Letter 47: The importance of paying attention to sensations and feelings

Science has made us aware that we are a beautifully integrated and interconnected energetic system that is integrally linked into the wider cosmic whole. Yet we still live as if we end at our skin boundary, independent and separate from others and from the environment. Even within this outer membrane we see ourselves as made up out of separate parts: body, mind and…. spirit - sometimes totally ignored. Not only that, but we also have a strong tendency to put value on only one part and deny another one any importance at all. The result is fragmentation and lack of balance. We need to become aware of what we are doing, start accepting that all our aspects are of equal value and form an unbroken whole. We do know at some level that body, mind and spirit are different aspects of our total being and are therefore closely connected and affect one another - our body reflects the state of our mind and our connectedness with our spirit and vice versa.

We have been given a physical body that allows us to operate in this material plane. But we forget that our sensations, our feelings, our emotions are also part of this. Our culture still lays a very strong emphasis on the mind, our mental processes only, and we have been told to ignore sensations and feelings that lead to emotions. All those were considered ‘irrational’ and therefore not worthy of our attention. This is where ‘mindfulness’, which has been re-discovered in our time - although it is an ancient disciple in many cultures, including the Christian one - is making such a useful contribution to our lives.

Our senses should not be suppressed, as they are the first interaction we have with the environment, in which we find ourselves. On a physical level: how often do we pay attention to the wind in our hair, the sun on our face, the way the light enters a room or plays on the leaves of the tree near our window and the sound of the wind and the rain in the trees? How often do we ignore the beauty that is to be found around us not only in the countryside but also even in a busy city? How often do we ignore the first sensations of something not being quite right?

But these sensations do not only invoke a physical reaction, possibly spiritual reaction of gratitude and wonder, but also an emotional one. That is the aspect Evagrius was most interested in. In Praktikos we hear him say: “The ascetic life [a life based around the practice of silent, deep prayer] is the spiritual method for cleansing the affective [emotional] part of the soul.” The first step on the spiritual path is to become aware of our sensations and acknowledge the feelings accompanying them, rather than ignore them. As soon as we become conscious of a sensation, closely followed by a feeling we should ask ourselves, where is this coming from, what conditioned memories are being tapped into? In that way we have the opportunity to ‘purify our emotions’, free them from conditioning based on previous experiences and perceived ‘unmet needs’. Feelings are thoughts in our body before we give verbal shape to them and their meaning. When we ignore our sensations, our feelings and our emotions, when we do not reflect on them, we are only half alive. When these emotions remain unexamined, they gain in strength and become desires and thoughts. They will lead us unconsciously to unstoppable action, possibly positive but often negative.

Emotions are essential in deepening our experiences in life, but we need to be on the alert what their source is. This awareness – with spiritual intuitive support - will help us to understand them before they have taken definite form into specific desires and thoughts and their consequent actions. Our desires and thoughts constitute one aspect of our created being, our ‘ego’, which is impermanent and subject to constant change and without ‘mindfulness’ and clear awareness the ego can block access to the spiritual part of our being and make us rush into automatic reactions.

This then is the inevitable chain of events as proposed by Evagrius: sense impressions invoke feelings, conditioned or free; these feelings lead in turn to strong emotions and desires both positive and negative, verbalized in thought. Once we have reached this stage we translate these thoughts into actions. Evagrius called these strong desires/thoughts, if negative and unexamined, ‘demons’, since they can have a ‘demonic’ power over our perceptions and actions in life, if we are not aware of their origin in our conditioning and woundedness.

“If there is any monk [meditator] who wishes to take the measure of some of the more fierce demons [thoughts] …… then let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. Let him observe their intensity……and follow them as they rise and fall. Let him note well the complexity of his thoughts ….the demons [desires] which cause them, with the order of their succession and the nature of their associations. Then let him ask from Christ the explanation of the data he has observed.”

Kim Nataraja