What is it like to be you? Most of us would agree that nobody knows except you. In fact, we could go on to say that even knowledge of our own selves has limits. Human being is an essential, unfathomed (and potentially unfathomable) mystery.
If this mystery fascinates you, welcome. This book will take you further into the unknown, illuminating a vast, hidden territory within every one of us. The territory into which we will travel commonly goes by the names feeling, mood, emotion, or affect. We will come to know it as feelingmind, a realm of much greater complexity, beauty, power, and wisdom than we have ever imagined. You will have the opportunity to explore this territory using a practice we will call feelingwork, and through your exploration to cultivate an unprecedented thriving in your life. You’ll also learn how to help others do the same.
Along the way, you will come to understand something about our fractured world. You will see how we have applied the objectivity standards of rationality, logic, and ideology to the ineffable world of human experience with devastating consequences. In doing so, we have sacrificed our connection to feelingmind in favor of an allegiance to ideas, rules, and language. Each of us, in order to maintain our allegiance, has suppressed and distorted feelingmind, causing it to fracture and divide against itself over and over again. We each have accumulated countless inner conflicts and ruptures. This inner distress projects itself into the world around us, joining with the distress of others into a steadily-intensifying collective insanity.
As we shall see, the objectivity-focused tools of rationality, logic, and ideology can grasp only a surface truth which functions well in domains with reliable, predictable behavior. Science and technology thrive under these tools, and our civilization has made great strides under their influence. But these advances have intoxicated us, and we have gradually applied the tools of objectivity to the domains of human activity. From parenting and education to management and governance, all the way into spirituality and mental health, we have grasped for objectivity, finding it in crisp text, rigid ideologies, standard protocols, evidence-based practices, seven-point diagnostics, and legalistic guidelines.
But the domain of human activity, especially in the collective, must be guided by the deep truth of being. There is no protocol which can substitute for the presence of being with one another in relationship. There is no text which can compare to the infinite possibilities of fully showing up with one another in community. There is no vessel of rational thought which can encompass the fullness of truth inherent in feelingmind. By the end of our journey together, you will have a direct, felt understanding of what this means and how to bring it to your everyday engagements in your own life, no matter what your scope of activity or influence. In the course of acquiring this understanding, you will also develop a profoundly expansive trust in the wisdom of feelingmind within yourself. This trust will act as a solvent to continue dissolving the artificial barriers within yourself, bringing you gradually closer to a state of integrated wholeness.
As we proceed, let me point out that at first glance, it seems ironic that I make such declarations at the beginning of a book which uses text to teach a very specific practice. Let us be clear. Language is a powerful and precise tool. In this book, we shall be applying that power and precision in service to the liberation and cultivation of feelingmind. I ask you please to engage with the materials of this book directly, through the interface of your own magnificent experience. These chapters serve your own direct knowing in ways that go far beyond what the text itself can contain. This role of service, indeed, in the realm of human experience, is the appropriate role for rationality. It is in this spirit that I offer you these words.
If I were to ask what you are feeling in this moment, what would you say? Perhaps you might quickly scan your body and report that you are feeling “comfortable, maybe a bit tired.”
What if I were to ask further, “What are you feeling emotionally?” You might do another scan and share that you are feeling “a little sad, actually.” If we were friends, I might ask about “what’s going on,” interested in the story of your sadness.
But what if I turned things in a different direction? What if I asked, “How would you describe the feeling of your sadness? What does it actually feel like to be you right now, on the inside, feeling sad?” How would you answer then?
For most people, a question like this would feel awkward. How do you reply to such a request? You might fumble a bit and say something like, “kind of heavy.” But because we don’t commonly discuss the actual, inner experience of feeling, you won’t find a clear answer very easily.
We don’t think much of it. Nobody expresses an interest in detailed descriptions of feeling, so nobody expects such a question and nobody is prepared to answer it. But what if we are actually missing something important? What if feeling is actually a sensory channel like sight or hearing? What if our current relationship with feeling is something like always wearing very dark glasses or ear plugs so we can barely make out our surroundings?
