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The Crucial Link Between Thought And Feeling
Changing our minds can change everything
On the one hand, it is useful to distinguish between what we think and what we feel.
Thinking about the world is different from feeling pain after an injury; making plans is different from feeling joy at the sight of the first flowers blooming at the onset of spring.
From another perspective though—these are not mutually exclusive—it might be useful to look at thought and feeling as a unity.
Perhaps we can think of both as movements of the mind: in that picture, thinking and feeling are united by the primacy of mind.
A feeling always goes hand in hand with the perception of something by the mind, the nature of which depends on our overall “thought world”—conscious mind thought of not as a mere “filter,” but as something active that in a sense is both evoked by and evokes the feeling.
For instance, when I hear a loud car passing by, this can provoke negative feelings if I think that loud cars are a senseless provocation by men in their midlife crisis.
If I’m a fan of racing cars, on the other hand, and appreciate the sound of a nice big engine, I might even feel good about hearing that roar.
Since both of these thoughts are not mutually exclusive, I might be able to choose from which perspective I’d like to look at the experience, and therefore modulate my feelings.
It is even possible to consciously lessen the level of pain one feels after an injury: I can think of all the bad consequences and give myself over to hysteria, or I can see the pain and injury as an interesting lesson that may lead to something positive. In the latter case, the felt pain immediately diminishes. The fact that hypnosis can reduce pain, sometimes dramatically so, is another example of how thought can impact, or even determine, our most basic sensations.
It is in this sense that feeling could be considered a movement of the mind.
Thought is a movement of the mind as well: it comes from our mind. This can happen consciously or unconsciously. The more we learn to be conscious about it, the greater will be our degree of free will with regard to how and where to move our thoughts.
Thought and feeling, then, are more interconnected than we might assume: both depend on our minds.
Perhaps this is the reason why Aristotle saw thought, desire and feelings as interdependent, but thought—in some sense—as primary:
The primary objects of desire and of thought are the same. For the apparent good is the object of appetite, and the real good is the primary object of rational wish. But desire is consequent on opinion rather than opinion on desire; for the thinking is the starting-point.
For Aristotle, both feeling and thought aim at the highest, the ground of all reality—but the way we look at our desires comes first.
This is an important concept when we think about the nature of life: in the neo-Darwinian, mechanistic view of life, feelings and desires are mere reactions to external stimuli, just like a machine is programmed to react to certain input.
However, there is a different way of looking at it: namely that organisms, even primitive organisms, have goals, and their actions have therefore a certain rationale. They are the consequence of thought, at least in the minimal sense of the word.
It is often much more fruitful to look at human action through that lens: not as something programmed, or mechanistic, but as something reasoned—even if that reasoning is often primitive and unconsciously follows low-level desires in a similar way as do more primitive organisms.
This is proven by our experience that we can make this sort of unconscious reasoning conscious and reason differently: we change our underlying feelings by changing how we think about them, just as in the examples of the sports car or injury. We can also learn to recognize where our thoughts are just rationalizations of low-level desires and change our thinking. And we can listen closely to our emotions and take them as information, which, again, might lead to changing our thoughts.
Speaking of primitive organisms, even their actions can be seen in this light: while they follow primitive impulses and often seem to “just react” to external stimuli, this can be interpreted as the result of a certain form of thought, or “way of looking at things.” What appears to be mere “reactions” are limit cases of thought that is extremely straight-forward.
After all, they follow goals as well, such as self-preservation and reproduction. And they look at their sensations through this lens. Even their “feelings” and actions can be seen, therefore, as movements of the mind.
Of course, this view runs completely counter to the view of scientific materialism, which has taken hold of our entire thinking since the second half of the 19th century.
But even the materialists presuppose this view, if even unconsciously, when they talk about the goals of organisms, or genes: they use the rich language from our experience as conscious agents capable of reasoning and goal-setting to make sense of what happens in nature. Even though some of them recognize it to an extent and proclaim that they could, in theory, use an entirely “scientific” or materialist language, in practice, they cannot; in any event, the strength of their arguments depends largely on this (mis)use of a rich language that sneaks mind back into the equation on all levels.
