We do, however, have everything we need within us to complete this quest. Whatever is most alive within us in each moment, especially the tension we feel, is our compass pointing the way.
What we feel called towards and away from is our inner value system
Once upon a time, nearly everyone was born, lived, and died in what we would consider today to be a tiny geographic area, maybe even in the same small town. The community someone was born into almost certainly defined who they were, what they valued, what they would do. This is no longer the case. Unparalleled abundance, standardized education, modern media, and widespread mobility have permanently broken-down the old structures of community. It is uncommon to see a single extended family in the same community, let alone a full community survive intact. Some may see the old days as a simpler, halcyon time to which we should go back. But there is no going back. Most people will never again live and die in the same small towns again, not in the western world at least. Even in places where community structures have survived, simply falling back on these to make or justify decisions is no longer possible with the consciousness we now have. We can no longer say, I simply did as those around me did. We expect more of ourselves. Still, there is something to be said for community value structures: there is at least care in them. When people are living and working together in healthy communities, their fates are tied together and they look out for each other. They make relationships work because they have to. The modern equivalent is crowdsourcing our value structure to an identity-based peer group. This faces the same problem that community does, that ultimately we cannot claim as an excuse for our actions that those around us did it. Still, it scratches many of our itches because it gives us an important sense of identity and belonging that many of us lack in our lives. The problem is that everyone else is also a product of the same system as us. Everyone we look to for guidance is just as lost as we are.
First, we must understand that pure consciousness is valueless. Only emotion and contextually-applied instinct can provide value, that is to say our inner experience. We might think that hyper-rational people would be exceedingly effective at thriving in the world. This is not the case. Indeed, studying people who are purely rational, who have had the parts of their brain damaged that are responsible for sensing and processing emotions, we find that they are incapable of making even the most basic decisions. They might spend hours deciding whether to drink coffee or tea in the morning. They vacillate endlessly, unable to assign an emotional value or prioritize any of the options that present themselves. Without being able to assign general valuations of importance, they also cannot intuit that deciding between coffee and tea in the morning is not a decision important enough to spend so much time on. We experience and valuate with our bodies, which speak in the language of felt impulsions and emotions. Conscious thought, our conscious selves, are not equipped for effective decision making. Our conscious selves can observe, reframe situations and see new perspectives. They can cast our awareness to places that seem important. They can help direct and shape the form in which we express what we feel. But they are simply incapable of making value judgements. This is a fact of existence. We can force ourselves to make a decision based on rational thought, but without inspiration from within, the actions those decisions inspire will be dead on arrival.
We live in an unparalleled world of opportunity. Yet with every life path open to us, constantly bombarded by media feeds of people living “better” than us, we feel paralyzed by what we should do or even what we want to do. To commit is to miss out on the endless possibilities. Yet indecision is still a decision, and by committing to nothing we remain mired where we are. All options continue to be open to us, but life slips through our fingers as water back to the ocean. I have heard the explanation that human beings are naturally overwhelmed by too many choices, and I believe this to be a good explanation. Why then do we give ourselves so many choices? We feel paralyzed by choice precisely because we have no effective way of choosing between so many choices. When we stand for something, decisions make themselves. Freedom without a value structure to guide it is the very condition that leads to possibility paralysis. Suddenly faced with freedom, without a value structure to eliminate options a-priori, everything seems possible. But the thing that gives us so many overwhelming options also prevents us from making a decision. We cannot make a decision because we cannot assign emotional or intuitive value to the options. This is not to say that we should never weigh options. However, if we knew ourselves even reasonably well, we would know that 99% of the options out there are not real options for us. They are options we should never truly consider. Having a value structure that guides our decisions by eliminating most options limits our theoretical freedom. Practically it increases our freedom by allowing us to make the decisions that matter most. Free will makes sense only in the context of a value system: choosing among the options that remain, understanding and choosing how to act on the value system and how to express it properly in our context.
