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The Feeling Underneath

Lessons learned from a seven-day silent meditation retreat

March 30, 2023

A few weeks ago I attended a seven-day silent meditation retreat.

As usual, it was a wild ride.

For the first three or four days, I found myself in an endless loop of recurring thoughts. I tried noticing the thoughts non-judgmentally. That was proving easier said than done. Despite having a steady meditation practice at home, I got lost in thought for hours, judged myself for my distraction, and fell asleep countless times.

Eventually, I remembered my teacher Thomas Hübl’s advice.

I asked myself: What are the feelings and sensations underneath these thoughts? And what would happen if I allowed myself to actually feel those feelings?

Soon I realized that the feelings underneath were anger and pressure. I got curious about the pressure and how it lived in my body. I gave space for the anger and allowed it to be there. I tended to the tight and tense parts of myself like I might with a young child, feeling tenderness and compassion for the pain of living under ceaseless self-imposed pressure.

Tears flowed.

Then, soon enough, the previously recurring thoughts dissolved. The pressure melted. More space opened up.

And all without me addressing the content of the thoughts at all.

When we experience unhelpful or challenging thoughts, our instinct is often to try to remove them by solving the problem. We believe that if we can just find the right answer, then the thoughts will go away.

But more often than not, recurring thoughts are projections of underlying sensations and feelings.

If we’re scared, we’ll project all kinds of thoughts that stem from the fear underneath. We’ll be worried about not having enough money, scared that our partner will leave us, paranoid about the stock market crashing, regret missed opportunities in life…the list goes on.

In these cases, the thoughts themselves have a low signal value. They’re not representative of what’s actually going on in our lives. But they still hold a seed of truth within them, which is the feeling underneath.

So much of life can become an endless chasing of ghosts of thoughts. We waste psychic energy in their pursuit without moving an inch. And we end up building a ghostly world in their ghostly image.

If we instead listen to what we’re feeling and honor the experience underneath, then the ghosts of thoughts have no choice but to fade away before our eyes.

In coaching sessions, I regularly ask people what they are thinking, feeling, and sensing.

Most people are experts at thinking.

Feeling and sensing is harder. Often people will respond in the following way: “I feel that nothing is working.” Or, “I’m worried that I won’t be successful.”

In both of these examples, the responses are not statements of feelings. They are statements of thoughts.

Anytime we say that we “feel that…” or “feel like…”, we’re not referring to a feeling. We’re referring to a thought.

Statements of feelings are simple. “I feel angry.” “I am scared.” “I feel sad.” “I feel disappointed.”

I am feeling something. Period.

While this might seem like a simple distinction, it can become a deep and lifelong practice. The more awareness we can bring to what we’re feeling, the more effective we become. We increase our capacity to respond appropriately to what we meet, rather than chasing ghosts of thoughts down cul-de-sacs to nowhere.

This becomes particularly important in leadership. Do we try to solve the problems of our recurrent thoughts externally, or do we meet the feelings underneath internally? Do we take the bait of other people’s recurring thoughts, or do we create spaces for each other to get in touch with our collective emotional realities?

So-called “uncomfortable” or “difficult” thoughts and feelings are precious gifts. They are signs to ourselves that there is something within us requires closer attention and care. They are expressions of places within ourselves that are overwhelmed and beyond our current capacity to feel. If we have the presence of mind to stop, listen, and sense—ideally in relation—then the feelings will take us right to where we need to go.

Following the feeling underneath is a practice in humility. It means being open to how little we control and even know about ourselves. When we give ourselves the space to feel, we don’t know where we will end up. All we can know is that it will take us to a more deeper, more intimate relationship with ourselves, each other, and life itself.


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