Permission To Trust Your Feelings

My friend @HanjoYoutaku has many gifts, but one of them is giving people permission to be spiritual. He doesn’t necessarily set out to do that, it’s a product of his vibe, one he has built for himself under intense spiritual circumstances. He is extremely affirming of people’s spiritual paths, particularly the ones that they are already on, that the practitioner themselves would not even imagine was spiritual at all.

He is also very affirming of the person. I was speaking with another friend recently about their idea of trust. Their view was that it’s important to find a teacher you trust so as to be able to run headlong into a technique or experience to deepen your practice. I reflected back to them that Hanjo simply ran headlong into things with courage, despite uncertainties.

His response to hearing about this conversation was: “trust, bravery, faith – they are all the same thing. But… don’t put trust into teachers, or the process, or the future. Trust yourself!”

“Don’t put trust into teachers, or the process or the future. Trust yourself!”

For me, this faith in one’s own curiosity and courage has been deeply moving. Many questions and confusion fade away when I remember to re-orient towards my motivations, my interests, my fears/excitements (and let go of worries over “right” and “wrong” things to do). Our culture gives very little room for the spiritual or the sacred, to the point of pathologising relatively common spiritual experiences and legislating against substances that will place these experiences onto you. Our culture has very little to say about spiritual practice, which means we are on our own.

This reminds me strongly of a similar experience I had with periods (yes, the monthly menstrual cycle in women). In my 20s I discovered the feminist ideas around women’s bodies and the medical world. I also read Focault’s ideas around institutions and power. The feminist insight was that women’s physiology, pain and unique problems are neglected in the male-dominated medical world. This claim comes from the 70s and is a little dated now, but not so much as you would hope 50 years later.

Some feminists made a book called “Our Bodies, Our Selves”: a manual of ordinary women’s personal experiences of the female healthy or unhealthy body. This book remains relevant, as truths contained therein are still not at all commonplace in healthcare settings.

In some ways this is completely ok. Women should be sharing knowledge of themselves with other women outside of medicalised healthcare, why not? Well, our culture absolutely insists that actually, all medical knowledge is reified, codified and extensive. One must be of a priest class to access this knowledge. Personal knowledge is lesser and in fact, very dangerous. We are all too stupid to look after our own health and own bodies.

Who has not been chastised for attempting to use “Dr Google” by their doctor? And who has not internalised that fact, and meekly agreed to the supremacy of that knowledge? I certainly have.

In the context of my feminist learnings though, I began to pay personal attention to my periods. To the feelings of cramps, to the feelings of arousal, to the exact nature of my premenstrual anger, to the precise timing of my desires and so on. Essentially it was mindfulness, applied to my hormonal cycle.

I learned so much about myself. I discovered the cause of premenstrual irritability (annoying people!) and to what is also there when annoying people are dispensed with (creativity!) Somewhat to my chagrin I found value in strange “hippie” archetypes such as cycles of the moon, seasons and archetypes of women (maiden-mother-crone). I could also now literally feel the movements of my womb, the pulling, the squeezing, the opening, the softening.

I began to speak to other women about their experiences and noticed the same thing as what happens with Hanjo – that people suddenly feel empowered to think about and prioritise their personal experiences, merely because of my interest. I also read widely the written works of other menstruators, which helped to deepen my sense of my similarity to them, and my differences.

In short, all of this led to a profound and quiet confidence in my own experiences and knowledge about this topic, and to my own sense of certainty that our culture is most definitely less knowledgeable than any ordinary person’s mindful inquiry into the matter. That’s not to say that we should ignore the things that scientific discovery does have to say. Interesting findings, when they do exist, can be integrated into what we already know to refine and deepen our felt-senses. I’m simply saying that we can trust ourselves, even when our culture screams not to.

Another example of the skewed way our culture derides felt senses came up for me in a book club.

The book was talking about the “feeling of understanding”. The book has a section describing oft-quoted psychological studies about the feeling of understanding.

The studies ask people to rate how much they “understand” a can opener. The participants rate themselves highly on understanding a can opener. Then the researchers ask the participants to draw a can opener and label its parts, followed by another self-rating. The participants struggle with the drawing task, often failing to label parts or draw the parts connecting in the right way. So, the participants self-rate rate their understanding of can openers lower than they did originally.

The researchers conclude that the person’s “feeling” of understanding was false, or overly inflated, compared to “reality”, because when given a task that foregrounds the nitty-gritty “reality” of a can opener they realise how wrong they were. They realise that “feeling” that you understand something is an illusion. This story is really believable and I totally bought into the idea of biases and others like this for a long time.

However, this task of drawing a can opener and labelling its parts is a sneaky sleight of hand. The participants clearly felt they have good “understanding” of a can opener because they use them successfully every day, the can successfully identify it in the drawer, and even if they see one that looks unusual because it is of a different design, they can still identify it from its parts. In my opinion their confidence in their feeling of understanding that object in the real world is entirely justified.

Understanding an object such that one can make a properly-labelled diagram of said object is actually requiring something else, because it is slipping into a privileged concept-realm that almost nobody needs or uses. Ordinary people don’t use it for can openers, and in all likelihood, the inventor of the can opener also never drew a diagram and labelled its parts either! He or she merely grabbed two cogs, a blade and a safety guard to invent it, then iterated through some more cogs and handles to get to the final tool. The concept-realm is here conflated with reality, which it most certainly is not.

If some research participants are asked to self-rate their understanding of an object in this rarefied-concept-realm, it’s not surprising they rated themselves lower than at first. This does not show their feeling of understanding was false, it actually shows their ability to reimagine what the researchers really meant by the word “understanding”. But studies like these are routinely used to deride people’s real, accurate and useful feelings about themselves.

Coming back to spirituality, I just re-read ‘A Path With Heart’ by Jack Kornfield where I found the “trust yourself” sentiment in a lovely chapter about how to deal with confusion over which teachings to follow. In that chapter Jack quotes the Buddha, who exhorted his followers to “be your own lamp”. It’s likely this is where Hanjo found or confirmed his sense of trusting oneself spiritually. I’m so grateful to have come across this, and to become suspicious of the true relevance of the rationalist-materialist concept-realm culture that we live in.

When it comes to spirituality, we should mostly ignore it, and get back in touch with our “feelings”.

February 2021 Vipassana retreat

Meditation: if we notice over and over and over and over that something is not self, something is suffering, something is transient, we just one day wake up having made the flip that that is actually the case?

Mindful sitting then walking, noting: eventually my attention knows it can do this on its own, begins to have more thoughts because there is plenty of room to have thoughts, because it’s always been able to do all these things at once. In order to stay focussed on the body I change my walking, so that new sensations come in, which are interesting for the attention to observe. Walking strangely is like giving a gift to the attention which being told to be fairly narrow and steady.

Insight?? This ability of the awareness / attention to be broad and to handle things is what enables enough space for thinking mind / thoughts, (which are goddam useful, love you thoughts!)

Contemplation Field Notes

Sometimes, I’m imagining. Sometimes, I’m remembering.

Sometimes, I’m looking. Sometimes, I’m listening.

Sometimes, I’m experiencing physical sensations.

Sometimes, I’m aware of “lost time”, as if I have just resumed consciousness. I have no memory of the intervening time. 

Sometimes, I’m talking to myself. Sometimes, my flesh hurts.

Sometimes, my organs gurgle. Sometimes, I’m surprised.

Sometimes, I’m aware of my breathing.

Are all of these my awareness travelling around? I am always breathing, whether aware or not. Am I always doing all the others? Doesn’t seem like it.

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