Feelings: domains of consciousness

"Sensation" is one category of internal experience. There are many different ways to construct a typology of interior experience. Deepak Chopra in one of his books lists ten domains of consciousness. For our current purposes, that is a bit too complicated. Ten are more than we need for now. We start with just four. Later we add another two. But, for now, just notice that sometimes when something has you stirred up emotionally you might say that you are stewing about something. We use the acronym STEW to remind us of the four primary interior domains.

Sensation: I feel cold.

Thought: I feel like I am being mistreated.

Emotion: I feel hurt and angry.

Wish: I feel like taking a walk.

So whenever you are stewing about something, remind yourself to identify each of the four domains in what you are worrying about. What are your Sensations, Thoughts, Emotions and Wishes? Notice that each of the four interior domains is a feeling, or at least we can speak of it as such, but each is distinctly different. A wish is very different from a sensation. A thought is very different from an emotion.

If something upsetting happens I am likely to feel bad. But is this a sensation, a thought, an emotion, or a wish? It can easily be all four.

Suppose I finally get around to registering for the semester and find out that the last class I need to take to finish my degree is already filled. There is a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I feel nauseous. I know that if I can't find a way to get into that class, I will be delayed six months in graduating. I am furious at myself for not getting around to registering sooner. I wish I weren't such a procrastinator.

The strength of the sensations and the emotions help me gauge the urgency of this issue and motivate me to act. The thought about delaying graduation six months reminds me that the need is not just about this class, but about the degree and the employment opportunities that I believe will open up once I have it. And the wish reminds me that there are certain qualities of self care that I can address where I pay more attention to what I need and I don't put off acting in ways that get me what I need.

The creation of this internal awareness we call feelings is something which develops as we mature. We have placed these in an order which spells STEW and thus makes it an acronym which is easier to remember, but the developmental sequence is actually from sensation to emotion to thought to wish.

  • Even before we are born we have sensations. Though we don't have a conscious memory of our awareness before birth, we hear what music Mom is dancing to and the voice of Dad as they talk in bed.
  • Once we are born we now have a relationship and that relationship has qualities which cause emotions to arise within us. We come to recognize mom's face and we feel joy. We have a pain in our stomach and we feel fear. We hear footsteps outside our bedroom door at night when we cry and we feel hope.
  • We have come to associate the sound with the presence of someone in hall. We have built a cognitive correlation between the sound and the person coming into the room. We observe events and ascribe meaning to them. We become able to think.
  • And having thoughts, we then begin to anticipate what might happen and even to consider what we might want to have happen. We become aware of desires and wishes.

So we develop from sensations to emotions to thoughts to wishes. Each stage of awareness depends on the one below it. My wish that someone would care for me in the middle of the night depends upon my thought that there are parents nearby who can hear my cry and my hope that they will respond to me supported by my sensation of hearing footsteps in the hallway.

In the 70's a friend of mine lived in a cooperative house in which there was a sensory depravation tank. This was a big tub in a dark and quiet basement in which there was salt water heated to 95°. When one would lie in the water in the dark and the quiet with no sensory input for a period of time, images began to appear in ones awareness. It was a sort of acid trip without the acid.

It seems that without sensory input we begin to lose our upper level cognitive functions. This was intended in that setting to be recreational or even spiritually enlightening. But it is also a form of torture called solitary confinement. We need sensory stimulation to have emotional awareness to have cognitive functioning to know what we need.

So if I want to get what I need, I have to know what I need, and thus to notice when I am not getting what I need. I know I am not getting what I need (or perhaps I am getting what I don't need) whenever I am having a "bad" feeling. I put bad in quotes here because the feeling itself isn't bad. It is good data. It is just a feeling I don't like having. If I step into the street and look up and see a bus barreling down on me, I feel fear, and I step back out of the street. I don't like being afraid, but I like getting squashed by busses even less. The fear is my friend.

"Good" feelings also give me information about what I need. When I feel safe or satisfied I am getting feedback that the current situation is healthy for me. If I can figure out what is working and what I did to create it, then maybe I can recreate the situation in the future.

Knowing how I feel helps me know what I need. Ideally, once I know what I need, I know what to do to create what I need. But I am not likely to create what I need without knowing what that is and I won't know the need unless I know what I feel.

So feelings in general and emotions in particular are information about the qualities in our relationships. They help us know what is currently going on and can guide us in determining what we need. They are also a source of energy. The fear gives me the strength to step out of the street.

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