Feeling, sensitivity and consciousness
ROSALIND PEARMAIN, Ph.D., has been integrating the fields of psychology, psychotherapy and spirituality, through both practical and philosophical approaches, for over 40 years. Here she explores the way a spiritual practice opens up levels of feeling and sensitivity as we expand into deeper and deeper levels of consciousness, and how our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies are integrated through the heart.
The great divide between scientific and mystical views of reality lands on the question of our subjective awareness. Measures can be made of physiological and behavioural effects of meditation practices, but it is much harder to demonstrate objectively the transformative experiences that a seeker may undergo in a disciplined practice over years.
Ultimately it comes down to how someone feels. This domain of feeling is so extraordinary and intricate in our subjectivity, and yet it has often been quite disregarded as the source of our capacity to orientate and connect with our environment. The word “feeling” is ambiguous in the English language. It includes both emotions and the more diffuse area of perception. In its medieval origins it meant the physical sensation of touch through experience or perception. Touch remains the most helpful way of capturing the lived experience of feeling as we encounter daily life. The domain of feeling is continuously flowing through a shifting synthesis of qualities and textures as an overall array of diffuse meaning coloring and sculpting our responses and moods.
Music is a primordial expression of such feeling. Within our current dominant scientific discourse, the fact that such a feeling array is informing us of much more than our physical and mental state is not yet articulated. Yet from the perspective of perennial philosophies, within the experience of feeling are all the domains of our subtle fields of consciousness.
Touch as a Core Sense
According to the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, we have twelve senses in our makeup. The sense of touch is core. Through touch we are woken up to the world, and through the radiation of touch information throughout our system we are enlivened. We are reminded of our primordial separateness and our wish to connect through touch. Steiner said that without touch we would never become conscious of the Divine. When we touch something we are both so close and so far from it.
Sensitivity is our radar system. In the confusion of different information pathways in which we are ceaselessly immersed, sensitivity is our capacity to fine tune, to touch as it were, significant elements from the whole. So sensitivity is expressed in our fields of perception, and our capacity to notice – and further to notice what we notice. This perceptual capacity continues to develop throughout life. Specialists in any field become hyper-conscious of such elements as electric fields, or the way that patients’ skin color denotes subtle changes in health, or the way that plants signal malaise, or if notes played are off key.
The distinction to be made between scientific and metaphysical approaches to knowledge has been in the discernment of information. Spiritual traditions have confronted this issue by evolving specific protocols of practice, of directing attention, of cultivating a stringent observer and witness, and of purifying the filters of attachment and desires and egotism that cloud the lens of perception. Within Vedic philosophy, the higher realms of human consciousness involve a shift from thinking consciousness to a more direct feeling consciousness.
In the Heartfulness tradition of meditative practices, all the teachers have proposed that the realm of the divine is known through feeling, and this feeling connects the divine Reality with the whole field of humanity. It is an unimaginable realm. We can only conceive it as a kind of enormous filigree network of intensity which is absolutely soft and fine. It is at the most subtle level of our existence. One clear sign of a spiritually evolved person, a truly human person, is one who is consistently alert and sensitive to situations and others. So from this point of view, the journey of spiritual evolution is one of increasingly refining our tools of perception, our capacity to feel the faintest trace of something, and to glimpse its meaning directly.
In the Heartfulness tradition of meditative practices,
all the teachers have proposed that
the realm of the divine is known through feeling,
and this feeling connects the divine Reality
with the whole field of humanity.
It is an unimaginable realm.
We can only conceive it as a kind of
enormous filigree network
of intensity which is absolutely soft and fine.
Mind as Embodied Cognition
In Eastern philosophies, “mind” is not seen as identical with “intellect” in the way that we may view it in the West. In fact, it is more equivalent to the entire field of sensibility in which we are immersed. Within this model, and especially in the Yogic and Sufi traditions, the heart is understood to be the base of mind. In a sense, it is the primary port of call for our sense of being and aliveness. It is equivalent to the entire nervous system within us. The heart is the field for the mind. The heart is the place of sensitivity to all the feedback from the entire array of sensory input: the whole bodily landscape.
As the meeting place of all the subtle fields of sentience within us, the heart has the capacity to integrate awareness into a core understanding. Within spiritual evolution, the task is to refine knowing – to rely on feeling more than thinking, because it is less constrained by concept. The mystic’s quest to know the Divine cannot be based on an intellectual process. As Jung said, “We do not do well to look at the sky with the intellect. It is neither adequate for the knowledge of the psyche.”
The Feeling of What Happens
Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist whose research and thinking has challenged the separation of mind and feeling. He offers a model of consciousness and a sense of self which is rooted in a more global conception of bodily and affective experiencing. In his work, The Feeling of What Happens, he proposes that thought and consciousness in fact derive from feeling: apart from specific emotions, we can be aware of a continuous flow of background feeling within our consciousness. Damasio suggests that background feeling is the way that the brain minds the body. Through the different systems involving the endocrine system, the internal milieu, the visceral, vestibular and muscoskeletal systems, our sense of self in relation to experience continuously re-orientates and adapts. Background feeling is the way that current information is mapped through our sensory and nervous systems.
From these observations, he suggests that there are two kinds of consciousness – one would be core, and the other elaborated or autobiographical. These also correspond with two senses of self. A core sense of self is ceaselessly created with every moment of experiencing. Damasio suggests that two parallel mappings of body states are going on. So as I sit here at my computer, my brain is mapping the physical location of my body, the activity in my fingers, the words I am thinking about and typing through the keyboard, and all the related events and surroundings in which all of this happens. However, at the same time, there is a more subtle presenced feeling going on to accompany all of this; it is not just fingers typing and a body sitting here, it is a sense of visceral closeness and intimacy, a kind of touch to all of this, which I feel as my self.
