Feelings are real, but they don’t always reflect the reality

Many people adopt a very ‘rational’ approach to life and relegate feelings or anything to do with emotions to a secondary position, as if they are somehow less important. In reality, of course, feelings are generally much more powerful sources of motivation than reasoning or rationality, and emotions are so often a key factor in decision making, however hard people will work to make the basis of their decisions appear entirely objective and rational, uninfluenced by such subjective matters as human emotions.

Consequently, if we pay no attention to emotions, we are leaving a major part of the equation out of the picture. However, this does not mean that we can let emotions rule the day or be given free reign. Emotions are a vitally important element of what it means to be human and, as such, they can be incredibly enriching and powerful. Unfortunately, though, they can also be highly problematic – for example, by leading to very unwise decisions or reactions.

Another way in which feelings can be problematic is when they are an understandable and justifiable response to a situation, but in those particular circumstances they do not reflect the reality of the situation. For example, imagine a situation in which a misunderstanding occurs. Person A feels that they have been insulted and demeaned by Person B, and understandably become very angry about it. But what if it is just a misunderstanding and no actual insulting has taken place. The feelings of anger and hurt are real, even if the grounds for them are not. Sadly, a common mistake in such circumstances is for those feelings to be played down because it was ‘just a misunderstanding’.

Strong emotional responses involve strong biological reactions, such as adrenaline being pumped into the bloodstream (the renowned ‘fight or flight’ mechanism). Finding out that no insult actually occurred does not make the adrenaline disappear all of a sudden or return the body or mind to their pre-emotive state. In addition, there are psychological factors to consider. For example, a strong emotional response can easily ‘open old wounds’, bringing back powerful memories of other times when they have felt slighted, disrespected or worse. Those memories will not disappear all of a sudden either, once they have resurfaced. In addition, the person concerned can feel embarrassed when it emerges that they became angry and/or upset ‘for no good reason’, especially if one or more people is not handling the situation very sensitively. These will all be real, valid feelings, despite the fact that the actual trigger was not ‘real’ in the conventional sense.

Another way in which feelings can be real, but not actually reflect reality is when people become very anxious. It is not uncommon for anxiety to lead to a vicious circle in which a small amount of anxiety (quite appropriate in the circumstances, given the level of threat involved) leads to more anxiety and then more again. What can easily happen is that this process leads to a level of anxiety that is excessive for the degree of risk or threat involved. Ironically, at times knowing that this position has been reached can make the person concerned even more anxious, recognizing or fearing that they are losing control. The level and intensity of emotional response may well not match the reality of the level of threat, but that does not make the feelings (and their impact) any less real. Nor does it make it any less unhelpful (or potentially harmful) if the significance of the feelings involved is not acknowledged and handled appropriately.

We would do well, therefore, to keep in mind the fact that a disparity between feelings and the reality of the situation they are a response to does not make the feelings any less real or any less significant.

The journey is more important than the arrival

It is, of course, a very common experience to have a great sense of excitement as you look forward to something, only to have a sense of anti-climax once what you have been anticipating actually comes to pass. This is one of the ways in which the idea that the journey is more important than the arrival has a degree of truth.

In a similar vein, Buddhist thought includes the idea that it is wise to disengage from worldly pursuits, as the acquisition of one ‘prize ‘ or reward, one achievement of a goal, simply leads to our formulating the next goal and anticipating the next achievement. Perhaps it is not realistic to expect such disengagement on a mass scale, so we are likely to continue to face the challenges involved in what amounts to reaching what we think is the top of the hill, only to find that there is a another summit beyond it (and quite possibly another one beyond that).

What is particularly important about this is that, if we are relying on reaching that summit, whatever it may be, for our well-being and happiness, then we are limiting ourselves to relatively brief moments once an achievement is gained. We are missing out on the satisfactions to be gained from enjoying the journey; we are letting our lives pass by: the present moment becomes dominated by future aspirations, many of which will never come to fruition, of course, however skilled, committed or fortunate we may be in our endeavours.

This is partly what mindfulness is about – savouring the present moment, rather than allowing ourselves to get bogged down in the past or sacrifice today’s joys to tomorrow’s hopes.

I am not suggesting that we should not have goals or aspirations. On the contrary, I see them as very important. What I am suggesting – quite strongly – is that we need to be aware of the common danger of being so future oriented that we lose sight of what the present offers. To return to the journey analogy, we can so easily be focusing so much on the destination that we miss the spectacular scenery along the way.

As in so many things, it is a matter of balance. We need to have a balanced ‘temporal sense’, by which I mean not losing sight of our past and its importance, but not allowing it to dominate or distort our present either (as will often happen when people have been traumatized); equally, not losing sight of the future and our hopes for what that will hold for us, but also not letting that anticipated future steal the precious moments of the present.

On the surface, this sounds simple and straightforward, but in reality, it can be quite complex and challenging. The pitfalls involved are not only of significant proportions, but also relatively common. So many of people’s life problems will stem from this existential challenge of a balanced approach to time. There will be those who are ‘living in the past’, struggling to get beyond old hurts, for example (hence the use of the word ‘trauma’ which means ‘wound’ – it is as if certain life experiences can leave a scar) and who therefore face an emotionally and spiritually impoverished life. There will also be people who are ‘living in the future’, as if there is some sort of personal utopia they are working towards, a utopia that will never materialize, of course (not as a utopia, anyway). For example, those who are bitten by the bug of ambition will often find that achieving their ambition was not as wonderful as they had envisaged (and it is likely that they will very quickly formulate another ambition anyway).

‘Savour the moment’ is too simplistic a slogan, but it is helpful in alerting us to the need to get our ‘temporal balance’ right.