Imagine someone asking you what you are seeing or hearing in this moment, and being able to respond with only a vague answer about indistinct shapes or sounds. For some people these are everyday limitations, and they find ways to get around despite them. But what if feeling, too, is actually a sensory channel having access to just as much vivid detail as functional eyes and ears do, but blocked somehow? Perhaps all of us have been finding ways to “get around” in the realm of feeling, compensating for our compromised perception.
You will discover soon that this story is not far off. As we shall see, our conscious perception of feeling has not been fully developed. All of us have been stumbling around the realm of feeling, making the best of it despite our limitations.
From time to time, someone with more clear perception makes a map to help the rest of us get around more easily. We find these helpful maps in many psychological or spiritual practices. But they are generic, made for the everyman and impossible to tailor easily to the specific terrain of the individual. So most of us still struggle, even with the maps.
What I offer here is a practice which enables us to take off the dark glasses, remove the ear plugs, and open our perception more vividly to feeling’s native realm. When we do so, we become privileged to see for ourselves the actual territory from which the more generic maps have been made throughout history. We become free to enter and move about at will, traveling paths formerly hidden to us. It all begins to make sense in new ways. Further, we discover that our private inner territory has its own unique features and landmarks. Now we are supported in constructing our own personal maps, and to use these to navigate more effectively, with more satisfaction than we have previously experienced.
This is the practice of feelingwork. This is your navigation tool by which to move about in the realm of feelingmind. As you learn to use feelingwork, you will gain full access to the abundant riches of feelingmind. As you will see, the depth, complexity and wisdom of feelingmind go beyond anticipation.
In what follows, I will teach you this practice, while at the same time pointing out key structural features of feelingmind to help you make sense of your experience. While your private inner landscape is unique, accessible to no one but yourself, these universal structures will help you find your way around more easily, and I will provide you with the guidance you need to make satisfying progress exploring this new frontier.
As we embark on our journey together, I would like to offer the first outlines of a structural map of consciousness that emerges from the practice of feelingwork. This first sketch highlights the feature of attention. More than anything else, feelingwork is an advanced application of attention, and this sketch will help us to use the power of attention effectively right from the beginning.
As we begin, I want to acknowledge there have been many maps of consciousness throughout history. If you are familiar with any of these through your own spiritual, growth, or healing path, you may see clear overlaps. What is different in the map presented in this book is the high resolution available for the realm of feelingmind, provided through the unprecedented precision of feelingwork as a tool for investigating this realm. I encourage you to carry with you the maps you have found most useful, and allow their edges to soften as you engage with this new map and the territory it represents. Find those places where the map emerging from feelingwork reinforces and expands your own maps, and mark those places where you see incompatibility. Play with the fruitful overlaps, finding more satisfying ways to engage with your current practices and expand upon the feelingwork practice for yourself. And take it upon yourself to explore the incompatibilities using both feelingwork and the practices with which you are already familiar. What might you discover?
Above all, recognize that this map is not the territory. I am confident that what I outline below will evolve further in coming years, that we will learn much to refine and enhance its alignment with experience and usefulness for navigation. Hold it lightly, ask questions, and inquire within your own experience first and foremost in your quest for clarification.
We can think of attention crudely as a spotlight, directing the light of awareness into the realm of consciousness. (There is much within consciousness which lies outside of awareness.) Attention functions as if it actually occupies space in and around our bodies. This property will be important to us, and I refer to this space as the field of attention. The field of attention can be directed freely through four channels of consciousness. Let us take a quick look at these four channels.
The first, most obvious channel of consciousness is the sensory channel. This includes all information available to awareness through not only our standard five senses but also the less highlighted sub-channels of the body including temperature, pressure, proprioception, and interoception. Of the last two, proprioception can be thought of as our awareness of the position of body parts relative to one another and to gravity. Interoception can be thought of as our awareness of sensation coming from the vicinity of our viscera.
