Emotions Crack Us Open | by Catherine Shainberg, Ph.D. | March 2024

There’s a lot of confusion in general about emotions and feelings.  In our societies today we use the word emotion to cover both emotions and feelings. Are they the same? Different? Distinguishing between them may make a world of difference.

How do they feel in your body? Emotions (anger, fear, etc) are reactive. They arise out of our awareness of a disturbance or disruption, and cause distinctly unpleasant sensations of constriction, tension, and stress in the body.  Feelings (love, courage, compassion, etc…) are responsive, expansive, producing pleasant sensations of relaxation and ease, relieving the bodily sensations of constriction, tension, and stress.  So, the short answer is: yes, they are quite different.

Why is that important?

It’s a big deal whether we are caught in the grips of reactive emotions or are energized by responsive feelings.  It will affect every level of life and relationships and touch us as individuals, as peoples, nations, and a world community – even if it is “just me” in a reactive emotional state or a responsive feeling state.  Either way, each of us is the pebble in the pond sending out ripples that spread outward, creating havoc or harmony.

I remember a pivotal moment in my childhood where I first intuited this.  My family was staying in the south of France in an ancient mediaeval village perched on a hilltop. My mother liked the place so much that, with us in tow, she went to see a piece of land that was for sale on a hill opposite the village. The farmer who owned that land was old, wrinkled and frail, and spoke slowly, leaning on his rake. Where did we come from? he asked. “From the village,” my mother replied.  “A big town full of bustle!” was his view of our small French village.   He’d only gone there twice in his life, he told us. I remember my shock at how small his world was! But instead, my body expanded to embrace the whole world. How could he not want to experience more than his farm?

This event marked me. At the time I was too young to ponder the beauty of a small life; only later would I ask myself if he was wise “to cultivate his garden” as Voltaire suggested.  Like Voltaire, I could ask that question with true wonder and appreciation having lived a well-travelled and eventful life.  But as a 10-year-old, I was full of confused emotions and yearning. For what? I didn’t know except that I burned for a bigger life than what I thought was the constricted life of this old farmer.

Later I came to understand that living like the old man – or like Adam in the Garden of Eden  – in a state of containment, we are a perfect rhythmic being in open dialogue with the rest of the harmonic world we live in. Our heart pumps, our breathing moves smoothly in and out, we exercise and relax, we sleep and wake, we eat and digest. All is pleasantness in the Garden of Eden. But nothing changes, that is until Eve and the fruit ignite Desire. It challenges us: Don’t you want to eat? Try it! Fear at what could happen constricts us (If you eat of the fruit, you shall surely die! we are told in Genesis). Colors dim, the world turns grey. Emotion has taken hold of us, reactive, constrictive, small.  Our reactions then justify our actions – we see the consequences all around us in the violence, the wars, the isolation, the illness, the despair. Emotions disrupt our rhythmic pleasantness.

Why would we go to there? But if we don’t,  what do we lose?

The ancient sages tell us that through her disobedience Eve ignited the movement that is Life. She is the mother of creation, they say. Her explosive emotion of greed set the world in motion. Are the sages implying that reactive emotions are good? Then why are they so painful and confusing? Can they ever serve a purpose?

Darwin says that emotions are reactions to an outside danger and help in the evolutionary fight for survival, that “fight or flight” saves us. But what if we get stuck in reaction, in an emotional reflex that mires us in a “fight or flight” posture?

Witness the state of our world today. Two major wars that could escalate beyond control, the health of our planet in peril, world leaders evading or abusing their sworn responsibilities, justifying reactive and destructive actions for power and money, ideology and theocracy.   We can see similar struggles in our communities and in our homes.  Emotional reactivity keeps us stuck in a hell of our own making, outside the Garden of Eden and outside the possibility of returning to the Garden, with its expanded consciousness of peace and order.

Is there a way out?  Yes! It starts with each of us finding our feelings and responding to life’s circumstances from expansiveness.  Sounds easy?  Like all important change, it starts with a first opening, a way to leave  constriction, the reactive state of emotions.

What if emotions exist to crack us open?

They certainly have a turbo-charged capacity to open the floodgates so more life force can enter into our systems.  True, we can drown in our emotions but we can also use that sudden explosion of life force to propel us into expansion. Will we succumb to floundering and reactivity or channel our life force toward creativity and goodness? Instead of burning the house down, can we illuminate the city?

Emotions are the portal to a life of response. Transforming them is our greatest life choice and the entryway to becoming a responsible human. From reaction to response is as simple as a switch of the eyes. “In anger remember love” takes but a moment. What is the image of love you hold in your heart? Go to it. From emotion to feeling takes a split second. Our readiness to check our reactions “at the door” and cross over to response is what will save us and our world, propelling us into an era of abundance and peace.

The more you practice this switch the more you build within you this place of readiness to respond. We call this work the Life Plan. Emotions, channeled, will propel us up the ladder to creative living in any arena we choose and to co-creation with the divine. It is our choice.

Or more exactly, it is our response and responsibility.