The whitewater between thinking and feeling

Great thoughts always come from the heart.
(Marquis de Vauvenargues)

When I was working with the brilliant Lianne Raymond (think someone can’t be gentle and thunderously powerful at the same time?  I didn’t either, until I met Lianne) I used to routinely stumble over thinking and feeling.  She’d ask me how I felt about something and I would launch into an answer that began “I think….”  She’d point this out, with her trademark delicacy, humor, and directness, every single time.  I found my confusion itself confusing.  Aren’t I a feeler?  I’m 100% F in the Myers-Briggs, cry all the time, and am routinely – daily – told I’m far too sensitive to live in this world.  Why was my thinking getting in the way?

This weekend, Dani Shapiro read from Joan Didion’s famous essay, Why I Write.  I’d heard the quote “I write entirely to find out what I am thinking” many times, but had never read the piece in full.  In the essay, Didion confesses a total inability to think, to “deal with the abstract.”  She describes being drawn over and over again to the peripheral, the specific, the concrete.  To that she can touch, smell, see, hear.  To that which she can feel.

And suddenly I understood.   There are two things going on.  The first is that I use my mind to evade actual feeling.  Often it hurts too much to feel, so I try to intellectualize things.  This has been a defense mechanism of mine for a long time.  It has something to do with what Pema Chodron says about “never underestimat[ing] the urge to bolt,” which my friend Pam explored in beautiful detail last week.  I wrote a while ago that my brain must get out of my heart’s way, but I realize that for a long time I intentionally put it there.  It hurt to much to experience my heart directly.

The second is that I realize I actually conflate feeling and thinking: I describe thoughts when I am really talking about feelings.  My mind does veer towards the abstract, but it’s always through the vessel of the specific, usually through nature.  Through the most concrete of details – the light on a steeple at dawn, the smell of magnolia petals crushed under my feet, the way my son’s hair curls at the nape of his neck – I can access the eternal.  The divine, even.  For some reason, which I suspect has something to do with my PhD physicist of a father, I grew up knowing that you start sentences with “I think.”  Even when I’m talking about something utterly different, which is my feelings.  I’m not sure if this is simply acculturation to a world that prizes the intellect above all else, or something else, but it’s a tic I realize I have.

I’m not sure if the grayness I experience between thoughts and feelings for me is some kind of vestige of years of avoidance or a profound respect for the fact that our deepest emotions come from the same raw, root source, the essential wellspring of who we are.  Either way, I adore this quote from Marquis de Vauvenargues.

Do you ever get muddled in the whitewater between thinking and feeling?

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  1. Posted May 12, 2011 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    I find this, too. I am ALWAYS surprised what comes out when I sit down to write. And it is ALWAYS the truth that I just couldn’t get to as I’m living day to day. I think I know how I’m feeling until I write about it. I love that feeling when I get to the last line and as it’s coming out, I’m like, whoa. . . WHERE DID THAT COME FROM? It is a gift every time.

  2. Posted May 12, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Oh Lindsey, I am going to print this out and take it in when I meet with Tess, my Lianne, today! You captured it so well. I’m an F too, although not quite so strong of one, and I too grew up in a world where one was required to think rather than feel. People perceive me as a T, because that’s my primary mechanism of defense. I love the way you put all of this together here. And I’m going to steal the quote…



  3. Posted May 12, 2011 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    “Muddled in the whitewater?” That’s gorgeous. And I love Joan Didion’s writing. Her latest book about tore my heart out.

    Are you an INFP? Just wondering 🙂

    Another thing that you mentioned that jumped out at me was, “Never underestimate the urge to bolt. Oh, so true.

    admin Reply:

    I am an INFJ. 100% J. Not even a single P answer. In fact I get teased in my family because at one point I was taking an online short-form test and one question was “deadlines are relative.” I looked up, confused. Like … what? What are they asking? Obviously NOT. My father joked that I’m so J I don’t even understand the question!!

    Renae C Reply:

    That’s funny. From one 100% J to another – you ROCK!

  4. Posted May 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if this is of a similar vein–but my thoughts are often muddled by other’s opinions. As soon as I begin speaking about a subject I have thought through very carefully, I begin to trip when another person pipe’s up with their own opinion. And perhaps it is a reflection of becoming muddled between thinking and feeling.

  5. Posted May 12, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Oh wow. This is so me. I went to a therapist in my 20’s and she kept asking me how I felt. I thought it was the dumbest question ever. I was like, “I’m FINE. Jeez.” I had no clue how I felt.

    Thanks for writing about all of these things I never think about – or feel!

  6. Posted May 12, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    oh, yes, I do get confused. and caught. and very muddled.

    There’s a great kid’s book called, I think, “Pig in the Middle” and I always think of that pig, stuck in the middle of the mud puddle.

    Will be thinking (feeling? sensing? we must invent a new word) about this one for a while..


  7. Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    So eloquent and lovely. I wonder if thinking overlays order to feeling? Without thinking would we be able to function? Because I think a great deal about how Im feeling and try to talk myself through it all. I derive meaning from thinking…it doesnt get in my way but suggests why I might be feeling a certain way. Is there a role for both — is one more appropriate? Lots to think and feel on this one.

  8. Posted May 13, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    “Muddled in the whitewater between thinking and feeling,” oh yes!

    So much to think about here. I love the essay by Joan Didion and go back to Pema’s teachings often.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  9. Posted May 13, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    LOVE this post ” Often it hurts too much to feel, so I try to intellectualize things.” I do this all the time. It wasn’t until a year after my grandmother’s death (I was with her at the time) that I FELT my grief. I spent so much time intellectualizing it – she was 96 and had a full life – she went without any pain – she was ready – I am glad I was there – all of this intellectualizing but what I was FEELING was sad, lonely, angry, and lost.

    I truly believe that it takes “a full passing of all seasons” (aka a year) to process any real large emotion, and this one proved it, it took me a year to get from intellectualizing to feeling.

    Amazing post.

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