Human Alchemy – Field Notes On Watching Emotions

Incident On The 17:11 From Victoria

‘Twas the night before Christmas. I’m heading back to the family home and enjoying a rare taste of my old life among the corporate sardines on the 17:11 from London Victoria. Appropriately enough, the tin can we’re in is packed and silent: a hundred opposable thumbs are twitching over a hundred touch screens. Not a word is spoken. I have a feeling that if I were to attempt to talk to any of the humanoids around me, it would be regarded as a situationist prank. You could hear an email drop.

Even as I’m enjoying my estrangement from this weird spectacle, an undetected draft on my upper back generates a tiny peck of chilli pepper deep within my right nostril. It sits there smouldering minutely, the unmistakable genesis of a sneeze.

I have, of course, seen the TV reports on how a single sneeze can launch millions of holiday-trashing viruses into an enclosed space, zapping everyone present. I am also keenly aware that the thumb-twitchers around me have seen these same reports and that they are keenly aware that Christmas is just around the corner. It’s not a problem; I reassure myself that I am a responsible, non-sneezing man, not an irresponsible, virus-radiating mouse. My ego draws a red line – this sneeze will not stand. Alas, as the burning sensation intensifies, a jolt of panic – a point of no-return has clearly been passed. From this moment, no matter what I do, this nose will sneeze: ‘I believe you may get your headlines, Mr. Edwards!’ I brace my body against the inevitable.

Like a breaking wave, I am convulsed by a full-body sternutation. A hundred thumbs stop twitching, two hundred eyes (give or take) dart in my direction: mind streams fill with visions of a mucus-drenched Christmas spent peering over bed sheets and a Rudolf-red nose. Several hundred pre-molars grind.

Meditative Remedy: It is possible to disarm a sneeze bomb, but the clock is ticking; we must move skilfully and fast. The instant the peppery point is detected, attention must be directed to the burning sensation while a simultaneous effort be made to relax that area of the nostril. In other words, relax into the building sneeze rather than tense against it – focus on the burning sensation and relax the nose. With practice, you will be amazed to witness the peppery point dissolving into a harmless, warm, mucilaginous glow – the sneeze has melted. A tiny but remarkable benefit of meditation – so why not start with that?

Warning to sneeze experimenters: if you focus on the peppery point too late, or constrict your nostrils against it, you will quickly pass the point of no-return. Don’t be deterred, try to catch it earlier. According to ancient mystics, this technique is also effective for coughs.


Double Bubble Trouble

Tao, Brahman, TWINT (That Which Is Not Two), possibly even God, has sent a million stars fizzing across the firmament, all cherry-pink, silver and gold. An amber moon grazes indolently amongst scudding, milky clouds. And we are alone at last.

We have laughed at the same jokes, expressed wide-eyed enthusiasm for the same interests – expressed amazement at our shared enthusiasms. At one point, we laughed conspiratorially at the expense of everyone else at the party, whereupon she touched my forearm. Thereafter, we are sealed in a rarefied, blissful bubble – everyone outside looks comical, desperate, slightly deranged to us. It seemed only natural that our bubble should detach itself and waft out into the night.

We are walking closer now, matching each other step for step. Even our breathing seems to be in synch. We are floating with an eerie sense that ‘This was meant to be.’ We don’t actually know what we mean by ‘meant’, but who cares? The silence seems to deepen. I stop, turn to where I sense a warm, welcoming face is waiting, and… ‘Hiccup!’

Much laughter – we’ve been laughing together all night, so it’s not a big deal. I affect nonchalance:

‘Weird! I haven’t drunk much. I only… Hiccup!’

More laughter… ‘Hiccup!’

As if a deranged, malevolent frog has taken possession of me:

‘Hiccup! Hiccup! Hiccup!’

Much sighing. I move closer:

‘Sorry about this. I just wanted to say that it’s been so… Hiccup!’

On and on it goes. And then, finally, there it is: a tiny, terrible tell; a near-imperceptible shadow of irritation flits across her face like a bat, and the bubble is burst. If this ‘was meant to be’, what is the ‘meaning’ of a preposterous hiccup attack? It’s not ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’, but perhaps the gods really were just playing with us after all.

Meditative Remedy: Hiccups are often triggered by an interruption of peristalsis as a result of forcefully exhaling – for example, laughing or talking – before an act of swallowing food or drink has been completed. The remedy: take a deep breath and hold it. While keeping your breath firmly held, rapidly sip and swallow, repeatedly, from a glass of water. Hold your breath and keep your attention focused on sipping and swallowing, sipping and swallowing, without interruption, as long as you comfortably can. Four or five sips and swallows are usually enough for me. This close observation of physical phenomena can prepare the way for more subtle awareness of thoughts and feelings.