We obviously need a value system to move at all. Any movement, after all, implies a value judgement. What we move towards is good, what we move away from is bad. We become paralyzed precisely when we cannot decide what is good. Any living thing by necessity comes equipped with a structure for valuating options. Certainly as children we did not need to be told what we wanted. We never lose this capacity, which is effectively contextualized over the process of socialization and growth of a person. The issue arises when, as part of our growth and socialization, we learn to value certain movement that has no felt, inner correlate for us.
Ultimately we must strive to move aesthetically, to follow our felt sense above all else. If movement is not aesthetic, then we have disconnected from our own felt, inner experience. With no felt inner experience, there can be no qualities brought alive in relationship. Sometimes we must do this to survive, though survival situations are exceedingly rare in the world we have built. However, it is not a natural state to remain in. It is interesting to note that trauma, which is a high enough level of dissociation from self to be clinically diagnosable, occurs only in human beings, and animals that human beings have put in cages. Action must begin with felt impulsion, and as we are defined by what we do in relationship, we are implicitly defined by these calls to action. More precisely, we are defined by these inner impulsions inasmuch as we recognize and express them, which translates into movement towards points of equilibrium in relation to our context. To leave these forces unexpressed or to impede their resolution is uncomfortable, because it calls forth our body’s natural mechanisms that clamor with increasing amplitude for us to resolve the tension within us. When it becomes too uncomfortable, we dissociate from it. To return to it would be to return to discomfort, so we stay far away. Movement then becomes anesthetic and barren, as does our experience. We cease to be in rapport with our context and we stagnate psychically. The only way to continue ignoring these calls is to sever the relationship between body and mind, between our embodied selves and our conscious selves. When that occurs, we lose our ability to feel what is good or bad for us, and we can no longer move in relationship to them. The very thing we disconnect from in this case is nothing less than our embodied, inner value system pointing us forward in life. It is our inner compass. It is the primary tool we need for navigating life in an aesthetic way, which is to say a meaningful way, for meaning in whatever form can only exist in our felt, inner experience. If there is no aesthetic or felt experience there can be no movement towards what we seek, and the fundamental process of our life is arrested. There may be several factors that arrest this process, but from the perspective outlined in this work it is indeed an arrestation of the most fundamental human process.
Personal, inner, felt experience is all we have. We only ever experience the world from our perspective. This experience is the single thing that can never be taken away from us. When experience is aesthetic or felt, we gain awareness of the patterns that are unfolding, we gain the freedom and responsibility implicit as a witness to that slice of reality, and most importantly, we gain the meaning our inner experience provides. If we could not feel love in a relationship, and not feel connected to the other through that feeling of love, what possible meaning could love have? If we could not feel, as an internal sense, that a sacrifice for another was worthwhile, what possible meaning could sacrifice have? Without this inner experience, we are left only with external forms of meaning: money, prestige, adulation; all forms of external validation that come from an impoverished and untrusted inner experience. The irony is that money and fame only make you more of who you already are. If you are miserable and miserly, you will become more of that. If you are kind and generous, you will become more of that. Without our personal experience, we have nothing.
Our inner experience brought forth into the world via our relationships is us. To feel called or drawn towards something is the most basic building block of who we are. We cannot feel it unless we use it in some way, for there can be no neutral observation. Perception presupposes action. What we observe then implies us, because we only ever observe the relationship that emerges between things. To disconnect from any part of the process is to dehumanize ourselves and others. Any inner call to action ultimately was at some point an expression of what is best for us. It may be an ineffective or outdated strategy, and that is where we can apply our awareness, to help our entire organism develop more effective expressions. In a healthy human, instincts keep us moving towards exactly what we want in life, if we honor them. This is circular logic of course. Do we have the instinct because it's good, or is it good because it's an instinct? It’s up to you to decide. When a friend suggests that these impulsions may not be good, “from below and not from above,” Emerson responds in Self-Reliance, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil. No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” Certainly, these instincts and their accompanying impulsions evolved to move us towards working together, in community, towards mutual survival and prosperity. That much we know from our anthropological heritage and our neurophysiology as empathic beings. Our inner inspirations towards and away from, contextualized and honed by our awareness of the qualities we seek, are the only possible decision-making value structure that can make sense in a world where community value structures are disappearing and no longer provide any moral security anyway.
