Reality isn’t What You Think and Feel

Humans are neither thinking machines or feeling machines. They’re feeling machines that think.

Antonio Damasio


I was panicking.

I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach. A tight ball of black wire wool was scratching away my insides.

My mind jumped into action.

You’re feeling this way because...

You didn’t eat much this morning, maybe you’re just hungr....

What if it’s the weather?

Maybe you miss Ollie?

When was the last time Ash hugged you?

Oh. It was yesterday. So… That must be it!

You’re feeling this way because you want Ash to hug you more.

That’s it. It’s hugs.

Phew. Thoughts to the rescue. My mind came up with the answer. Lucky I’m so smart and logical. Those fucking hugs, why won’t Ash hug me more?? I started to feel upset and a little lonely. The tight ball of black wire wool was still there, but I was distracted by how upset I felt that Ash didn’t hug me more.


Hang on.

This makes no sense. I have no idea where that answer came from. All I know is that I felt a sensation, likely attached to an emotion, and my mind sprayed a bunch of thoughts at me until I accepted one as the truth. It didn’t even address the ‘black wire wool’ sensation I was having - instead I created a distraction out of thin air… I thought it, I was able to come up with logic around the thought, so it seemed true.


If my emotions and my thoughts were people having a conversation it would be a very one sided conversation. My thoughts would be the kind of person who interrupts constantly, finishing sentences, not listening, just waiting until the next moment he can jump in and explain how it really is. My emotions would be the person being talked over, not being listened to, meekly saying “oh, no... that’s not what I was trying to say at all...” while the other person takes over the conversation.

My thoughts aren’t necessarily any truer than my emotions. And yet, something about me causes me to believe them over and above any other kind of signal I experience. Even though they’re mostly a random spray of ideas and general mind junk, my thoughts seem the most true.

Not everyone is like me. You might be convinced that your emotions are the truth. You’ll tell me that if you feel it, it must be true. You’ll accept your emotions as truth and do all sorts of mind tricks to fall in line with the truth.

You and I are not so different. I assume my thoughts are the truth and bend my emotions to fit and you assume your emotions are truth and rationalise to fit. What each of us tends to accept as reality obscures reality.

Emotions, thoughts, and sensations are just signals. The only thing that is ‘real’ is what we do. Barring a big philosophical discussion about what 'real' means. Let's do that another time.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not asking you to ignore your signals. They’re incredibly important parts of the way you perceive the world and work out what to do. But they’re not reality - they’re trying to tell you something about reality. I want you to see them for what they are and perhaps free yourself from the belief that your negative emotions or oppressive thoughts are real. For many of you, the starting point to this is the third signal - sensation.

The Triangle

These three signals; emotion, sensation, thinking; make up a nice neat triangle. I know that this triangle is much neater than you or I will ever be but this sort of simplification is a great start to understanding what goes on inside the complexities of your brain.

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Emotions are the motivations to take actions. Essentially, an emotion is a strong cue for you to move.

Thinking is the ’rational’ part of you brain trying to process, consider, reason, judge, and provide explanation to what’s going on.

Sensations are signals coming from the systems in your body designed to notice changes in environment internally and externally. For example, a sensation might be how the skin on your hand notices a change when you move it near the stove. A more internal sensation could be the how your muscles and connective tissue feel when you stretch them.

All of these elements are linked and it can be hard to distinguish between them sometimes. Luckily, it’s not that important for you to be able to do that.

What is important is that these three elements are constantly trying to interpret each other. If you're feeling a sensation, you interpret it with your emotions or you think about it. For example, you feel the sensation of pain. Maybe your response is to spend time thinking about why it’s hurting. Or perhaps you start to feel sad (an emotion) because you feel as though the pain will never go away. Either way, you are interpreting the sensation using the other signals available to you.

Sometimes this is helpful. Your thoughts about why you’re feeling pain might lead to you think of a way to stop the pain. But it’s not always helpful. Have you ever woken up feeling angry about a dream you’ve had? Has that anger crept into your day? When you wake up from a dream like that, you’re feeling the emotion of anger. Because you’re feeling that emotion, you rationalise that there must be a reason you’re angry so it feels much more reasonable to respond with anger to things in the real world. If you’re feeling the emotion, it must be for a reason!

Of the three sides of this triangle, thoughts and emotions are most often mistaken for fact. But as you can see from the dream example, they're merely signals and interpretations of your environment. They are all important and helpful at times, but when you start to believe them to be more than they are, you stop using them to interpret the world and instead find yourself caught in a weird abstraction of reality that feels completely true.

It’s hard to see the signals for what they are when you’re in the habit of believing them to be truth. It’s even harder when you have a particularly strong signal. Nevertheless, you can change how you react to your signals. You can change which signals you pay more attention to (remember, I tend towards believing that what I think is true). You can also change the way these signals are created in the first place.

Powerful stuff huh? Guess what? It’s basically just realising that all of these are signals and listening carefully to them. It’s simple to write, easy to say. Hard to do.

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Meta cognitive awareness is your ability to sit above this triangle and watch what’s going on in the triangle without perceiving anything in the triangle as a fact. You become an objective observer of your signals and can make choices about how to interpret them. It’s not about questioning what’s going on in the triangle or trying to rationalise why you can see things happening in a particular way (guess what? that’s just thinking...) You simply take the time to observe all the emotions, the thoughts that pop up, and any sensations you feel without doing anything about any of them.

That’s the beauty of this - you don’t have to do anything.

Just observe.

I’m not suggesting that you live your entire life like this, but the skill is incredibly useful to have. With a life time of practice in taking action in response to your thoughts, emotions or sensations, sitting back and observing instead will be hard. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to do this after reading my blog post about it. It takes practice.

This model is a simplification of the complex system that is you. The whole point of observing yourself in this way is to show you that you’re operating in a system. The thoughts, emotions, and sensations you’re having are all part of a system even if one feels overwhelming right now.

it gets a whole lot more complex than this but that’s for another time.

Meditation Practice

The objective of mindfulness meditation practice is to be able to observe your experience and to be less reactive. You focus on what’s happening right now in your body and mind. A common method to get into this state is to observe the sensations in the body such as the rise and fall of your breath.

There are many resources out there now to help you practice mediation. I successfully kicked off my mediation practice using the Headspace app which I continue to use today. I also use Oak for unguided mediations because of the great implementation of interval bells.

I strongly recommend using an app to help you or even better, an in person guided mediation. If you can’t, here’s a simple written guide to help you get started now.

  1. Get comfortable. You could sit on a cushion, your favourite chair, or even lie down.
  2. Take a few deep breaths, slowly drawing air all the way in and slowly releasing the air.
  3. Close your eyes and let your breath return to normal - make no effort to breath in a particular way.
  4. Focus your attention on the rising and falling sensation of the breath in the body. It might be in your stomach, or chest. If you can’t feel it, try putting your hand on your stomach.
  5. If it helps you to focus, count in your mind each breath as it passes up to 10 then start over at 1. For example, breath in, one, breath out, two, breath in, three etc.
  6. All you have to do is pay attention to your breath. There’s nothing else to do. If your mind wanders, as soon as you realise it has happened, bring it back to focusing on your breath. Don’t worry - this will happen a lot. Coming back to the focus is the practice.

Maintain this practice for 5 minutes to begin with. You could set a timer using your phone. Try building up to longer periods of time as you get used to observing your ‘triangle’ like this.

Do you know which side of the triangle you tend to believe is true? I’d love to hear your answer in the comments!