The imagery channel of consciousness carries our internal mental imagery. Mental imagery exhibits a sub-channel structure parallel to that of the sensory channel, but imagery is generated internally rather than received through sensory input systems. Mental imagery can be recalled from experiences in the past as memories, or it can be created through what we refer to as imagination, generating images never before experienced. Most often, imagery is some combination of these two, as it is nearly impossible to recall a memory without modifying it in some way, and it is nearly impossible to generate a completely new image that does not draw upon memory for its fundamentals.
The thought channel of consciousness involves our inner linguistic and logical processing. This processing arises from and applies to sequences and combinations of specific mental images, connecting two or more images and weaving them into networks of meaning. For most of us, thought is often experienced as an inner monologue, but it reaches beyond that into more abstract processing as well.
The fourth channel of consciousness is the one holding the greatest interest for us on this journey into feelingmind. This fourth dimension is what would remain if we were to switch off the other three dimensions of consciousness, including all sensory input, all mental imagery, and all thought. What remains — that subtle thrum of vague being-ness — we typically refer to as feeling, mood, and emotion. At the moment it might appear that feelingmind is a bit like background radiation in outer space, or the distant hum of a far-off highway or ocean shore. It might seem subtle beyond the possibility of offering anything of value to us on our journey through life. Very soon we shall discover otherwise.
This is the channel of consciousness to which we want to tune our attention when we begin our feelingwork activities in the next chapters on mapping and moving. As we work our way through mapping and moving, I recommend you keep coming back to this idea. In answering the feelingwork mapping questions, check in with yourself. Am I focusing my field of attention upon sensation? Imagery? Thought? If so, let that go, and refocus on what remains when those are turned off or tuned out.
These four channels of consciousness each occupy an apparent, or virtual, three-dimensional space in and around us. The sensory channel is most often experienced as occupying the space of the origin of the relevant sensory information. Visual input seems to originate from the objects in the visual field, occupying space around the body. Similarly for auditory input. Touch, taste, and smell tend to occupy the location of the sensors themselves, as do the more subtle sub-channels of body sensation.
Although this is not widely recognized, the imagery channel also occupies space. Mental images can be experienced as arising anywhere in or around the body, each image occupying a specific, three-dimensional space. For example, if you bring a particular memory to mind and bring your awareness to the actual, inner visual or auditory image, you will find it occupies a space that may or may not closely correspond to the space occupied by the original sensory input. If the memory was recorded with high fidelity, the overlap may be strong, but if there is a strong emotional component to the memory, the recalled image may differ greatly from the original sensory experience. Mental imagery in the remaining channels and sub-channels tends to conform to the space expected by comparison to similar sensory input.
Despite being considered purely abstract, the thought channel also occupies space. For most people, most of the time, their thought processing is experienced as occupying a single, consistent location that varies very little, even when it is processing imagery that may arise in many different spaces in and around the body. If asked, many people would reply that their thoughts are located in the center of their head. (This is significant. The center of the head is a generally quiescent location which is unlikely to have disruptive interference arising from the sensory or imagery channels. It serves as an optimal sanctuary space free to process whatever might be happening in the surrounding consciousness spaces.)
You will come to see that the fourth channel of consciousness, feelingmind, occupies space much more freely and creatively than the other three dimensions. Most people assume that feeling lives within the body because of a conflation with the somatic sensations of emotional activation. But emotion is purely in and of the body, and in contrast, the experience of feeling is not constrained in any way by the mechanics of emotion or the sensations arising from them. In truth, feelingmind occupies an infinite experiential space in and around the body.
This last point is extremely important to our purpose. Feelingwork is all about tuning the field of attention into the channel of feelingmind. As we have said, the field of attention also occupies space, and is able to be directed to occupy any space we choose. Not only that, but we are able to tune the field of attention to highlight any single one of the channels of consciousness. We can selectively choose to pay attention to our outer sensation, inner imagery, thought, or feelingmind channels of consciousness.
