How would you feel if someone told you that you had no feelings?  Hurt?  Angry?  Then you do have feelings. 
When we talk about feelings we often intend only the positive and beautiful: love, joy, courage, hope….  But surely the others are just as real: hatred, aversion, sadness, despair, anger, fear. 

Properly speaking, of course, feelings are not things we ‘have’ or get rid of; they are just ourselves.  Therefore to pick and choose our feelings is to be only part of what we are.  I don't mean that we should give vent to every feeling, but we do have to acknowledge their existence: it is part of acknowledging our reality.  Only the truth can set us free.

To begin, would it help if we regarded feelings as a kind of weather: sometimes pleasant, sometimes not? Feelings are a kind of inner weather, with all its variations and surprises...and extremes.  We already use a few of the same words to describe feelings and weather: depression, storms, warm and cool, hot and cold, and perhaps sunny intervals…. The useful points of this metaphor are that weather is always passing; and while we sometimes deplore it we don’t make moral judgments about it.  We could live more peacefully with our feelings if we saw them as inner weather.  

When we were children we lived everything fully and directly.  Then as adults we look back, seeming to remember intense feelings when the world was under a magic spell.   But did we really feel all that, as we seem to remember now with nostalgia?  Could it be distance that gives it much of that glow it has in our eyes?  Distance and alienation.  When we are totally given to something that we are doing we don't feel much at that moment.  It is later on that we say we had a wonderful time.  A child is absorbed for hours in “play” (a description that children learn from adults), the mother asks “what were you doing?” and the child replies, “nothing.”  We don't know till later how happy we were; when we are happy we are not conscious of it, except perhaps in split seconds when we withdraw before plunging once more into absorption. Negative feelings are much easier to remember; but in childhood these passed away as quickly as the others. 

If there is any truth in this, then our search for intense feelings, for ‘experiences’, suggests some alienation from our own present reality. 

Meditation is where we face our own reality, our ‘weather’, just as it happens to be; or rather, not face it but be it and accept it, just as it is. 

Sometimes there will be no feelings at all, and this can be for opposite reasons: we may have developed a habit of blunting our sensibility by avoiding everything painful; or, like the child, we may be fully immersed in the present.  In both cases it would be a mistake to try to stir up some feelings, though innumerable pious books have told us to do just that.  What matters is not feeling, but whether we are fully present and aware, or only dreaming. 

At other times, in meditation, there will indeed be feelings, and they will clamour for attention, perhaps especially now that we are not otherwise engaged.  If we are angry, for example, or disappointed about something, these feelings seem to rise up before us like solid objects.  That is when the work begins.

We are ‘upset’, the pieces of our universal plan are sliding away from one another, the centre is not holding.  It is the ego that feels this danger, its own house being no centre of being but only a fragile construction.  How is the real centre to hold?  By seeing and understanding what is happening.  That means: by not judging, rejecting, disqualifying that feeling that is now uppermost; but by seeing it clearly.  The feeling is real enough, but the ego cannot just look: it rushes in to judge, to assert and deny, to excuse and blame, to explain everything in its own favour, to fill the mind with bustle and fuss.  We have to try to see not only the original feeling but all this activity of the ego too, and we try to see it without judgement or condemnation; instead with gentleness and compassion.

We saw the ego in flight, and perhaps now we understand it a little better.  We saw our own fear, we saw ourselves when we were taken and swept and all but lost.  But through the trees, beyond the storm, we glimpse something that can never be swept away and never lost.... It is the ultimate background, the place of meeting with a Compassion that infinitely exceeds our own. 

Seen against that mystery, our feelings don't need to be cultivated or repressed or interfered with in any way; they are just there, in the light of the eye of God's mercy.  They are the texture of our life, its ‘thisness’, like the freckles on a child’s face. 

Donagh O'Shea


These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.