The Willingness to Feel: a Learnable Skill

What happens when things get better?  As with the original inquiry into the heavy stuff — what happens when things go bad? — various knowledge systems answer in their own vocabularies.  No single one can take the place of looking for yourself, and with direct investigation, they all point to the same core process.

There is a discharge or, in more psychological terms, a yielding, a surrender, an opening of the heart.

Perhaps surprisingly, this shift can also be accurately described as a willingness to confront.  Resistance to inner content is an avoidance, a looking away; breaking through it is an act of courage.  Any connotation between surrender and weakness or defeat should be abandoned here.  The surrender I am talking about is quintessentially heroic.  It means showing up in a place of danger more, not less.

Incidentally, the dangers are real, not symbolic.  This practice leads directly to experiences that could be overwhelming to the unprepared.

Another formulation is the willingness to be exposed, defenseless, vulnerable, the willingness to experience anything.

The polarity between resistance to feeling and willingness to feel is more easily felt in the belly than in the head or chest.  A sense of expansion and relaxation in the abdomen correlates with activation of the ventral branch of the vagus nerve, a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, according to Stephen Porges’s polyvagal theory.  Contraction and tension in the area correspond to the sympathetic — the ‘fight or flight’ response.  The two linked systems regulate many physiological variables, such as constriction and dilatation of blood vessels, heart rate, the flow of adrenalin and blood glucose, etc.  When one is activated, the other one goes dormant.

This dichotomy is also expressed in the often-quoted statement from the New Testament: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John, 4:18)  A modern-day scientist might say: ortho- and parasympathetic arousal are mutually exclusive.

An example might help.  Say you promised you would call back this person.  You know the call has to happen eventually but you procrastinate because the prospect of being on the phone with this person triggers unpleasant memories.

We are all familiar with this situation: you know you have to but you don’t, and the result is that you walk around with some additional ‘mass.’  You ‘weigh’ more mentally.  You feel a little stressed.

In this case, it is clear that yielding and showing courage are one and the same.  Some people would say that your lower self needs to yield to your higher self.  The avoider in you must yield to the confronter.  Or, in more therapeutic terms, the unpleasant memories connected to that person must be faced in order to neutralize their power to hold you in place, pushing and pulling you at the same time.

The sense of well-being you experience after making the call can serve as a template and a marker for successful healing work.

The avoidance of unpleasant feelings, practiced as a life strategy over a period of years, leads to the suppression of any feeling, the dominant trait of the ‘healthy’ neurotic, also known as the well-adjusted adult.  People in this condition perceive themselves as trapped in their lives, always on the brink of an emergency, and having to defend themselves against countless complications and dangers.  We all are afflicted by it to some degree.

Many technologies have been developed to restore the ability to feel.  I have studied some of them.  I support them all.  In this page, I present a few exercises that I have found to have an excellent synergy with therapeutic work with entheogens.  They are part of a mandala of healing that surrounds the medicine ceremonies proper and that includes:

—  a strategy of completing cycles of action, relationships and projects, of tying loose ends in order to make yourself more available in present time.  See complete,complete, complete.

—  ‘detective’ work about your biography to incubate and guide the session into the right direction.  See stalking the ego.

—  investigation of your formative systems — family, community, culture, religion — and the ways your life is shaped by them.  See the systemic view.

—  preparation of your vehicle through fasting, cleansing regimens, nutrition, exercise, natural environment and other procedures.  See tuning your vehicle.

—  other stuff


This is best done in a natural environment with live plants and trees, but it works with anything, animate or inanimate.  Stand in front of, for example, a tree.  There is only one instruction: “feel what it feels like to be that tree,” or simply, “be that tree.”

There is no ‘right’ perception to get.  Once you feel something that answers the basic instruction, just move on to another tree, object, animal, etc. and repeat.  Continue at a comfortable and steady pace.  Feel what it feels like to be various things.