Our inner topographies are our compass, our map to navigating our experience
Felt movement is by definition action guided by and constantly calibrated by our innate feedback sense. Inasmuch as we can only be truly sure of what our senses tell us, then our inner experience as feedback about the unfolding moment is the only qualitative truth we can be sure of. It is no wonder that coercive systems often go to great lengths to break this connection between body and mind and instead sow mistrust of self. The felt or aesthetic sense is the language of our embodied self, just as words are the language of our conscious self. The feedback from our bodies is continuous, even when we bring no awareness to it. Yet understanding and trusting our aesthetic sense is the single most crucial decision anyone can make in their life. Every time we feel something, there is a reason for it. It arose in relationship to something, meaning that feeling is feedback about what is unfolding in the world. From this perspective, to ignore it, to leave it unused, or to disconnect from it is escapism that thwarts our forward movement in life. In cases of coercion, this may be a viable defense strategy. Children, for example, cannot easily escape abusive parents or the bureaucratic drudgery of modern mandatory education. Prisoners have no choice but to physically submit. Soldiers are expected to do their duty in the hells of combat. However, it is clear that disconnection from self is a last-ditch defensive strategy that any other living thing uses only when death seems imminent. We cannot expect this to be a reasonable strategy for living life in non-emergency situations. Unfortunately, we’ve come to take it for granted that dissociation from self is normal. We thus ignore the very thing that could help us grow, move forward, connect, feel, make meaning, bring alive what we seek. Disconnected from ourselves, we disconnect from the context as well, because our felt sense is nothing more or less than a reflection of our state in relationship to our context. We cannot be separated or defined apart from it. When we do, we are no longer at the level of the unfolding moment. We are trapped with unexpressed tension and energy from the past, weighing us down like shackles on an inmate. Perhaps someone else puts the bonds on us, but we are the ones who keep them there.
Everything we need is here and now. We arose in relationship with everything, and so everything has left its mark on us. Every single moment up to this point has been shaping us and preparing us for the present moment, and the moment after that. We are the being most perfectly adapted to our exact circumstances in life. And what better being to change its context than the one most perfectly adapted to said context? This is not empty enthusiasm, this is a simple fact of existence. Likewise, if there is a felt sense of something, there is a reason we feel it. If we feel it, it is because we are reacting to something in the relationship, something that exists in the emergence between the parts. I may not have the same reaction or the same feeling as those around me, but I can be sure that I am reacting to the same thing that is in the air, the ether, the strands of the relationships that bind us to one another. Because of our constant relationship to our context, this feedback both informs us of what is unfolding, highlights the most important aspects, and mobilizes us to take action. If we're feeling tension, it must be resolved in some way. If we are feeling tension, it is because it is the most important thing in front of us: either because the phenomenon is real and in the relationship, or because it reminds us of unexpressed tension trapped in our organism that must be worked out in some way anyway. If these premises were embraced, the moment-to-moment changing inner topography would become our compass, our wind rose. As the sum total of our experiences, insights, transformations, mistakes, personality, and relationships, it would be the best possible map to navigating our unique labyrinth towards what most calls out to us in life. It is constantly guiding us towards what is good through the experiences that can shape us into the person capable of living that goodness, clearing stored tension, and being partners in the unveiling of the present moment.
