You are not your emotions

It’s funny how humans see ourselves. We cut ourselves up into disconnected bits when, for example, we imagine that our bodies and minds are separate or disconnected. We lump ourselves together when we think that everything about ourselves begins with thought. That’s what we get for thinking—or at least, for limiting ourselves just to thinking.

During an absolutely delightful interview conversation I had with Dawn Hunt—and will be out on Dawn’s podcast in April, because professionals plan ahead—we talked about the interplay between thoughts and emotions. “Cogito ergo sum,” said Descarte, leading every who learned any western philosophy to presume that because we can think, that everything about us is thought. Or, as Kari Tauring told me for Empty Cauldrons, “It was the moment when we pulled ourselves completely apart.” As thinking animals, we think that our thoughts are the source of emotion. That does not fit my research, or my experience.

Language points to the answer: emotion is of the body. With churning stomachs and gritted teeth, hearts on our sleeves, drenched in sweat, and shivering in apprehension, we are motivated by butterflies and fluttering feelings inside of us, shed tears of sadness, fear, relief, joy, and laughter, and can have our thoughts completely consumed by someone we love or something we said. Emotion is expressed first in the body, as emotions are older than thought, and the outer parts of the brain where we do that thinking. By the time I pull out my thinking cap, my body is awash with chemicals that are tightening here, raising temperature there, and determining how much blood is flowing into the head on which I’m placing that very thinking cap. My brain’s monitoring systems will have noticed all of these changes, and those data are inputted into the thoughts. Every thought we think seems very logical to each of us, because hey, we think! and I find it really easy to forget that you can’t disentangle emotions that easily.

Emotions inform thoughts, but they are not in the brain. It’s through the body that they emerge. During my conversation with Dawn, I surprised myself by stumbling onto wells of emotion regarding my late mother, and my unsuccessful decision to cut my life short. The latter also thrilled me. I’ve been unconsciously guarding against that danger, and that wave of feeling told me that I can devote that energy to nourishing my final third of life.

As emotions are of the body, depression also lives in the body. Depression also has an evolutionary role. It’s been hypothesized by Maletic and Raison that depressive behaviors could have protected our distant ancestors by prompting their injured and diseased brethren from isolating as they healed. The appendix also once had a role, too. Unfortunately, depression isn’t an organ that can be removed if it gets weird. The first step toward emerging from depression is to recognize that our thoughts are not the only source of authority within ourselves. Descartes is cool and all, but if anyone thinks us into being, it’s probably not ourselves.

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