Some people will easily ‘get’ something.  For some, it could be a challenge.  It is not an exercise in staring, observing or confronting.  It is an exercise in empathy.

Whether or not you find it easy, you may feel a kind of strain, as if you were exercising a muscle that has been in disuse for a long time.  Should that happen, the following intervention might help.  Close your eyes and feel that strain.  Feel what it feels like to be exercising an ability that has become rusty from disuse.  How does it feel in your body — belly, chest, shoulders, neck, jaw, forehead?  What kind of energy is it?  What is its texture, its flavor?  See if you can totally relax into that experience and make a study of it, the way you were studying being a tree.  Then return to the main drill.

I found great value in becoming intimately familiar with what resistance to feeling feels like.  It builds my ability to monitor my own healing work.  It allows me to make my inner exploration nimble, flexible and hence safer, by making it a swing, a pendulation between willingness and unwillingness to feel, rather than a forceful push.  By focusing my awareness directly on the unwillingness, I make the situation more spacious and inclusive, and less of an effort against — which doesn’t work and could even hurt.

This is the same action as opening the heart, understood as an ever-expanding inclusiveness, not as any posture, even one of ‘kindness.’   When we get to intimately know the heavy stuff in our lives, the next skill we need to add to our panoply is the ability to be larger than anything.

If you practice this exercise steadily for 15 to 30 minutes during the hours leading to a ceremony, you will get more out of your interaction with the healing medicine.  Even better, if you practice it regularly until this willingness becomes an automatic competence rather than a deliberate exercise, you will be powerfully equipped to match the intense energy of heavy incidents when it comes up.  It will not help you to know intellectually that an open heart is a good thing to have.  It has to become second nature.  With entheogens, there is only now.

Be gentle with yourself.  Easy does it.


Tonglen is a very simple Tibetan Buddhist meditation technique, done with the breath.  On the inhale, you allow the suffering of the world, the negativity and darkness, to reach you and touch you.  You open your heart to it.  You do not try to protect yourself from it.  On the exhale, you send it blessings, love and healing.  There can be a short pause between the inhale and the exhale.  Here is a good presentation of the technique:

The beneficial part is the inhale, the non-resistance.

Tonglen makes an interesting contrast with those practices in which we inhale the good, the light, health or love we want, and exhale negativity, disease and darkness.  On the surface, this may look like a a way to get better, but on a deep healing level, it reinforces our defensiveness — the ultimate cause of suffering.  There is a great lesson in this comparison.

Christian teachings about yielding and selflessness also come to mind.  A serious investigation of what holds suffering in place demonstrates their profound practicality.

To make this practice more obviously relevant to self-healing, do it on your suffering.

There is no upper limit to how much you can practice this.  It is absolutely non-toxic.


‘Feeding your Demons’ is a thousand-year-old Tibetan Buddhist healing technique called chöd, adapted for our age by Tsultrim Allione in her book and workshops.  A description of the process can be found here:

In it you summon the presence of your demon (addiction, fear, illness, limitation, etc.), you create a detailed personification of it, dialogue with it to discover its deepest need and eventually give yourself as a healing nectar to it.  In this giving of ourselves as food to what we fear or hate most, we learn the same profound lesson, but formatted to focus on specific issues in our lives.

You may very well heal major illnesses or life problems with this practice, but, like the other exercises, it is included here because of its excellent synergy with entheogenic medicines.  It teaches how to be in the presence of whatever may come up.


This is a variation on the practice of focusing on affirmations.  In fact, affirmations don’t work, as people who have honestly tried to use them know.  Only this way of doing them produces gains.  It is done in writing, at least until you get a general feel for the process.

Take a sheet of paper and a pen.  Draw a vertical line down the middle of the sheet.  On top of the left side, write your affirmation, for example “I am loved and appreciated.”  Then listen within to find whether this is really your experience.  You will probably hear a little voice that says  “no, I am not” and presents some counter-evidence.  Write what that voice is saying on the right side, across from the affirmation.

