Mystery and Presence: Feeling that Creates Understanding
I am sitting on my deck, feeling a slight breeze, and watching the play of sunlight and shadow on the trees and flowers that surround the lawn. It is early morning. A statue of a Buddha under a rhododendron bush is just uphill from the deck. Two cats, Milo and Max, sleep near to me. I feel a sense of peace, and privilege, even mystery, that I can be here, that this exists, that these cats want to be with me. Their lying here with such trust is somehow baffling to me, even though they have been with me for years.
The philosopher Jacob Needleman tells a story in his book, The Indestructible Question: Essays on Nature, Spirit and the Human Paradox, about how, when he was young, he met a renowned authority on the traditions and culture of China. The man was regularly consulted by governments, linguists, mapmakers, and even people seeking spiritual advice.
Needleman, at the time, was a delivery boy. He entered the scholar’s office to deliver and collect library books and found it piled high to the ceiling with books, papers, arcane documents, and diagrams. It was like a small library from another time and place. As he stared around the room, he accidently knocked to the floor an old book, which fell open to an illustration of the human body with strange symbols surrounding it. He bent over, somehow drawn to study it. In the midst of speaking a magical Taoist incantation, the scholar noticed where Needleman was staring, and stopped what he was doing.
“Shut that book,” he said by way of a greeting. “Do you know what journalism is?”
“Certainly,” Needleman replied, as he looked up.
“There are three, maybe four books in this whole room that are not journalism,” that do not merely repeat what other people have said or done. “But all the rest, including that one on the floor, are journalism. … I am practically at the end of my life. I know more about Chinese religion than maybe anyone in the world. …Yet, the most important thing I don’t know. Because I have never felt the tradition” or know what it means to practice it.
“I have only begun to recognize this. In order to know what one knows, one must feel.”
We might think that understanding is just about rational thought. But rational thought travels on a road laid out for it by feeling. Daniel Siegel, MD, and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, describes phases in the process of constructing emotion. The first phase is the “initial orienting response.” It is pre-thought and can be relatively unconscious. Our bodies are jolted to pay attention and feeling is born. The second is about appraisal, attuning and connecting, using feeling to label stimuli as good or bad, pleasing or dangerous. Memories are aroused. We construct meaning, thoughts, and want to approach or avoid someone or something. Our experience then differentiates into full emotions like sadness, joy, fear and love….
*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.