As the meeting place of
all the subtle fields
of sentience within us,
the heart has the capacity
to integrate awareness
into a core understanding.
This results from the secondary mapping process, how this background sense is subtly modified by each new moment experienced as a bodily felt sensing. It is this to which we can often have direct access during meditation or reverie. It is a direct cognition and would include a mental flow of images which are continuously unfolding and are not limited to visual representations. Images involve a synthesis of sensory modalities, sensory and affective elements.
Damasio proposes that consciousness originates when this kind of wordless knowledge, representing what is perceived, is experienced also as creating a change within the organism. Such perception arises from the additional sensory motor and affective responses. Wordless knowledge arises in its simplest form at a mental level as a “feeling of knowing.” Therefore, the original basis of consciousness is the feeling of what happens when any form of perceiving is going on. It is this particular accompanying feeling that gives rise to us claiming the experience as belonging to us personally as a sense of self.
Our culture is visually dominated. It attributes objectivity to what can be seen rather than what can be felt. Damasio wonders whether in less complex societies, human beings were naturally more aware of these inner processes of self than we are today. This interesting observation also links the contemporary and perennial perspectives. The latter continually urge us to bring our attention inward rather than allow ourselves to be fragmented by the pull on our senses toward so many external influences. This brings us back to the heart of all of this.
In yogic science, there is the notion that we have inner senses, known as indriyas, which can discern a more profound awareness of being. When our attention is overly focused on external experience, we tend to identify increasingly with a bodily oriented and bound sense of self. But when we increasingly learn to discern through our more subtle perceptual systems, then we become closer to the deeper Self within. Paradoxically, this Self feels more than the bodily-oriented self. As we go deeper, we utilize the resources of our subtle bodies at finer and finer levels of vibration, each yielding a different kind of reality.
If the realm of the divine is at the subtlest level, then the task in evolution is to develop the sensitivity of mind to perceive and become one with this subtlest level of existence. Once we start to imagine this, we realize that this kind of perception is based on the capacity to pick up fainter and fainter cues, to feel and to be increasingly sensitive to almost “soundless notes.” This is how rishis in ancient times were able to hear and “know” extraordinary philosophical truths. We may experience these kinds of perceptions as a more diffuse synthesis, like a texture or quality, which are refined and often convey to us very beautiful intimations of aliveness and feelings beyond words.
If the realm of the divine is at the subtlest level,
then the task in evolution is to develop
the sensitivity of mind to perceive and become
one with this subtlest level of existence.
The Role of the Heart
In most human societies, a person will point to their heart when they refer to themselves. Focusing attention on the heart brings our sense of self inward to a central core location. Both in the East and the West, the heart is regarded as the place of soul, of love, of knowledge and wisdom. These come through feeling rather than intellectual construct. From recent research carried out by Pearsall, the HeartMath organization, and others, the heart is the largest oscillator within our system, which can entrain others if it is tuned into coherent wave forms. These occur when a person is feeling loving and calm. So the heart can connect with others. This results in more and more attunement to the feelings of others and an increase in capacity for empathy.
In the Heartfulness Way, a modern form of Raja Yoga, and in Sufi practices, the heart is gradually purified of background impressions that restrict perception and cognition, so that there is a clearer field of experiencing and feeling. The heart carries these impressions of experience. If consciousness is based on feeling, and the heart center is the base of this, then spiritual practice is the task of refining the “mirror or lens of the heart” so that what is discerned in the midst of awareness is less and less determined by accumulated impressions and tendencies. Ram Chandra, the second Heartfulness Guide in the lineage, once said, “The heart is the field for the mind to work, and this is the instrument by which we develop the discriminating faculty.”
This refining process is central to spiritual practice, so that we can become perfect instruments – as if we could play divine music. Like any instrument, the heart’s capacity to resonate truly can be distorted by the influence of other dissonances. It is through an attuned sentience and the heart’s refinement that the spiritual aspects within us can be felt and glimpsed. In 2016, Daaji emphasized that the purpose of life is to facilitate expansion of consciousness to its fullest potential. This expansion eventually takes us to a state of lightness and joy where the subtle body is pure, simple and refined. Then, there is no longer any separation between the heart and the mind – they are one. The heart is the field of action for the mind and vice versa. He says that this integrated, holistic state of being is known as Yoga.
It is through an attuned sentience
and the heart’s refinement
that the spiritual aspects
within us can be felt and glimpsed.
The heart can reflect the profound qualities of humanness, love, compassion, sharing, peace, a deeper sense of relatedness, as well as other qualities of infinite variation. In purifying the heart center, openness to experience is increased with a simultaneous openness to compassion.
From all of these perspectives, it can be argued that in order to “know” something we need to be able to feel. In spiritual evolution, this capacity for feeling needs to be refined to increasingly subtle levels to go beyond our patterns of attachment, desire and fear. If we are able to refine feeling, we are closer to the most profound depths of the divine Self and the divine field of existence, which is centered in the heart. So, in this way, feeling is the base of our connection with a unified ground of existence and our true identity. This leads to a divine humanness that is infinitely soft, infinitely simple and close to nature.
Here is an image that may capture such a beautiful state of being: We need to be as soft as cotton, so that a needle can pass through without touching. Only then, through this infinite realm of feeling, do we become one with the Source of all existence.
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Article by ROSALIND PEARMAIN
April 01, 2021
April 01, 2021
April 01, 2021