Then repeat.  Write the affirmation on the left side, affirm it, then listen to the little voice inside that denies it and write what it says on the right side of the sheet.  Keep doing it until you really don’t hear anything within that denies the affirmation.  It could take several pages and that wouldn’t be a waste of time.

This exercise could very well transform your life, but that is not why it is included here.  For our purpose, it teaches the important skill Peter Levine calls pendulation, the ability to shift effortlessly between the two energetic poles of an issue.  In extreme healing, we deal with inner content that often carries a high charge and has the ability to throw us into very unpleasant states of consciousness.  In essence, the skill of pendulation is the ability to rise above the permanent barriers, made of solidified resistance to feeling, that separate this crazymaking material from our ordinary waking state.

It is useful to learn to ‘dance’ with it, that is, touch it lightly, sample its flavor, so to speak, without allowing ourselves to get engulfed in its energy.  Levine calls this associated skill titration.

With this pen-and-paper exercise, we can train ourselves to deal with powerful and volatile energies in a safely contained format.

At a certain point, you won’t need the pen and paper any more.  The skill will be internalized and it will be of great value in your inner work.


Here is an example of how these various exercises can be combined to handle an overwhelming experience.

From the point of view of mental manifestation (“you create your reality through your beliefs”), the freeze phase of the fight, flight or freeze response (see what is the heavy stuff?) is a deep concentration on, and contemplation of, powerlessness.  In an overwhelmed state, the being makes the consideration that this is it, this is reality.  To free ourselves of its unwanted effect — powerlessness in real life — we need to work with feelings in pairs or dyads.

The dyad which is the key to whether the charge begins to dissolve or ‘sticks’ is the dichotomy willingness to feel/resistance to feeling.  Patiently working on it will pay off.

It is perfectly natural to be unwilling to reexperience such a moment.  What you want to do is feel, with the greatest possible detail, that unwillingness.  Feel the resistance, as described above.  That will hold you safely in your normal, powerful sense of self, but with added awareness.  Then pendulate between that experience and sampling (titrating) a tiny amount of the trauma energy.

Do it a little at a time, increasing the amount you sample very gradually.  The idea is to practice this until you can effortlessly jump back and forth between feeling utterly powerless and your normal, in-control self.

At that point, it is as if you have created an open channel for discharging the paralyzing trauma energy and retrieving the parts of your soul that were trapped in it.

In summary, there are three technical aspects to handling the sense of powerlessness, each with specific exercises to practice:

–  feeling it, with the empathy exercise, tonglen (opening of the heart) and titration

–  ‘unfeeling’ it with the awareness exercise on resistance

–  practicing the felt/unfelt polarity with the affirmations exercise


Even if you do not combine these techniques with medicine-taking, you can use them as a foundation to make all kinds of negative energies vanish from your life.  Here is how.

The two following exercises should be done after spending time with the empathy drill, when the ability to feel into things is easily accessible, and after getting familiar with the skill of pendulation.

Think of a recent upset.  It should be small, like having someone cut in front of you in a supermarket line or not finding your keys.  It should be recent enough for you to be able to still feel some irritation when you bring it to mind — but nothing heavy.

Recreate as fully and vividly as you can the situation in which it happened, including all physical senses, sight, hearing, body position, etc., as well as thoughts, emotions and of course the upset feeling.  Feel exactly how it felt in your body — belly, chest, shoulders, neck, jaw, forehead.  Feel it so fully that you are able to relax into it.  When you are completely relaxed in that experience, expand yourself to include it.  Allow the tension to dissolve and vanish.

At that moment you will sense a return to Source, as if a small piece of you that had been trapped in that moment were freed and returned to present time.  Make a note of that.  Knowing that you have the ability to make held tension disappear and knowing what that feels like can be liberating in itself.

