A common misunderstanding of our human experience is that it is things 'out there' that cause feelings 'in here' *points at heart*. How many times have you said “you make me feel….”? For example, if someone shouts at you, it’s really easy to believe that your feelings of anxiety or anger are caused by this person. Yet that’s simply not true. In the words of Hamlet, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In other words, it is only your negative thoughts about shouting that cause the negative feelings inside of you.
I know what you’re thinking. “Of course if someone shouts at me I’ll be angry/anxious.” But I’m here to protest that statement, in part. You have been conditioned, through culture, societal norms, family systems, etc. to believe that shouting at someone is a negative act. Therefore, your thoughts reflect this. Given that thoughts are the birthplace of feelings (i.e. there can be no feeling without thought), it stands to reason that if your thoughts towards something are negatively bias, you will feel negative. (Oh and therein lies another layer of complexity – it is only a thought that negative feelings are indeed negative, and therefore feel as such - confused yet?).
Let’s look at another example. This is not designed to be contentious in any way, it’s just a good example to demonstrate the point. If a soldier takes a gun to the head of someone he understands to be the enemy and shoots them, he is considered a hero. Why? Because generally, people’s thoughts are conditioned to believe that killing enemies is a courageous act. Now, say the same soldier takes a gun to their partner’s head and shoots them in cold blood. They are seen as a murderer. And yet at base level the act is exactly the same – one human being, killing another. The only difference is that we are conditioned to believe that cold blooded murder is bad and killing enemies is good. Our thoughts reflect this, and thus our feelings reflect the same.
I know where your head’s at right now. “This is rubbish, of course murder is bad.” I’m certainly not disagreeing. But take away the emotion for a moment, if you can. The act is physically identical – one human killing another. It is only when we apply a belief system to each act (a belief system simply being a collection of thoughts that support one another) that one becomes an act of heroism, and the other, murder. Sit with this for a few minutes.
Culture is just one thing that plays a huge part in influencing our thoughts about life, and subsequently our feelings. Culture defines what is good and bad. In the above example, this can be useful. It is good to define murder. But in other ways, these thoughts systems, generated by culture, can be entirely regressive.
Take human equality. Currently in Australia there is a huge debate about legalising same-sex marriage. The exact same principals apply. Take away the emotion (thought) and the act of same-sex marriage is entirely neutral. It is simply one human, seeking to make a declaration of love and unity for another human they love. It is widely accepted for heterosexual couples. It is only when a belief system (thought) kicks in that this act becomes polarised. It is only the thoughts in the minds of those opposing that create the argument, nothing 'out there'. To layer this further, it is likely that these people have belief systems around something bad happening if marriage equality is allowed, which of course is just a thought. Yet, it explains the negative feelings they are experiencing and why they are so against what in reality (or at least reality for those with an opposite view) has no effect on them whatsoever.
Where am I going with this? I’m not entirely sure! And I fear I may have confused more than clarified. I guess I’m just pointing to what I think is clear when understood – that nothing in what we perceive as our external reality is responsible for creating a feeling inside us - we do that all by ourselves, with our thoughts about that perceived reality. Sometimes those thoughts are really useful in guiding us to a more peaceful and morally sound experience (murder is bad, marmite is vile(!), etc.). But sometimes, thoughts and belief systems aren’t useful (being angry about same-sex marriage, etc).
I’m not saying you can change your thoughts overnight and feel differently (although it's a debate I'm having with clients). Some thoughts 'stick' a little more than others. But I am suggesting that given a heightened level of self-awareness, you can become the calm observer of this incredible process that unfolds each time we feel positively or negatively about a situation. In my experience, when I can become the observer of my experience, and not be at the centre of it, something good happens to my mental health – I feel calmer, lighter and more in control.
As ever, you thoughts are welcome.