The Primacy of the Felt Experience
I find it amusing and a little bemusing to think that we human beings come delivered, pre-packaged, with everything we need to live a contented, peaceful and purposeful life, and then pretty quickly we adopt everything we need to fuck it all up.
Others have said that more eloquently, no doubt. But however it’s put, it’s the crux of this very human condition we’re all experiencing.
Which is to say that all experience is rooted in sensations. There are no exceptions to that rule. If we’re lucky enough to be healthy then what we come pre-packed with is a range of sense organs whose function it is to perceive sensory data to give us sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, as well as the lesser-considered senses like proprioception, interoception, acceleration, pain, balance, agency, familiarity, and, even, time.
Our reality is being continually created in every moment by the confluence of our senses.
What am I seeing, what am I hearing, what am I tasting? And so on.
This is the primacy of the felt experience.
At this level of experience there is no good or bad, no right or wrong, no judgment, no prejudice, no expectation, no success or failure. There simply is what is. And in that wide expanse of momentary being, everything slows to the natural rhythm of existence, everything remains open to the potential of the connecting moment, everything is perfect as it is.
But then, because we’re such advanced and crafty apes, we add to this primary layer of experience the layer of cognition. And in doing so we form interpretations and make meaning from the sensory data we perceive.
And it is in this secondary layer that we, invariably, fuck it all up.
Because all disturbance to our contentment, peace and purpose, all mental dis-ease, is rooted in thought. There are no exceptions to that rule.
As soon as we enter the thinking realm, our brains have already kicked in with a variety of ingenious software plug-ins like prediction and bias, which are based on past experience to save us time and keep us safe and functional, but the algorithms of these plug-ins can’t help but tint and distort present reality.
You’re standing in the socially distanced queue outside Sainsbury’s, for example, and the guy in front has his eyes glued to his phone and isn’t noticing when the queue moves forward and so keeps holding up your progress. And it’s beginning to really piss you off and you quietly stew in anger and you mutter under your breath about what a selfish prick this guy is and when is he gonna learn some civility, the massive bell end, and I’d like to rip his stupid phone out his hands and ram it up his…Except you’re not actually responding to the present reality, the primary sensory experience, of this guy on his phone. You’re reacting to your thoughts that automatically kicked in about him. Your brain came up with a (quite plausible) story. A story about him being selfish and uncivil, and so on. But you’ve made that story up from a limited set of data which you’re now reacting to. You’re not actually reacting to him at all. You’re reacting to you.
The primary sensory experience of this situation might go something like, “I’m seeing a man in front of me who’s looking down at his phone and so isn’t noticing when the queue moves until a little after it has moved.” That’s all. There’s no meaning attached. No interpretation. Simply the objective observation of what’s taking place.
Him being selfish and uncivil is the story you’ve attached to the sensory data. And it might be a correct story. But you couldn’t be sure unless you asked him. Because what if he was texting his mum who’s badly ill at home who needed something from the supermarket and he’s in a panic about her and he’s worried sick and he’s quite understandably distracted? Would you still think he was selfish and uncivil or might your story change?
I’ve just spent an entire weekend in the neurosomatic psychotherapy training I’m doing, practising almost nothing but sensitivity. In other words, doing almost nothing but observing and communicating the primary data of my senses. And let me tell you it’s really, really, really difficult.
But it’s also really beautifully simple.
It’s what my dad used to call coming into the back. It’s dropping back from the narrative-making prefrontal cortex into the innate observer we all have within us who is connected directly with our wisdom.
And when we do that—when we focus on our senses rather than on our thoughts—life simplifies. It can go from feeling overwhelming to manageable, from boring to interesting, from dulled to alive with potential.
This happens because of and for a number of reasons but the main one is that we can only properly focus on one sense at a time. And in doing so we begin to regulate with whatever we’re sensing. In other words, we begin to regulate with our environment, and we find equilibrium.
So if we’re in a state of heightened stress or anxiety or overwhelm, for example, we can re-regulate ourselves, our entire organisms to our environment. We find balance and harmony with the natural order. Our heartbeat normalizes, our breathing slows, our muscles relax, we ground, we become alert, awake and conscious, and suddenly life becomes perfect exactly as it is.
And all we have to do, in any given moment, is return to our senses.
Makes sense, no?