The Elephant In The Dining Room

I’m in a kind of underground restaurant bunker in Stockholm’s Old Town. It’s posher than I’m used to (at this point, I’m a hotel dishwasher by trade) and there isn’t much oxygen. We’re all laughter and smiles because it’s our big night: we’re celebrating the six-months’ anniversary of what is, in fact, a car crash of a relationship. The Love Bug is on its back; the wheels are spinning but it’s going nowhere. There are bodies and broken glass on the road. I, certainly, am faking – my smiles and laughter are a lie.

We take our places at the table with waiters attending with classic Swedish seriousness bordering on aggression. Anxiety shadows me as I sit down. We look at each other and smile uneasily. Then I feel something I’ve never felt before – a fluorescent flash of adrenaline shooting through my chest. A tiny, inconspicuous thought – something like, ‘She can see I’m faking, I can’t do this’ – has set my heart racing. Within seconds, I’m taking a deeper breath. This completely unexpected, ‘inappropriate’ alarm on our ‘special night’ is itself alarming and fires off more adrenaline. This, in turn, triggers alarming thoughts of needing to get out of this place that now looks like a medieval dungeon. I’m, of course, well aware that it would look mad for me to be sitting at a romantic dinner table as though facing a charging elephant – that triggers more anxiety. Although nobody else seems to notice anything is wrong, I decide to take myself off to the toilets on shaky legs. That seems to help and I dismiss it as just me feeling ‘stressed’.

Meditative Remedy: The remedy for this kind of panic is as simple and effective as the hiccup cure. It is to direct attention away from the anxious thoughts towards the physical manifestations of anxiety – towards the scary sensations in the body. So, when the adrenaline surges, watch and feel that pure energy being injected into the bloodstream. As the adrenaline triggers deeper breathing, watch the lungs filling with air and emptying. As the heart starts to race, feel the heartbeat deeply (at this point, knowing that the heart is healthy, that it happily beats at this speed anyway when running or playing sport, helps). Keep returning your attention to the physical symptoms of fear.

This is effective because the anxiety spiral is driven by thoughts fuelling emotion, fuelling more thoughts. If we break that link, interrupt that spiral by focusing on feelings, then the energy fuelling the anxiety is cut off, the adrenaline stops firing, the heart slows, and the lungs calm down. This ends the fear of a ‘panic attack’. It ends the terrible, chaotic thought, ‘I have to get out of here!’ because we know we don’t need to ‘get out of here’ at all; we just need to get out of thinking into feeling.


Meditation V. Booze – Rumble On The Sofa Bed

As in the above case, one of the great alternatives to meditation – indeed to finding genuine solutions of any kind – is booze. Feeling sad: ‘Have a drink!’ Feeling angry: ‘What can I get you?’ Feeling bored: ‘You want ice with that?’ Had some good news: ‘Let’s celebrate!’ Had some bad news: ‘This should help!’ Feeling hungover because you’ve been drowning your sadness, anger and boredom in alcohol: ‘Want some hair to go with that dog?’

When I was growing up, the evening meal always centred around the kitchen table that always featured a can of this, a glass of that. At university, barely a night passed in any 10-week term without someone asking: ‘Are you popping down The Pit for a pint?’ Groups of us took on the Herculean task known as ‘The Oadby Run’. The mission: to have a pint in all fourteen pubs in the local village during the (then) limited hours of opening. Time and distance constraints meant that boozers had to run between pubs. The result was mayhem as ‘runners’ collapsed in gutters, fell asleep in gardens – throwing up was de rigeur. I never attempted it despite a special dispensation allowing the lily-livered to drink half a pint per pub. But at the time and for many years afterwards, I believed absolutely that alcohol made me happier, that it added a sparkle of party dust to every occasion. Life was just better with booze. Who could doubt it?

Meditative Remedy: I’m sitting on the sofa conducting what might be described as an existential psycho-physical-spiritual experiment. To the layman: I’m having a drink. But not just any old drink. I’m having a drink after a session of meditation earlier in the day that has generated a palpable change in my mood.

There’s something cringe-making about the word ‘meditation’: it wears sandals; it smiles too much and too condescendingly. Meditation cushions are a few inches high, but meditators look down long, serious noses – as if from a great moral height – when they describe how they ‘sit’ in ‘formal meditation’ and do ‘sitting practice’. It’s quite an achievement to make the act of sitting sound pompous.