Eugene Gendlin in his book Focusing provides a simple example. We’ve all had the experience of leaving home and realizing that we forgot something, but we can’t remember what. Our entire body seems uneasy as we wrack our brains to try and remember. Our body is in tension, and that tension has a very particular feeling across the topography of our body (hence the name “body contour” that Peter Levine uses). It is uncomfortable to exist in tension, so we don’t feel at ease until we remember what it is. The tension is released, the felt sense is resolved, and we feel a sense of whole-body relaxation. Unless, of course, what we forgot was something important- then we might feel another tension in our bodies. Without another felt sense of tension to energize us, it is difficult to get moving again when we are in a state of relaxation. In this case, the tension to remember what we had forgotten serves a quite useful purpose in our lives. Remembering what we forgot at home allows us to expect to do without that thing, or go back and get it, or otherwise adapt our behavior to move back towards equilibrium. This is a simple example with no moral implication, yet we can see how this example translates readily. We mislead or lie to someone we care about, and we feel a tension impelling us to come clean. We feel guilty, in a word. The more we ignore this feeling and disconnect from it, the more we disconnect from the other person and the more the relationship suffers. The more we care about the person, the harder it is to ignore, because that relationship has a greater effect on our nervous system.
Of course everything we do is a product of our socialization and cultural conditioning. We cannot escape our socialization, else we could not speak and share and relate to others. We are a product of our culture, and we cannot run from that. But any community is constantly initiating its members into one of two extremes: coercion, oppression, and disconnection; or self-trust, self-reliance, and responsible freedom. Our communities can either aid or impede the inner processes that underpin any living thing: setting ends, acting, receiving feedback, and ultimately course correcting. A system that impedes a being’s ability to do this can accurately be called traumatizing. Trauma is simply a diagnosis of an inability to express tension, subsequent disconnection from one’s embodied experience due to the discomfort of that unexpressed tension, and accordingly an inability to update one’s organism, behaviors, or reactions based on new feedback.
I was once told that certain early Christians had an idea of the cross as metaphor, representing the axes of space and time. At the center of space and time is the here and now, where a rose is always blooming. All that is required of us in life is to follow that rose in every moment. To do so, we need awareness of that rose in the moment, or what we feel called to, and then to express that impulsion in some way in relationship to what is unfolding. The greater our awareness, the more readily we notice the rose, the closer we move to it. The closer we move to it, the easier it becomes to follow. We are calibrating our compass, improving our ability to read the map; we can use whatever metaphor we like. Attunement can only occur after action, and each successive adjustment improves the accuracy of our reading. If no action is immediately obvious, then take a step, any step, and that one step will tell us all we need to know about the direction we are headed in, provided we are willing to ask the question sincerely and truly want an answer. We must “learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across from within,” as Emerson wrote. Eventually, awareness will unfold in unison with the experience of the phenomenon. This synchronized awareness implies that some learning has gone from being intellectual or theoretical knowledge to being whole-body knowledge. Transformation is occurring, and we are getting closer to the rose.
Trust in our felt experience will take us where we want to go.
Perhaps we fear that if we were to bring forth what is within, it would lead to destruction and chaos. Inherent in this is the fear that society rightfully exists to prevent base expressions of human nature. So we settle for not trusting ourselves. The fact is, human nature is neither good nor bad. It is always a function of our context. We think killing another human being is a bad thing in general, but as a people we have decided that there are certain contexts where killing is acceptable or even laudable: in self-defense, in war, in capital punishment, in selective infanticide in the case of severe birth defects. Base contexts call forth base expressions.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as raw expression of impulsion. The inner tensions and forces we feel within are an unusable raw material which must be shaped in some way, a pure block of marble which must be given some shape by a chisel. To bring it forth is to bring it forth in relationship to something else, which is to shape it. What we bring it forth in relationship to is a product of the current context as modeled subconsciously against the total sum of all our past experiences as actions and feedback in the context of past relationships. Because we grew up in relationship to our society, any expression is shaped by that society and in relationship to it. We can have a healthy or an unhealthy relationship to our context. Regardless, “good” and “bad” (as cultural or societal definitions) behaviors are therefore as much a reflection of the context as they are of the agent, for the behavior itself and the subsequent judgement could not exist without the play between the two. If a society acts to coerce and oppress its people, then we cannot be surprised when its people react, healthily or unhealthily, to that oppression and coercion. This is not an argument against personal responsibility, merely an observation and logical deduction from the facts of existence. We are defined by the context we exist in. Any inner change is also therefore meaningless without a corresponding external change in the relationship between that person and the context that gave rise to the original situation, for the relationship is both reflective of the distribution of the parts and constantly affirms both as they exist in their mutual unfolding. As the relationship is emergent from the parts, we in some small way keep any extant pattern of relating alive, whether that be personal or societal. To truly change is to change how we relate which is to have an effect on the context. In doing so the relationship to the context reflects that and affirms our change. Certainly we can say that anything we do, good or bad, is an action shaped by the context we grew up in and a reaction to the context we are currently in. Since there are no raw expressions of impulsions, impulsions instead tend to be brought forth in whatever the line of least resistance is that a given context makes relevant in its weave of relationships. In most cases, for example, punching anyone who makes us angry is not contextually-relevant, and sure enough, fisticuffs are not a common occurrence in day-to-day life.
