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II. 3. Heightened Feeling

Life-affirming death awareness transforms our ability to feel in ways we never dreamed possible.

One of the greatest gifts of life-affirming death awareness is the pathway it creates to new worlds of heightened feeling and sensibility. Facing death fully opens us up to life. Repressing or fearing death shuts us down.

As noted, few of us reexamine as adults our childhood habit of repressing our pain about our death. This has vast implications for our ability to feel, since we inadvertently diminish our capacity for joyful feelings by avoiding painful ones.

When we dare face our deepest pain about our death, we discover capacities for feeling we did not know we possess:

(1) the most important impact of facing death is that doing so inevitably makes us more vulnerable , cracking open the shell that often surrounds us, a shell that must be broken for deep feelings to emerge and be experienced.

(2) although we do feel sadness and pain more intensely than when we were in denial, we find not only that we can tolerate it but that it immeasurably enriches our experience of life. We feel more integrated as well as energized, as we respond appropriately and fully to the sadness of life itself.

(3) with our defenses against feeling down, we also find ourselves experiencing joy, bliss, ecstasy and love far more intensely than we had in the past.

(4) most significantly, we find a whole new world of intense but "blended" feelings opened to us, as we experience a new range of poignant emotions arising from a myriad of combinations of happiness and sadness, anguish and ecstasy, joy and grief.

To understand this phenomenon more deeply it is important to understand a basic distinction between "contracted" and "decontracted" feelings.

We have been conditioned by society to see feelings as divided into two basic categories - happy and painful - and to seek the former and avoid the latter. In fact, however, such a distinction is far less useful than one which sees feelings as either "contracted" emotions in which our muscles are tense - e.g. depression, rage, fear, anxiety, manic "happiness", craving, guilt, shame - and "decontracted emotions" in which our body is open, such as sadness, happiness, grief, joy, anguish, bliss, horror, ecstasy, love, compassion, clean anger and empathy.

"Contracted" emotions are the source of much of our suffering. They tend to persist in causing us pain, close us off from life, and narrow our experience. Their basic function, in fact, is often to keep us from feeling our feelings fully. While fear can be useful as a survival mechanism, for example, it persists and keeps us from having the decontracted experience of anguish which, if felt fully, can energize and lead to more pleasant feelings.

"Decontracted" emotions do not tend to persist, open us up to even deeper levels of feeling and experience, and immeasurably enrich our lives. If we wish to be truly alive, the question is not whether our feelings are painful or pleasant, but rather whether they are fully felt and transformed into energy for life, or are held tight and deaden us. Depression produces little, anguish has produced many of the world's greatest works of art. Anxiety contracts, sadness opens us up to the deepest possible levels of love, compassion and empathy. Rage violates, a cleanly-felt and clearly-expressed anger has propelled many of the most important social and political movements in history. Fear freezes, horror energizes.

We only partially feel contracted emotions, leading us to stay stuck in anxiety, depression or stress. We feel decontracted feelings far more fully, by definition. And when we fully feel a painful feeling it tends to change and mutate, sometimes even into its opposite.

When seen from this perspective, opening up to our sadness, anguish, and horror at the prospect of disappearing forever is at least as valuable to us as states of happiness. To deny or repress the sadness, anguish and horror that naturally arise from an honest look at the state of the world and ourselves not only eats up our energy. It deprives us of experiences of true aliveness that are among the most precious and meaningful available to us.