Positively Wyrd – 3: The senses taker

Most of the time, we don’t even get a chance to experience the world. Habit – the senses taker – tells us what to expect, so we just switch off, and ignore what our senses tell us. So life slips by, without our even noticing. Oh! Where was I? That’s another day just vanished – where did it go?

It’s the same old street, I see it every day, so why bother looking at it? And I look at the thoughts in my head instead, and they go chasing round, and round, and round… driving me crazy. “Why can’t I sort things out? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with everyone? Why? Why?” We’ve been here before… now even the thoughts are habits! We can try to break individual habits – smoking, for example – but the hardest habit to break is habit itself.

Why is habit so – if you’ll pardon the expression – habit-forming? Because it seems to make life easier, less complicated; and it seems to make life a lot less work. Habits allow us to run on ‘automatic pilot’. But in practice, if we’re not aware of them, they tend to make life a lot less in other ways: a lot less interesting, a lot less fun, a lot less hopeful…

Habit gives us the illusion that things are predictable, that they always repeat the same way. Once they’re predictable, we don’t have to bother about them – they’re always the same, always will be the same. And since we don’t have to bother about them, they slowly cease to exist, as far as our attention’s concerned. The problem is that nothing ever is quite the same; nothing ever quite repeats. And it’s the differences – not the samenesses – which are where the interest lies. Those differences, those often tiny differences, show us where the choices are – the ones we use to move across the threads of wyrd. But first we have to notice them – and for that we have to break the habit of not noticing things. We have to get our senses back from the old senses taker.

Most of our metaphors of perception are visual: “Oh yes, I see that”, “I’ll look into that”, and so on. One way to start breaking the habit of habit is to make more deliberate use of other senses. When sitting on a bus, for example, close your eyes, and listen to the passing streets; try to identify where you are by the sound, the smell, the taste.

If nothing else, it can make a regular journey a lot more interesting!

When I’m stuck in habit, I’m running on automatic, trying to get through each day with as little involvement as I can. Habit isn’t an absence of choice: it’s a choice I use to avoid making a choice. And I then wonder why I don’t seem to have any choices… why everyone out there seems to be ‘doing it to me’…

Choosing not to choose

Habit is a choice that we’ve repeated so often that it’s become automatic. The choice chooses itself: I don’t think about it – I just do it, do what the habit tells me. And if my senses tell me that the circumstances are different, that this choice might not be appropriate – well, it’s easier to ignore the senses, just stick to the rules, ‘the way I know the world works’.

But how do I know the world really does work that way? The short answer is: I don’t. But I believe it does. “That’s what always happens to me – that’s what I always get.” In other words, it happens because I expect it to happen – in many ways force it to happen that way – in order to confirm my expectation, to confirm my belief that the world works that way. Even if I don’t like what’s going on, I’ll still tend, with habit, to repeat the same situation over and over again. It’s only if I look – use my senses – to see what’s actually going on, that I get a chance to break out of the loop.

Part of this is because I want the world to be predictable. It makes it seem certain, makes it seem safe. But it isn’t: it’s never exactly the same. For a start, I’m different: I’ve changed, a little older, with different experiences, perhaps even a different point of view. So why can’t I see this? Why do I keep doing the same old things in what aren’t actually the same old circumstances?

What I’m really doing is avoiding some kind of pain – or rather the expectation of pain. Something I ‘know’ I won’t like. How do I know I won’t like it, though? Back comes the answer: because I didn’t like it before. I remember that I don’t like it. But the memory may be wrong, and the circumstances are different: I’ll never know unless I let go of the memory, and work with what I have here, now.

For many years I’d refuse to eat any kind of white fish: I knew it was revolting, I wouldn’t touch the stuff if I could possibly avoid it. Then one day, at a friend’s house, I found myself eating some kind of fish steak, in a magnificent sauce – absolutely delicious. In my habit of avoiding fish, I’d missed out so often on what could have been a wonderful taste, a wonderful experience.

So where did the habit come from? School meals, of course: in particular, a dish we nicknamed ‘porcupine pie’, a semi-liquid slush of disintegrating potato and some unidentifiable white-fish consisting mostly of needle-sharp bones. Truly revolting… no wonder I felt like saying “Never again!” What I refused to recognise, though, was that the taste of fish depends greatly on how it’s cooked – it depends on the circumstances. I’d fixed a choice of choosing not to accept what my senses tell me: “What’s cooking?” And even when I did have to eat fish, it always tasted revolting – because I expected it to be revolting. In the end, I in effect tricked myself into letting the experience be here, now, at the friend’s house – finally breaking the habit of habit.

What experiences have you had like this? If the habit ended ‘by itself’, how and when did it do so?

In following an old habit, I’m living in the past, elsewhere, elsewhen: whereas what’s actually happening in front of me is herenow – and probably completely different, if only I’d care to notice. I need to re-awaken my senses, to tell me what really is going on.