Further, we can fine-tune our attention to more focused sub-channels. For example, in the sensory and imagery dimensions we can choose to pay attention to the visual or auditory sub-channels. We can also filter our attention, highlighting for example round objects in our visual sensation or high-pitched sounds in our auditory imagery. Soon we shall see how we can apply these extraordinary capacities for tuning and filtering to bring previously hidden aspects of feelingmind into awareness. This is where things get interesting!
You might wonder, if what I am saying is true about the rich territory of feelingmind, why this richness has remained outside of our awareness. Consider this. The pinnacle of western development is considered to be purely rational thought. To practice high rationality, we need to develop a habit of attention that maintains our field of attention on that small, fixed location at the center of our heads, where thought lives. When our field of attention is habitually centered there, we can easily lose our connection with feelingmind, which lives everywhere else. In so doing, we guard ourselves from the distractions of feeling and imagination while giving ourselves many rational reasons why this is preferable.
As I think you will come to understand in practicing feelingwork, this is a serious limitation, especially in complex and volatile times as these. The wisdom of feelingmind is essential to aligning ourselves with the greatest force in the universe: the drive toward wholeness. I am quite certain that cutting ourselves off from feelingmind has contributed greatly to the chaos and strife of our times. It is only by reawakening feelingmind in our everyday lives that we will be able to turn the corner and begin to move toward a thriving that is long overdue. Your engagement with feelingwork has the potential to bring your unique presence to that effort.
Consciousness takes form as three distinct phases. I do not use the word “phases” in the sense of stages through time, but rather in the sense of different forms of a substance. Solid, liquid, and gas are three phases of water, for example, and a phase change shifts the water from one phase to another, perhaps from solid to liquid as ice melts.
In the following discussion I introduce the word “elements” to refer to specific perceptions, images, thoughts, feeling states, or coherent clusters of these. I use the word loosely, and don’t think at this point that we need to define it more precisely than this.
Latent Phase: In this first phase, elements of consciousness occupy the four channels in potential form, for example as stored memories available for retrieval. The memory of meeting an interesting person last year might be a latent element.
Active Phase: Latent elements can be activated, bringing them out of the passive, latent phase into the active phase. Active elements of consciousness reside outside of our awareness. At the same time they are in constant interaction with one another, influencing background perception, behavior, and much more. Reading a name in a news article might trigger into active consciousness the memory of meeting a person of that name. Activation is not a binary state, either on or off. More likely any given element rides along a spectrum between latency and the next, witness phase.
Witness Phase: Active elements can then be brought into the witness phase, when the field of attention highlights specific elements. In our example, I might have a sense of something just outside my awareness, a “that reminds me of someone” moment, and bring my attention more deliberately to the name I’ve just read. In doing so, I infuse this element with a more heightened awareness. This heightened awareness feeds into the element’s connections to active and latent elements outside of awareness. The memory residing in active phase feeds on the energy of this attention and becomes further activated. Higher activation attracts the field of attention, so I shine the light on the related imagery of my memory. “Oh yes, I remember her!”
Let us take a small step back to look at the last two of these three phases. There are two layers of activity here, and the distinction between them is important to note. In active-phase consciousness we have an entire colony of sensation, imagery, thought, and feelingmind “ants” wandering to and fro, connecting, triggering, engaging. It is a vast, constant, and ever-shifting network of activity. At its periphery, elements of consciousness cross the boundary in both directions between latent and active phases. But not much about the network itself changes in the active phase. The elements retain their relationships, and while they percolate in and out of active phase, they don’t seem to carry sufficient energy to lay new connections or reshape existing ones. Nevertheless, these active networks influence perception, behavior, thought, and all sorts of things from a place outside of our focused awareness.
Within witness-phase consciousness, our field of attention has limited capacity. Witness consciousness is a very small subset of active consciousness. But it is within witness consciousness that change happens. The field of attention provides an essential catalyst by which connections are broken and cemented, new patterns shaped, and new elements created out of the raw materials of existing elements. Witness consciousness is where our experience of agency lives, and it is essential to our capacity to learn, grow, and evolve throughout our lives.