So, let me describe what I mean by that awful m-word. I mean, for example, that I’m sitting on my sofa in an extremely bad mood paying attention to the feelings in my chest. Someone has been unreasonable, unfair – they’ve got some nerve, I must say. Who do they think they are? Who do they think I am? Do they think?

It’s not a big deal and I know I’m over-reacting, but I have a surge of volcanic energy in my chest. My mind is spinning with thoughts about how I’ve been wronged, about what I said, about what I could have said, about what I bloody well should have said. Round and round it goes – ordinarily, I would be in for a good few hours of this (possibly including wee small ones), periodically revitalised by chats on the phone rehashing and reheating the annoyance.

So, here’s the challenging part – my annoyed thoughts are spinning round and round; it’s painful but compulsive. Rather than just focusing on these thoughts, I start trying to feel the painful emotions driving them. They’re not hard to spot – it’s like my heart’s full of thorns, subtly pricking, but also fiery. It’s like I’ve got a mixture of thorns and smouldering coals in my chest. This is the pain, the energy that’s fuelling all the thought activity. In fact, the thoughts are an attempt to escape the pain by squirting a cloud of mind ink to distract attention. How can I know that? Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

‘My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years… Now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry… I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts…

‘If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.’ (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, public domain e-book, pp.138-139)

Anyone who works too much in the head knows exactly what Darwin was talking about. As Osho said:

‘If you think too much – and thinking is always of the past or of the future – your energies will be distracted from feeling. Feeling is herenow. If your energies are moving into the pattern of thinking, then you will not have enough energies to move into feelings – and love will not be possible…’

The explosion of thought that follows an eruption of painful emotion is squidinkery – an attempt to distract our attention from feeling. Instead of thinking, I deliberately try to feel the thorns, the sizzling, the smouldering. My racing thoughts intervene, I get caught up in them, I return to the feelings. It goes on like this: feeling the thorns – thinking, thinking – noticing I’m thinking – return to feeling the thorns – thinking, thinking…

After about forty-five minutes of this chaos, my thoughts start to get fed up with being constantly interrupted, and… suddenly, I realise the thorns have stopped hurting; in fact, they have been replaced by a feeling of deep delight. The burning coals have become smooth, cool and calm. It’s actually shocking. The first few times it happened, I thought I must have imagined it somehow. But who is able to imagine themselves happy? If it were possible, there would be no problem. Waves of benevolence are washing over me – a long-forgotten friend pops into my head, I feel profound love for her. Curious, unexpected feelings of generosity arise, even for people I would ordinarily consider enemies. Forty-five minutes ago, I hated everyone! I feel great – I just want to sit there and feel these feelings. But the hour is up and ‘after the ecstasy’, as it were, ‘the laundry’.

Chores, reading politics, writing politics – all that thinking stuff – erode the tranquillity somewhat; the thought factory starts up again. But the underlying sense of well-being remains like a subtle, delightful background fragrance.

Later that evening, a rare drink is mooted – a small glass of sweet wine – and it strikes me that this is a chance to conduct an experiment on the effects of alcohol on the post-meditative state.

Pretty soon, where before there was a subtle, light feeling of delight, I can feel the emergence of a smouldering, restless feeling. My body feels heavier, more tired; my feet start to become hot. As I drink more, I can feel that the restlessness contains a subtle sense of dissatisfaction, even irritability. Where, before, I was fine just sitting here feeling the blissful vapours inside, the little things of life are now no longer enough – the pleasant feeling has been replaced by a grinding sense that I want to be somewhere else, somewhere more exciting. So, I’m restless, slightly dissatisfied; my mood has soured somewhat. If meditative peace is a subtle, delightful music, alcohol is a roaring jet engine that drowns it out.

The same comparison can be made after browsing the web, or TV, after watching a few minutes of an ‘action film’, playing video games, and so on. Activities that cause us to focus intensely outside ourselves, leave us feeling scattered, destabilised, anxious. Focused internal attention has the opposite effect.


The View From The End Of The World

How do you deal with the end of the world? How do you deal with the prospect that, not just you and your loved ones, but every human being, may die of thirst, hunger, heat, flooding, lynching, god knows what other horrors, in the next few years? How do you deal with the prospect of a million species facing extinction, and the possibility that almost all life on earth may soon be killed, vanished forever? Can this outcome really emerge out of lifestyles depicted as so completely ‘normal’ by corporate culture?

