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What it’s like to be in your experience vs noticing your experience

Because swimming around in emotions all day is exhausting, right?

When we are deep in negative emotions such as misery, despair, depression, shame, fear and doubt, we become all consumed.

It can feel like you have been smothered by an unrelenting, suffocating force, where time seems to slow down, and your mind insists that this will last for ever.

Emotions pass, though, whether negative or positive. As do thoughts.

If we pay attention to our experience, we can observe just how much is shifting and changing throughout our day. We can see how rapidly one emotion, thought, or feeling makes way for the next.

I decided to pay extra attention one day this week to notice this shifting of experiences. Here is what I noticed:

A day of noticing.

I wake up. I notice that my mind feels slow and foggy. I notice the first emotion to arise in my day is one of relief and contentment upon drinking a glass of water.

I notice in the shower that my mind has skipped away on a journey, far, far away. I notice that despite me noticing this, it has run away again. I notice the funny side of this, and a positive emotion for which I have no name.

I notice the soft features of my wife’s face and the configuration of shape that makes her unique. I notice feelings of love and adoration as she talks to me over breakfast.

I notice a deep sense of pleasure as I sip my coffee.

I notice feeling energetic and excited as I engage in a powerful conversation with two parents I work with. I notice their sense of progress and I notice a wave of pride spilling over me.

Before I leave the appointment, I notice my mind rushing to the next thing I need to do, and then notice a very unexpected sense of guilt that perhaps I’m not savouring this moment enough.

I notice a fleeting splash of embarrassment as a colleague enters the room after I’ve loaded my mouth full of salad. I notice this feeling pass, as it makes way for laughter and another emotion for which I have no name; it is accompanied by the self-compassionate thought “that was funny, and it showed I’m human”.

I go for a walk after lunch. As I notice the warmth of the sun on my skin and the beauty of the autumn leaves, I notice an immense sense of joy. I notice thoughts about this noticing. I notice myself smiling and laughing to myself and notice an additional cascade of positive emotion.

As I return to my desk, I notice a feeling of being refreshed, like a breeze has blown through me, shaking off the fatigue.

I sit at my desk. I notice a sense of frustration, quickly followed by a sense of impatience. Soon after I notice no strong emotion. I notice how quickly these had changed.

I go to my car and on the drive home I notice feeling tired. I notice my attention slipping and drifting into no man’s land. I notice a sense of danger and fear. I pay more attention as a result.

I sit at my desk writing this post, noticing feelings of fear about writing all of this down as my mind races to thoughts about what people might think about all of this noticing.

Ink in the tank: A visual metaphor.

It struck me that this cascade of experiences flowing around in consciousness is like the way ink travels through water; you know, the kind of experiment you do at school?

Each different coloured ink is a new emotion, feeling, or any subjective experience; each has its own form, its own speed, its own evolution.

However, each one eventually slows down and makes way for a new experience. Sometimes experiences blend together; before you know it, something that was recognisable has now transformed into something entirely different.

Step out of the tank.

Often, we find ourselves inside the tank of water with all of the ink, swirling around with the thoughts, feelings, sensations, as if we are those things. Sometimes we try and swirl around and get away from the experiences.

However, there is part of you that can just notice those experiences.

This is like realising you don’t have to be in the tank with the ink.

You can view the container from the outside, allowing experiences to unfold in whatever way they are going to, without judgement. This is what was illustrated in all of my noticing earlier on.

Once we get this different perspective, we can develop a curiosity for whatever shows up, whether it’s positive or negative. We can be willing to experience both the good and the bad, from a different place. The feelings then often lose their suffocating powers as you realise “I am not this feeling”, and the feeling passes.

Go and try it for yourself: Step outside the tank and see what you notice.

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