There is a scale or spectrum of traumas from mild upsets like this one to extremely heavy, crippling incidents.  The idea here is to cultivate the ability to make things disappear, gradually, on a gently rising slope, patiently but persistently.  This exercise is not sufficient to handle the heavy stuff.  Other technical knowledge is required, but practicing it will set up a model or morphic field for the experience of liberation.  When you find yourself stalled in an attempt to handle an issue, you will be able to call upon that template as a kind of power object and it could help you break through the blockage.

Another beneficial way to put this skill to use, with or without entheogens, is with beliefs or postulates.

We all carry traces of moments we are unwilling to feel.  One of the principles of working successfully with the heavy stuff is that those traces are not in themselves what disables us.  The answer is always in the conclusions we drew about what happened.

Let us assume you were once forced to eat donuts and you now have a phobia of donuts.  (If that is the case, please accept my apologies and choose another example, like a phobia of croissants.  It is hard to find an example that will not trigger something in someone.)

The good news is that you do not have to relive the minutes or hours of anguish and revulsion you once experienced in the presence of donuts.  All you have to do to make that phobia disappear is to summon it.  Make it present.  Feel what it feels like to be donut-phobic.  Feel its texture and wavelength fully, as if there were nothing else in your life.  Then hold steady and dwell in it.  You might feel an urge to go away somewhere in your mind.  Don’t.  Stay.  The trapped, poisonous energy of the traumatic experience will bubble up and blow off.  It will do so faster and more thoroughly than if you had tried to ‘relive’ the incident, because you are addressing the decision that is holding it in place.  

Note:  This works, but only if you have the skill level to monitor how thorough you are being and to make sure you complete the job.

© contrast10 2014.  All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “The Willingness to Feel: a Learnable Skill

  1. Pingback: The Truth About ‘Getting Down on Yourself’ | Extreme Healing: Working with the Heavy Stuff

  2. Hello.

    First off, what an outstanding set of resources. I just discovered you today. And I am so impressed and thankful to have discovered you.

    I am hoping you may be able to give me directions on which techniques to utilise.

    My background: In 1 week or so I will begin a 30 day micro-dosing experience of iboga.

    My aim is to help remove my addictions, of which there has always been some. Previously cigarettes and alcohol. I removed them, but now my addiction has been for sex. Pornography, casual sex and even recently prostitutes (which for 33 years I actively condemned).

    The power of this addiction genuinely scares me and has at times brought me to tears with my lack of ability to remove it / the awareness of it’s severity.

    I undertook an ayahuasca ceremony a few months ago, and although so beautiful in it’s experience. I did not it would seem have the necessary skills to direct the questioning / request to direct the experience as such.

    I have used many different techniques, EFT, affirmations etc etc. I meditate, do yoga, and live a truly wonderful life. It feels as though this beauty is frightening to my low self image and drives me further to indulge in these self harming activities.


    I do not really have my finger on what the emotion / feeling is underneath that I am covering up with this addiction.
    – I underwent many years of bullying in school, leaving me unable to have partners.
    – I did not have a father around (this felt to me as no issue – but research shows high correlation between no father figure and sexual addiction)
    – I am (predominantly) secretly bi-sexual

    These are likely key players, but maybe other points too.

    My request: during and before my 30 day microdosing, I would like to apply the techniques listed above. But of course, not all of them.

    Could you advise of specific ones which may be of use? Hopefully based on previous examples of similar traits / addictions you have seen?

    If not, no issue, I will do them all to a degree. The website alone is such a huge help.

    Thanks in advance


  3. Again, thanks so much for your input!

    For a long time now I have been on this path, and have found the right resources at the right time to fix the issues. But something told me we just don’t have the right language in these areas yet.

    It’s clear to me that you are speaking the right language and I’m excited to see this language unfold further for all involved.

    I begin the exercises you mentioned today. And will begin macrodosing by the end of the week.

    I feel I have a clear understanding of my inner matters right now, my addictions are very much at ease and I am confident the timing is right.

    I shall keep you posted on progress made.

