Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What do Feelings Look Like?

In one of my chastity posts, I quoted a book by the late psychologist Wilson Van Dusen. He's great: as an interpreter of Swedenborg (and an associate of Alan Watts), you can't get much better. In his books, he uses ideas from Swedenborg and other mystical teachers to show his reader "the way to the experience of God," or how to see God as He manifests himself in life. He's a mystic through and through, and he explains many different ways to connect to the divine. But in this post I'm going to focus on just one of them--using "feeling imagery," mainly as he taught it in his book The Natural Depth of Man. (Here's a link to the book's Amazon page)

Van Dusen's big idea here is that fantasies and daydreams aren't evil--far from it. He says over and over that daydreams are actually just the "embodiment" of feeling, ways for feeling to see itself in a mirror. By extension, this is true of all thought; thoughts are just images that reflectively correspond to emotional states.

Most parts making up our experience of life are based in feeling; what I want, how I think, where I'm going, my mental illnesses, and even my mannerisms all spring from feeling's "gentle root." This means that--if I want to learn about my "inner nature"--there are few better ways to do it then by willingly daydreaming. Van Dusen says this: by calming my mind and letting emotions "come up" as feeling images, I can learn about and even change my feelings, moods, and compulsions.

Use your feelings to get over a mood

Van Dusen gives a good explanation of how this process works when he tells the story of someone using it:
"[When caught in a mood,] one should then stop, dwell on sensations, and allow them to amplify into a fantasy. A man is driving home from work with a headache. Having time while driving, he allows his physical sensations to speak up. When he dwells on it, the headache is more a stiffness down the back of the neck or shoulders. To grasp its meaning he portrays this stiffness. He holds out his arms stiffly on the car's wheel. His shoulders and neck are rigid. His face feels as though it were in an angry scowl. The scene amplifies. He is on a battlefield. He has been mortally wounded. He is holding onto a tree stump. If he hangs on someone will come by and notice him and help him."
Here the driver with a headache uses fantasy to "amplify" his discomfort; he takes his scowl and turns it into anger, in turn making his stiffness into a wound on a battlefield. By letting his imagination "unfold" his situation in this way, he starts to understand his emotional state more deeply. When he realizes this, the man decides to fix the situation:
"The martyrlike hanging on the image seems a bit humorous to the driver. In the image the wounded man smiles to himself and says, 'Hell, an injured man is supposed to fall down.' He relaxes, sits back in the car seat with his elbows in his lap. The man on the battlefield relaxes in the warm earth. He leisurely examines little plants springing up nearby out of the ruined earth of the battlefield. The driver concludes he has rigidly forced himself to do everything expected of him, secretly hoping someone would notice his plight and take pity on him. He notices himself, takes pity on himself, and allows himself to relax. Some stiffness in neck and shoulders remains. He concludes that next weekend he will take his family to the state park they want to visit."
When you use fantasy to expand your situation, you can "interact" with that situation in your mind's eye. Like the driver did by letting himself relax, you would put yourself in the scene as an actor, doing with it whatever you think would be best. At this point, the daydream qualifies as "active imagination," a technique coined by Carl Jung where a patient uses fantasy to bring about inner change. And it can go pretty far. You can get to the point where you have whole conversations with inner figures in your head, letting the other person's side of the dialogue spring directly from your unconscious mind.

Use your feelings to understand other people

There is another use for this "feeling imagery," though. While it works for sensations or moods you're trying to understand, it also works to help figure out other people. Van Dusen explains this point, saying:
"At times I find it very difficult to describe what I feel in a woman who is a stranger to me. I have a lot of vague unclear feelings. I allow these to elaborate into a fantasy. I'm going to have a date with her. Let's see how the date should be handled. In one woman I feel I should be very modest about amorous advances. It would feel best if we visited a museum, went to dinner and a concert, and had much chance to talk of our ideas first. For another woman I feel we should go to a dance, be active, live it up. I've shared these fantasies with women in groups usually to find that they are amplifications of accurate perceptions of them."
Just by taking tiny hints--normally under the conscious radar--and expanding them through fantasy, you can know much more about another person than you would otherwise. This tip is especially useful for autistics, many of whom have excellent imaginations despite having poor social skills. Moreover, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the root of "ESP" phenomena: through fantasy, the body and its presentation become a clear window to the mind and spirit within.

Use your feelings to deal with unwanted desires

Finally, you can use this process to work through compulsive thoughts and desires. For instance, Van Dusen writes:
"Once in a small class on phenomenology a young woman implied that she had a dreadful fantasy that coming back. When I asked her about it she implied that it had to do with suicide. She didn't want to talk about it. I encouraged her to try it in the safe environment of the classroom. She was reluctant. She felt if the fantasy were allowed to express itself she would become actively suicidal. Finally she consented. In fantasy she got away from people and walked in the snow. She saw a deep snowbank. With fear and trembling she contemplated crawling into the snow to freeze to death. I encouraged her to go ahead. In her mind's eye she caved out an enclosed cavern in the snow. I asked her what it was like inside. She said, 'Quiet! I hear no sounds of people.'" 
He explains that the young woman had had "too much of people lately," and that the snow was a symbol of her own warmth, her desire to rest comfortably in a small, confined place. To think that this woman could have actually committed suicide if she had refused to let the fantasy fully speak to her! Literalism can thus be very dangerous, not least because seemingly nasty things are often symbols for the benign.

Another example of this use of feeling imagery follows:
"One woman was afraid she was homosexual because she wanted to look at women's figures. I suggested that she look all she wanted in fantasy. The inner wish to look went from legs to breast to her being cuddled like an infant by an older woman. She had been raised without a mother and really wanted the experience of being mothered."
I think that--at least in part--our culture's sexual liberalism is actually a sexual literalism. Here, a woman who thought she might be gay used fantasy to discover that she really just wanted to be mothered. But society today--both conservative and liberal--discourages this introspection. The one side asks you to repress fantasy, and the other side encourages you to act it out without reflection. Both are wrong. Instead, if you have a desire you find morally wrong, consider acting it out in fantasy; don't hold in or act out; act in. Fantasy is safe; if society has considered it dangerous, it's only because it has assumed that fantasies necessarily leads to action. But of course, they don't.

I encourage all of you reading to try this process. As Van Dusen says, it is "perhaps the briefest effective therapy one can do for one's self."

No comments:

Post a Comment