How could so many humans be so blind, so buried in mind-crap, as to not perceive the preciousness of every living being: every bird, every tiny crawling insect? ‘He would not hurt a fly!’ What a self-damning observation. Why should that be remarkable? Who has not seen the wonder of flies whizzing round each other in spectacular, tiny dogfights? Who has not seen their dignity and diligence in cleaning their wings and legs? And we smash this miracle of life with a fly swat! How can we view them as so worthless? What deep wisdom do we possess that persuades us they are certainly ‘just’ ‘bugs’, ‘just’ ‘this’, ‘just’ ‘that’? Does not every creature possess the deeply mysterious phenomenon of awareness, of knowing? Do we have the remotest understanding of what that phenomenon really is? We don’t even know what a thought is, and awareness is not a thought.

How could we not perceive the exquisite sensitivity and deep intelligence that allow animals to survive? How could we be insensitive to their astonishing care, patience and stoicism in rearing their young? How could we value these living beings on a par with the dead machines we build, viewing them as just one more resource to be scooped up en masse and ground into profit? We even degrade ourselves as a mere ‘human resource’.

How, even now, when famously sober, conservative climate scientists are shouting their warnings, their demands for action, can we just Carry On Regardless? We have treated Earth like it was dirt and we are paying the price. Climate collapse is not an industrial disaster, it is a spiritual disaster – it is the price of greed.

I first protested climate change in London in October 1989 with Friends of the Earth. Five years of working in sales and marketing were enough to convince me that corporate fundamentalism was on an apocalyptic collision course with the planet’s life-support systems. How could a global economic system prioritising maximised profits in minimum time, with no space at all on the bottom line to consider the impacts on the real world, not inevitably lead to disaster?

These last three decades have been a long, slow process of getting used to periodically dealing with great alarm and anxiety, digesting them, returning to something like normal, and then being alarmed all over again. In the last few years, these oscillations have increased in frequency and depth – in fact, it has often felt like my most paranoid thoughts from the past have been splashed across the evening news.

After some terrible new revelation, I find I go into a kind of dark, worried place for a while, then surface again. When it comes to climate collapse, I find it helps to have a talent for denial, to imbibe a little of that poison from time to time. Until very recently, people around me weren’t really concerned, and the whole culture always insists everything is ‘normal’ anyway, so I found it easy to slip back into feeling that the ship wasn’t really sinking.

Mystics have always claimed that consciousness moves to a new home when our body becomes old, tired and dies – nothing lasts forever. Less well known, they insist that the same is true of planets, which also get old, tired, fed up with hosting the likes of us. Planets and suns are being born and dying all the time, if that thought helps make current events seem less completely cataclysmic. I don’t know if the mystical view is correct – remarkable claims require remarkable evidence, and I don’t believe in ‘faith’ – so it doesn’t help much. Meditation, though, certainly does help.

Meditative Remedy: Sit for one hour every day for as many days as it takes and simply feel the sadness, grief, anxiety, whatever it is, in your chest and stomach. Osho described it perfectly:

‘You are sad. Go into your sadness rather than escaping into some activity, into some occupation, rather than going to see a friend or to the movie or turning on the radio or the TV. Rather than escaping from it, turning your back towards it, drop all activity. Close your eyes, go into it, see what it is, why it is – and see without condemning it, because if you condemn you will not be able to see the totality of it. See without judging. If you judge, you will not be able to see the whole of it. Without judgment, without condemnation, without evaluation, just watch it, what it is. Look as if it is a flower, sad; a cloud, dark; but look at it with no judgment so that you can see all the facets of it.

‘And you will be surprised: the deeper you go into it, the more it starts dispersing. If a person can go into his sorrow deeply, he will find all sorrow has evaporated. And in that evaporation of sorrow is joy, is bliss.’

This works. It alchemises and digests even the pain of prospective human extinction. Why? Because the cause of suffering is our strong identification with the pain: ‘I’m sad’, ‘I’m depressed’. We believe the pain is us. When we watch it, witness it, feel it, the identification is broken – the watcher simply cannot be identical to the watched; they are separate phenomena. This unarguable, gut realisation destroys identification; a gap is created, and the pain loses energy. Emotional pain is generated by focused attention outside the self and consumed by focused attention inside the self.

This, alone, will not solve the problem of climate collapse. But it may help maintain sanity as the crisis continues to unfold and we do our best to respond to it. Suffering with awareness is a great force for awakening – it devastates the otherwise awesomely stubborn illusions of ego. The very fact that there may be little future can force us into the present – here, now, where Buddhas dwell.


David Edwards is co-editor of