This freedom to choose where and how to place my field of attention, and thereby what elements to bring fully into witness consciousness, is perhaps the source of all our freedoms. It is by turning my field of attention to the thought and imagery structures which hold my intention to write this book, for example, that I actually take the steps to type these words, one at a time, that will eventually find their way to a screen or page in front of your eyes. Without the power of attention, we can do nothing of meaning or purpose. With it, all of our most treasured human capacities become available to us.
At the same time, often we find that the witness phase of consciousness seems to lose its agent potency. Perhaps we become locked in rote, mindless repetition of habit, following the same traces through our days, carving out a small, unchanging space within which to live out our lives. Or we surrender ourselves to endless manipulation by media, sliding from one stimulus to the next without any exercise of choice to speak of. In this mode, the days go by, nothing changes, and we feel our lives slipping away. What is happening here, and why is the witness phase not seeming to function to its full capacity?
To make sense of this difference we need to look more closely into the structure of attention. As we’ve identified, we have the field of attention, the three-dimensional space which highlights specific elements of consciousness. But in addition to the field itself, we have the position from which we are viewing the field. What is in the field of attention is object, being observed from a position of subject, a point of view looking upon the contents of the field.
This separation between the observer and the observed gives rise to the power of the witness phase. Within this relationship also lies the extent of this power. When the vantage point of the witness falls into and merges with the field of attention, agency is reduced. When the witness position, in contrast, stands apart from the observed, and also possesses an effective map of the territory under examination by the field of attention, agency is enhanced.
This is a complex topic, and by necessity I must gloss over it here. The witness function has to do with the modularity of consciousness as revealed by feelingwork. We will go into much more depth when we have established the foundation for understanding this essential architecture. For now, let me just repeat that the core source of our freedom is the capacity to choose where and how we place the field of attention, in combination with the capacity to choose from where we observe that field. Unfortunately, our society does not yet effectively support people in developing this capacity.
Fortunately, the practice of feelingwork does help us develop this witness agency. Often when we begin feelingwork mapping, we are immersed in strong emotion. We experience ourselves as merged with the emotion, holding its filtered perspective, and are we unable to extricate ourselves. As soon as we begin the mapping process, we are guided in undoing the fusion and locating our witness point of view somewhere outside the feeling state under examination. As we move our field of attention from one related feeling state to the next, mapping each in turn, we develop a map of the whole. We begin to experience ourselves as having the feeling states and the associated perspectives, but being an observer of them, and holding an identity apart from them. As this witness perspective develops, we gain agency and choice in how to respond to the situations enmeshed with the emotions, whether to give more weight to this perception or that one, to hold this belief as true or not, to give into this impulse or choose that action instead. This, in and of itself, even without the transformation of releasing the states and dissolving the inner patterns, creates powerful change. In more advanced feelingwork, we can take this development of the witness capacity much farther.
In summary, we can say that feelingwork is the art of bringing witness consciousness to the rich territory of feelingmind, enabling powerful transformation at a very deep level. Normally we do not develop this capacity, and this creates unfortunate handicaps in all areas of life. As we shall see, the fourth channel of feelingmind is essential to the other three channels, giving them form and substance that they are unable to generate for themselves. Being able to direct the field of attention with deliberate precision into feelingmind represents a new age of possibility for what it means to be human.
Now, let’s get started.
I invite you to become part of a nascent community of people thinking about what this work means and how to apply it, even as they enjoy the benefits of applying it directly in their own lives.
At this early point, “community” means a hub-and-spoke wheel of relationships around me and this website. I will send out occasional newsletters to a small list, and invite you to one-on-one or small-group conversations to share more about the work and invite your input about what you would like to see in the next phase.
Please consider getting involved in this early phase by signing up below for my newsletter. Let me know if there is something more you would like to discuss personally, and I’ll respond to you directly.
Posted: September 7, 2020
© Copyright 2021, Joe Shirley