    Thanks again


    • “But something told me we just don’t have the right language in these areas yet.”

      I can really relate to that. It’s a challenge to my writing ability. It feels like you would have to be a genius poet to communicate effectively about this. One thing I do, beside trying to write more sharply, is approach it from various angles, that is use various psychological, philosophical or spiritual vocabularies to suggest or sketch these huge energies that we don’t have a language for.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well you’re doing a damn fine job.

        You know when you stumble across something that jerks you inside, be it a moment like watching a bird fly. And you feel a flutter of awareness. I always feel like the universe just saw itself like 2 little puppies, all excited.

        That’s exactly what I felt as I read the guides. The furthering of awareness, transformed into digestible practical language.

        A beautiful thing.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you.

      “There is a crack in everything
      That’s how the light gets in”

      Leonard Cohen

      “para qué protegerse si entra la luz por las heridas”



  4. Hey, I actually have a very similar story to emergingconscious, but it looks like your initial reply isn’t there anymore. I was hoping you could give me advice on the best techniques to use.

    – I’m currently struggling with anger, guilt, and shame related to early sexual abuse and physical abuse. I also have had a history of addictions from alcohol to sex (including prostitutes) to gambling. I am currently in a relationship, where the revelation of these addictions has recreated a lot of shame. Also, whenever these feelings come up, I jump into fight or flight mode before I even know what happened. They are going straight from totally unconscious to a conscious desire to isolate myself and make irrational decisions to cut off people, jobs, etc. This feeling of shame and worthlessness seems to last for days.
    – I also feel A LOT of stuck energy around how this abuse has played out from my perspective. I have abused a lot of animals and at times partners, and there seems to be a constant bullying/controlling aspect to me. I’d like to make peace with what’s happened to me, and with how I’ve hurt others. I feel like I need to experience what it feels like to be crushed and bullied, so I can let this energy dissipate.
    – Finally, and maybe most importantly, I seem to be facing this impending sense of doom, which seems to come from a void of darkness within me. It feels like dying, even though I’ve never been close to that. I guess it feels like the collapse of my will and complete surrender, which are scary as shit. When I think about doing something wrong, this feeling comes up, and I close it off as quickly as possible. I’d love to be able to develop a different relationship with this feeling, so it doesn’t swallow me or make me go into disaster mode thinking.

    Thanks for any advice you have – your advice really resonates with me, as no amount of lightwork and affirmations can change the feelings of the shadow. Keep up the great work.


    • It’s really hard to give advice to someone based on a few typed words. It’s very hard even to give advice when you know the person well!

      I would just say that for all this heavy, hard-to-feel content that we all have, we need to cultivate the skills that Peter Levine calls titration and pendulation. Do you know his books? They are really interesting. I am reading the latest one right now. I haven’t been trained in his method, but I am kind of learning it directly from the book.

      “Titration” is simply the skill of feeling a tiny amount of something, like taking a tiny sip of a drink because it’s too hot. Maybe you can use that image to approach the stuff you described. Maybe you can think about it as dipping one toe to feel the temperature.

      “Pendulation” is the skill of going back and forth between the difficult feeling and your normal self that is able to keep it shut down. It is learning to dance between the two without being overwhelmed by the painful stuff, nor being totally unable to experience it. This back-and-forth is described in many other systems of healing or ‘self-improvement.’ For example, there is a chapter that describes the technique with a lot of detail in the book “Unlimited Power” by Anthony Robbins, which is basically neurolinguistic programming (NLP). The exercise with the two columns and the affirmations works directly on that. You can start with lightweight stuff to get the feel of it, the “swing,” then gradually move on to heavier stuff.

      On a much larger scale, at the level of the whole personality, it is the same thing that psychologists describe as “shadow work” or “shadow integration.”

      The exercises on this page are supposed to develop these abilities if you practice them seriously. The whole idea is that if you’re going to dance with a gorilla, you should know as much as you can about dancing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s