The question becomes then whether we can trust it to make constructive contextually-relevant expressions. Many might say, we cannot trust what is within because otherwise we would do as we like, and chaos would ensue. Yes, people would do as they like. And what, precisely, is the problem with that? What is so wrong with doing what we like? The assumption is that what we would like is to be lazy and do nothing productive at best, and actively hurt other people at worst. The former I honestly see no problem in. If we are to be a society of free men and women, freedom to do also implies freedom not to. We must respect both the freedom to and the freedom not to for freedom to have any meaning. Freedom implies accepting responsibility for our actions, as well. Regardless, I would expect very few people to actively do nothing, as this entire work is based on the line of reasoning that human beings ae always impelled to action, and challenge, and growth. We simply have become disconnected from that life force within us, the network of tensions acting upon us and through us. Still, one might say that if people were trusted, they would abuse that trust to take advantage of others. Part of the difficulty in answering this critique lies in the status quo. If everyone around us is obese, it is hard to know what a physically healthy person looks like. Similarly, if everyone around us is psychically unhealthy, we may very well not have a good idea of what a healthy person looks like.
Health, wellness, goodness is not the end-state itself but rather the process of continually moving towards it, of bringing it to life in our relationships. Health can only exist in relationship to others and to some ideal. Any abstract quality we seek exists only in the moment-to-moment act of relating. Accordingly, a healthy person is always deepening their relationship between their embodied and conscious selves. Everything else unfolds from that. Their relationship between embodied and conscious selves is always deepening and growing. This reflects an organism free of ineffective habitual associations, and that is always updating itself according to feedback from the environment. This implies their self-knowledge is always deepening, their learning process is always engaged. They are always course correcting. They are moving into deeper self-trust and autonomy. Deepened connection with self means deepened connection with others, due to our empathic facility, and a desire to express our nature via movement towards a common vision in community. This implies a respect for others. With a continually deepening awareness, they are always moving into both greater freedom and greater responsibility, as they have more free choice available along with awareness of the consequences of those choices. Thanks to their self-awareness, they set and enforce clear boundaries due to clear understanding of their equilibrium point. All this implies that they would seek out meaningful challenge that was relevant for them as the vehicle for moving forward in life.
The healthy person, in a sense, is free from their past and comfortable in themselves, with no or little habitual tension stored in their organism, which leaves them free to pursue their embodied equilibrium, the contextually-best manifestation of their natural instinctual drive towards goodness. This is not freedom from others or a rejection of society, per se, nor the creation of a moral-less psychopath who wantonly causes mayhem as he wishes. Freedom can never be separated from responsibility, because free will ultimately stems only from awareness of the ability to act differently. Packaged along with this awareness of possibility is the awareness of the consequences of our action. The freer we become in our expression of ourselves, including our embodied self, the more responsibility we assume for our actions and their consequences. This responsibility is intricately tied to the human instinct we all share to move towards human connection and community while preserving individual agency. True freedom recognizes that my liberty is bound together with that of those around me. If I oppress, I am equally as oppressed as the person I seek to oppress and control. To be connected to our selves is to be connected to the deeply empathic nature we know now is wired within us.