And in typical left brain hemisphere fashion, they refuse to acknowledge that the same story can be told very differently: as an expression of thought, where thought and feeling are understood to form a whole.
The Reality of the Something Higher
Note that the point here is not to say thoughts and feelings are the same thing, or just that they are interdependent (which they are). The implications go deeper.
The question is: how is it even possible that there is a something in us that can observe our thoughts and that can give rise to thoughts? That can observe our feelings and give rise to them? That can consciously change our whole internal makeup, or rather allow our internal makeup to be changed by aligning with different thought forms, different modes of being?
All of this points to something beyond the mere physical, and the mere “brain programmed by evolution” metaphor. And this “beyond” doesn’t seem to be arbitrary, but a reality in its own right with certain features.
As is so often the case, our language, the way we talk and think about things, can give us a clue.
For example, we often say things like “he bumps into these problems all the time,” suggesting that there is a hidden structure of reality that operates on the plane of mind, rather than physical reality. Using the metaphor of “bumping into things,” we compare this higher reality with our familiar physical reality, where there are obstacles, pathways, and terrain, pointing to a whole parallel world in which we move just as we move in the physical world.
Another metaphor we use to describe this Something Higher is that of meta-laws, or meta-rules, which often come to us in the form of sayings and old wisdoms. A good example is a saying such as “There is no free lunch.” Whatever is going on in this other world, its features seem to manifest in certain constraints and regularities as to our decisions, thoughts, feelings, and actions.
When we always seem to “bump” into the same problem, we rightly interpret this as a lesson we need to master, as a sign that we need to change our outlook. Once we do that, and begin thinking and acting differently, we stop running into the problem. We have successfully maneuvered the hidden reality by recognizing some of its features.
When we gain some advantage, we inevitably need to pay for it, before or after, in one way or another: with money, effort, suffering, labor, personal transformation, helping others—the form of energy doesn’t matter. But there needs to be an energy exchange. Not seeing this iron feature of the higher reality inevitably leads to disaster sooner or later (sometimes it happens instantly, sometimes much, much later). There is no free lunch, indeed.
The view outlined here has both theoretical and practical consequences.
On the theoretical level, we can’t ignore the world of thought, the world of mind. Instead of desperately trying to find eternal abstract laws that supposedly drive everything—biology, history, human behavior, etc.—we should rather start again to take reasoning seriously, especially when it comes to human thought and behavior, but philosophically, perhaps, with regard to all of nature.
As we have seen, reason is not limited to purely rational thought, but is deeply linked to feelings as well. Reasoning can happen consciously or unconsciously, yet reasoning it always is. It is the mind moving, whether this movement be deeply informed and therefore refined, or misinformed or chaotic, fragmented, and arbitrary.
On a practical level, this means we must finally leave the mindset that all about us is programmed, determined, or “just happens.” It means we can use our minds to change everything, always, even the most painful experiences. It means we need to stop blaming others, or society, or God, or biology, for our misfortunes and suffering, but rather ask: are there any errors in the way I look at things? What am I missing here? And what knowledge and experience do I need to get my mind moving away from the chaotic and fragmented state, and towards a truthful and informed state, in tune with the reality of the something higher? What are my feelings trying to tell me about my outlook on the world and what may be wrong with it? And what would be the right actions that this new way of thinking would lead to?
The way we interact with the world deeply depends on our thoughts and feelings. And both can be seen as movements of the mind.
Perhaps, then, it’s time to change it.
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There is some debate among experts on Aristotle as to the relationship between thought, desire and feeling in his work. To judge whether Aristotle saw thought as primary or just interconnected with desire and feeling, it might be useful to distinguish between thought as “that which arises out of the mind” and thought as “that in the mind which gives rise to thought.”
Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book VII, part 7 (http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.12.xii.html)