But part of the problem is that that’s exactly what I don’t want to do. I can still remember exactly what that stuff tasted like: I don’t want to risk tasting that again. So I’d rather shut down my senses, and rely instead on the warning from memory. Avoid all feeling: too much risk. The result is that I shut myself into a narrower and narrower range of experience that I’ll risk allowing myself – an ever smaller and more limited world.

And I then complain about how boring and limited the world seems to be…

Worse still, I shut myself out from other experiences, not because they bring up painful memories, but because I think they might bring up painful comparisons. There are whole sections of the city that I avoid, for example, not because they’re dangerous, or because I don’t like them, but because I used to go there with my now former partner… I’m not avoiding the memories as such – on the contrary, they were good times; it’s more that I don’t want to face the emotions I expect they’ll bring up – the loneliness, the sense of emptiness, of absence. It hurts… I don’t want to face it.

So to avoid the sense of feeling bad, I avoid the place that seems to cause the feeling – or that I think might bring up that feeling. In the process, I give myself a still narrower world in which to operate – about which I also complain. And tend to blame others for it, of course – even though it’s really nothing to do with them. It’s my choice not to go there, after all.

Avoiding emotion

Any kind of emotion is frightening, it seems: good ones as well as bad. There’s a sense of being overwhelmed, that it will never stop, or rather of being dumped in a timeless space where there is only the emotion. Good ones I tend to cling to – this happiness must last forever! – and bad ones, like the all-pervading wave of loneliness, I’m terrified will last forever… They all pass, of course; but it doesn’t feel like that. Not at the time.

For a change, this seems to be more of a problem for men: women are more likely to be aware that emotions come and go in waves, while men have less of an awareness of the flow of time, and thus have more a sense of being ‘dumped in it’ at a random level of intensity. But for all of us, emotions of any flavour give us a sense of being out of control. Some people like that feeling: I don’t. If I think ‘I am’ is the same as the ‘I’ that controls, loss of control means loss of me. ‘I’ might cease to exist. I get frightened; and when I’m afraid, I close up. No emotions, please… More walls…

In any case, whilst we may like the freedom of feeling out of control, the culture we’re in doesn’t like it at all. “Don’t get over-excited, Chris”, says my mother; “Big kids don’t cry”, says a school-teacher; “What the hell d’ya think you’re laughing at?”, snarls a passer-by; “You mustn’t get angry”, says a friend. If I’m emotional, I remind other people of their walls; they get frightened too, and take it out on me, as the supposed cause of their fear. Walls within walls within walls: a culture of walls. No emotion allowed: it’s not considered decent.

If you’re on your own and lonely, how do you react to seeing a couple holding hands and kissing in the street? Would you rather they stopped? Or at least went elsewhere?

How do you react to other people being angry? Or upset? What feelings does it bring up in you to see them? Does it bring up any kind of fears, or memories – especially ones you’d prefer to forget?

There’s a catch: all our emotions come from the same place – from the heart, we might say. We can’t just shut out loneliness, or sadness: we either accept all our emotions, or we have none. The laughter cannot be truly there without the tears; or the joy without the awareness of loneliness. ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ is rather one-sided: happiness is transitory, like any other emotion, and only exists side-by-side with sorrow. If I hide from one emotion, I hide from them all: if I won’t face loneliness, I actually prevent myself from ever being truly happy.

We’re encouraged to be emotionless; we encourage each other to be emotionless. So being emotionless becomes a habit: but if we let the senses-taker of habit take away our feelings as well as our senses, what have we left? Not much, is the answer…

Without emotions, I all but cease to be human. I become a hollow shell – as if without a heart, a soul. And I can feel that emptiness – and I don’t know what to do. So I find myself desperately running around, doing one thing after another to protect myself from any potential emotion in case it might be painful. The result, as one writer put it, is that I become a ‘human do-ing’ rather than a human being… Hence the sense of powerlessness, of being walled out from the world. But the walls are of my own making: that’s what’s hard to recognise, that’s what’s hard to accept.

The way out is to recognise that I’m afraid of those emotions – and do it anyway. Avoiding all pain means that I have no choice about how to handle it when it does come my way; choosing to face the pain, to understand more about myself, means that I’ve also reclaimed more of my sense of choice. Gently, though… gently. I take the risk: I go to one of those places we used to go to together. And yes, it does hurt. But it’s not overwhelming: it does pass. Then it’s gone: and I can find that I do enjoy being there. Even – perhaps especially – because I’m on my own: a very different feeling, which I know I’d never have experienced if my partner had been here with me. And because I know it’s different, I get to know how I feel now, what my senses tell me now: and I’m no longer trapped in a memory of the past. The wall has gone…

The text that’s in these boxes is about putting these ideas into practice. One of the most common habits is to avoid feeling by ‘staying in my head’: I avoid dealing with the world ‘out there’, it’s too much like hard work, it might be painful, it brings up memories that I don’t want to face… any excuse will do! So I’ll say “I know that”, yet all too often what I mean is “I have that information” rather than “I have that experience” – which is not the same thing at all. So take the risk: don’t just read it, do it! Build a new habit of doing it, being it. And notice the difference in experience; notice the difference in aliveness…

It does take real courage to break habits, to break down the walls – especially if there’s emotional pain attached to them. It’s important to acknowledge ourselves for that.

