like this, as far as I can tell, is a sign you’re moving in the right direction.
Putting it into practice
The original goal of this post was to eliminate confusion around advice like “Listen to your feelings” “Follow your heart” and so on.
We’ve looked at how to resist impulses, how to get in touch with deep feelings, and how to differentiate the two – where this stuff can really become useful is with regard to decision making.
This is where the rational mind has a role to play – you have to A/B test decision making based on different types of feelings and track the results in your head.
Let’s say you have to decide between A and B, and you have feeling X. You think feeling X is a deep feeling as we’ve discussed – so you choose in accordance with the feeling and decide on A.
The outcome is positive – so now you know, in analogous situations in the future, feeling X or similar feelings are ones you should listen to.
That’s oversimplified but I think you get the idea – the role of the rational mind is to do analysis after the fact, and to map your previous feelings/decisions/outcomes onto current decisions you need to make.
This gets easier the more you do it as well.
Listening to feelings is valuable – just some and not others. Once you can tell the difference and act on it in a constructive way – it helps your decision making on both a micro and macro level.
Hopefully this was helpful, leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.