Why vs What - Emotional Awareness in the Here & Now

I have been reading this book called Letting Go for many months now. It’s the work of David R. Hawkins, who has written extensively on consciousness and the intersection of science, psychotherapy, and spirituality. If you know me well, you know that this is right up my street. At almost 400 pages though, it’s not the type of book that one can read quickly. I mean, I guess you could, but there’s so much to take in! So much so, that I actually took a couple of months break from it.

But these past couple of weeks have been marked by a very difficult professional relationship, which I can totally tell is an opportunity to put into practice all the things that I talk about. When you talk the talk long enough, eventually you will get called upon to walk the walk. It’s been difficult though, and I can tell that it’s not because of the situation in itself, but because of my own conditioning about situations like these. Suddenly, all these nagging voices of “What will people think?”, “You’re going to ruin a great professional opportunity”, “You’re being weak by walking away”, “You should just suck it up and get on with it”. Which, if I’m very honest with you, are all clear signs that this situation needs to stop. But how?

Probably not coincidently, I resumed reading the book this week, in desperate need of some wisdom, inspiration, clue, insight, enlightenment…anything that would make me go: “Aha!!” I didn’t necessarily find it, but found something else, which made me stop and reflect on how I conduct my Dramatherapy practice, and even my own life. The author was discussing the benefits and limitations of psychotherapy, and explaining that, indeed, it can be a very helpful tool and very rewarding for many people due to its focus on the “whys” behind behaviour. I’ll definitely say that this is what I do in my practice. I look for the “why”. I believe there is a why behind every thought, emotion, behaviour, pattern, and ultimately, that’s what I look for and help clients understand.

However, this can also be a limitation. Very often, finding the why ends up being a very intellectual process. People end up understanding the why of something, or someone, or themselves, but only intellectually. Not emotionally. Intellectual and emotional understanding are two very different things. In fact, I believe that a breakthrough can’t happen without emotional understanding.

I have always followed emotions, but reading this the other day, made me realise that maybe I’m doing this from a very intellectual point of view. I’m thinking about the emotions, but I’m not feeling them. I’m helping people see and recognise their emotions, but maybe I’m not holding enough space for them to feel them. In hindsight, I can also tell that my clients who have experienced the most profound breakthroughs and have gone on to establish the most long-term changes in their lives, are the ones who actually felt their emotions, and not just understood them, during the therapeutic process. The same has happened to me, actually. Whilst my Dramatherapy training was gruelling, I need to admit that whilst I gained immense intellectual understanding of mine and others’ emotions, I didn’t always allow myself to feel them.

So, how do we feel our emotions? It’s fairly simple, actually. We don’t ask “how”, or try to find a “why”, we ask and focus on the “what”. “What am I feeling right now?” Asking or focusing on “what” often bypasses intellectual processes, and goes right into the emotional process. It’s also something that can help us to stay present, in the moment. The “what” is not about the past or the future, but about the present. As a side note, sometimes it may even help to ask “where” am I feeling it? Asking “where” allows us to make connections between mind, body, and heart. Have you ever tried asking yourself this question? Have a go, and see what it feels like.

You know what’s so interesting, though? Back when I did Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow, I was introduced to the work of all these truly progressive practitioners, theories, methodologies, and artistic statements. That’s when I discovered the amazing work of Pina Bausch, creator and choreographer of Tanztheater Wuppertal, and probably one of the single most influential figures in the world of dance, theatre, and performance. Amongst many things, she made a statement in her performances around focusing on emotion, rather than motion, famously saying:

 “I’m not so much interested in how people move as in what moves them.”

As I was writing this post, I was reminded of this quote, and I feel, for the actual first time, that I finally understand what she meant. I always thought I did, but reading it now, it really provokes great resonance in me. I guess I understood it intellectually, but never fully on an emotional level. In many ways, figuring out the “what”, is perhaps more important than figuring out the “why”, for in processing the “what”, the “why” ceases to be so powerful and dominant in our minds, which gives us more space to feel, in the here and now. And ultimately, we connect through our hearts, not necessarily our minds.

Try it for a day, or a couple, or even a full week. Instead of asking “why” you’re feeling something, or “how” you’re feeling on any given moment, just ask: “what am I feeling right now?” Feel the difference.