This is precisely the person Ralph Waldo Emerson describes in Self-Reliance. Emerson is not, as is widely thought, advocating a rejection of society and human connection. He is referring specifically to self-reliance of spirit. Emerson describes the conflict we face: It is easy to be yourself in isolation, and easy to follow the crowd around others. This can only be resolved by discovering, calibrating, and constantly orienteering via our embodied compass, naturally leading to increasingly finer-tuned expressions of the most basic patterns that define self: our impulsions to movement towards or away. By freeing ourselves to express, in words and actions, this deepest, truest inner self, we recover the latent quality of what Emerson called self-reliance. We become capable of being our own sovereign man or woman, firmly rooted in the trust of our own experience, while still deeply connecting with the world and our community. And in the proper context, universal human traits do emerge. In describing a plan for a more free-form and engaging graduate program for psychology students, Carl Rogers explains that his plan “is built on the hypothesis that the student has the potentiality and the desire to learn, providing that a suitable environment can be established. Very few educators believe this, yet there is research evidence even in lower forms of life to support this view. Both rats and flatworms choose more complex environments, with more difficult problems to solve, when they are given the choice." It is only when we feel so out of touch with ourselves and what we value, when our inner experience has become barren and anesthetic, that we feel the enervating urge to flee from challenge in general.
Beginning with psychologist Carl Rogers and his research on what he called Basic Encounter Groups, continuing with trauma researchers, and widely seen in various practices today, we know that when we are free to express ourselves holistically, as a unified organism in relation to other beings, universal human qualities emerge. Carl Rogers wrote in Freedom to Learn, "In persons who are moving toward greater openness to their experiencing, there is an organismic commonality of value directions. These common directions are of such kinds as to enhance the development of the individual himself, of others in his community, and to contribute to the survival and evolution of his species."
Carl Rogers lists these qualities emerging from an acceptance and expression of self.
The fact is, we never reach an end state we will be perfectly satisfied with. All ends are transcended, and any movement towards an end that ignores the means is counterproductive. Utopia is in the process of working towards utopia. The means, in the end, are the ends we get. Only in the process can we call forth the qualities we seek in relationship in each unfolding moment. Healthy- whether physical or psychic- is a process. In the process of moving towards what is good, we deepen our relationship to ourselves and those around us, and in doing so, we can be said to be healthy because we are in movement. The only mistake we can make is to impede ourselves or let us be impeded in this movement. Once we move freely, we open ourselves to feedback, and we can trust that we will gradually move ever closer, never arriving but always in the right direction, spiraling closer each time to the center of the labyrinth. And that will have to be good enough, because things never fundamentally get any better. Old problems get replaced by new ones. Any material dross we accumulate simply magnifies what is already there. If we’re not enjoying the process of never-arriving, then we’re doing it wrong. Again, it won’t be easy. But if we want it to be easy, we’re also doing it wrong. Mistakes will be made, but only because we are incapable of reading the map finely enough yet. We must calibrate our intuitive sense through experience, for like any sense or ability it withers without use and must be exercised to improve. Make mistakes you can recover from or that you learn something useful from regardless. And in the meantime, we might think about how a society with our amount of unparalleled abundance might be more forgiving of many mistakes. They are, after all, at least a sign that someone is trying something for themselves, trying to figure things out.
 Factors may include a lack of imagination, perceived danger, unresolved tension stored in the organism, disconnected consequences (for example, we don’t see the polluted river downstream of a factory, so we care less about it and may not even think about it- and certainly didn’t until fairly recently in our history), disconnection from self and therefore an inability to empathize, a perceived lack of agency and corresponding inability to affirm and move towards what is valued as good.
 I.e. the relationship is the multi-way feedback loop emergent of the parts in relationship.
 See Feldenkrais, Body and Mature Behavior
...sees much and knows much