Despite the usual all-or-nothing feeling, it’s important not to try to drop every habit all at once: we won’t be able to do it, and it’s not a good idea in any case. It’s always useful to keep some habits going: they help to give us some kind of focus! But once we become more aware of the choices and non-choices we make, we can at last begin to decide which habits we want, and which ones we don’t. In doing so, we reclaim our power of choice – and realise that we do have a choice.

Beliefs, feelings, senses

One of the ways we learn to avoid emotion is to blur the distinctions between beliefs, feelings and sensations: and a key part of reclaiming choice is to reclaim our awareness of the difference! We won’t get far in understanding ourselves and our choices unless we do… But blurring the boundaries between them has, for most of us, become a habit – another habit that’s surprisingly hard to break.

“I know that”, I’d say: but I don’t – I only believe that I know it. “I feel cold”, I’d say – when more accurately I sense that it’s cold. “I think I’m angry” – but how do I know? “I’m happy!” – but where do we sense this to know it? “I feel confused”, you might reply, trying to make sense of all this – but where do you feel the confusion? What does confusion feel like? What and where is ‘confusion’?

Part of the confusion comes from a blurring of past, present and future. Within our experience – as children of the Sisters of Time, we might say – these aspects of time may seem to coincide: but sensations and feelings only exist in the present. We don’t have any choice about them – they simply are. A memory, however, brings back into the present a feeling – or often an edited version of one – from the past; a belief may manufacture something that seems like a feeling, even though there’s nothing tangible behind it; and the future never exists at all, other than as a belief or a ‘future-memory’, an imagined version of some sensation or feeling that we’d expect to experience when we get there.

The link between them all is an analogy – a common thread of connection. But it’s not a literal one: a belief about a feeling – or about what that feeling means – is not the same thing as the feeling itself. The only feelings we know are our own. For example, if I say to someone “I feel you’re being foolish”, it’s more than likely that I’m actually saying something about myself: “I think you’re being foolish, because I feel uncomfortable, and I want to blame you for it rather than accept it as my own” – which is not the same thing at all! This ‘projecting’ of our own feelings onto others is a habit we all learn very early on: and until can we see how and when we do it, and can re-‘own’ our own feelings rather than lose them to the senses-taker, we’ll find it hard to move on. But to do this sometimes asks us to look at things from a rather weird point of view…

One tool that can help break this habit of ‘projection’ is to watch our choice of language. For instance, when talking with or about other people, make a point of using ‘I-statements’ rather than ‘you-statements’ – say what you feel rather than what you think the other person feels. What difference does this make to your understanding of the conversation? …of the other person? …of yourself?

Watch, too, for the blurring of time in the way you speak: “I’d feel happy about that” is a belief, an ‘imagining’, not a feeling – it’s an expectation of future experience, but feelings themselves exist only in the present. This kind of precision is a bit strange at first, but it brings a lot more clarity to our understanding of ‘now’…

And another trick, as a friend showed me the other day, is that if we can replace the word ‘feel’ with ‘believe’, it’s not a ‘feeling-statement’ – especially when it’s said about someone else. “I feel happy” doesn’t make sense as ‘I believe happy” – so it’s likely to be a real feeling. But “I feel you’re being foolish” could just as easily be “I believe you’re being foolish” – so it’s probably only a belief. You might be able to describe your own feelings that go with that belief: but the meaning often changes if we shift the focus from ‘you’ – someone else – to ‘I’. What happens? Changing your mode of language in this way, what do you learn about yourself?

Ending the confusion takes practice – a deliberate choice to re-create our awareness of ourselves. But it brings with it a new kind of clarity: a new sense of certainty in the midst of all the weird uncertainties of Reality Department.

And it brings something else that we’ll only begin to recognise over time: a strange sharing of feelings that’s commonly called ‘compassion’ – linking us with others on shared threads of the wyrd. A different kind of knowing… Weird… And that, once we find it, is a habit that is worth developing!

A habit of choice

In breaking the habit of habit, we reclaim our power of choice. What hurts most for me at this point, perhaps, is that I get to recognise that I always have had a choice: but I’ve usually given it away. I’ve chosen not to choose: so the choice has happened for me. I’ve followed the loop of wyrd that I’m on – round and round and round. So that perception of powerlessness, about which I’ve complained so much, has in effect been my own choice – or rather my own non-choice, the result of my evasion of choice. In that sense, I have actually chosen to be in this mess that I’m in. It’s not a comfortable feeling…

All right, so it’s my choice that I’m in chaos: so now what do I do? I start to make new choices about choices; building new habits that, for a change, actually are useful to me – that’s what I do. But before I do that, it’s useful to look at how we come to make the choices that have brought us each to where we are now – and in particular how other people, and their ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, have helped to bring it about for us.

Related pages