The important difference between a feeling and an emotion

Ocean Cliff
Photo Credit: RejiK

In a Facebook status update tonight, Robert Augustus Masters writes:

Once we really understand that there is no true escape from feeling, including unpleasant or distressing feeling, we may start, at last, to consciously and consistently turn toward such feeling, like a loving parent turning, with full presence and compassion, toward their just-hurt or badly frightened child…

I struggled to express whether I agreed or disagreed with this sentiment and ultimately concluded that much depends on the sense given to the word “feeling.” The word “feeling” is often seen as a synonym for “emotion,” but the two words have a different feeling to them, don’t they? Maybe they even create subtly different emotional responses in you?

A “feeling” is closely connected to what we perceive through the fingers. The first definition in the dictionary says it’s related to the “function or the power of perceiving by touch.” Feelings tend to be warm or cold. Feelings are not responses that are linked to sight, hearing, taste, or smell; thus, feelings have less precision than emotions. Feelings are often vague, and more frequently flow down than up, just as liquid flows downhill but never uphill. People feel bad more than they feel good. They feel pain more than they feel pleasant. Feelings are rarely complex.

On the other hand, “emotions” are very complex. Like feelings, they are connected to the life force or chi; however in emotion, the chi is more directly referenced, not mediated through touch. Emotions take life energy and move them from one place to another, swaying like the tides in the ocean from incredible, tsunami-like highs to waves crashing against cliffs. Emotions involve such things as joy, sadness, fear, hate, love … emotions that may be loosely called “feelings,” but which are much more complex than more tactile feelings like warm and cold, good and bad. Emotions can be easily agitated, and once disturbed they tend to flow in negative or neutral directions.

Yes, “feeling” and “emotion” may be roughly equated, but there are subtle differences. From a spiritual perspective, we must understand that both emotions and feelings enact a process which directly or less directly stirs the life force, making it loose and liquid as with feelings or putting it into motion in ocean-like waves as with emotions.

You may hear spiritual teachers tell you that there is no need to escape from feelings, no matter how unpleasant or distressing, but this is subtly off base. Feelings can be avoided if they are unpleasant or distressing, much as you would remove your finger off a hot stove or remove your foot from an icy pool. There is no need to wallow, no need to lose peacefulness unnecessarily.

It is the emotions that can’t be avoided, and ought not be.

Emotions begin with chi, unmediated, not with an ephemeral bit of friction. It is their nature that they must be encountered; there is no getting around them whatsoever. The only question is where they can be moved, not whether.

Like the ocean, they can rise to the surface or fall to the depths; they can stay out in the wide blue yonder or crash upon shore. And when they crash, they may find their way to soft, sandy, white pristine beaches or jagged, mountainous fjords.

With Robert August Masters, I believe there is wisdom in not bypassing emotions. But I do not see the point to “consciously and consistently turn toward … feeling,” which would do little good but to distract our equanimity with pointless diversions. It is emotion that we must consciously and consistently turn towards, so that we may open ourselves to Love and allow Spirit to move the oceanic waves within us to their most auspicious resolution.


  1. says

    I have a completely different take on this . I think a distinction between emotions and feelings is a very helpful one. My understanding comes from the teachings of Dr Samuel Sagan and the Clairvsion school of meditation. ( Emotions emanate from the reactive mind ( from samskaras or blockages in our energy body) and in the end are repetitive. limited and boring – the ” poor me” stories for example. They call for shadow work. Feelings on the other hand emanate from the Unique Self and are endlessly rich and varied. Emotions are reactive, based on grasping and are unstable.feelings are unconditional and based on letting goand are stable. If you have any difficulty assessing whether you are expereiencing a feeling or an emotion. apply the test of awareness: ” when feeling arise the more aware you are, the stronger the feeling becomes. When an emotion arises, the more aware you are the quicker it tends to vanish. ” ( Sagan)
    The more we connect with our Unique Self, the more emotions become replaced by feelings in our daily life. One could even say that the whole point os spiritual pratcies is to that end.

    • says

      Gillian, thanks for adding this valuable perspective. The Clairvision School’s teaching is a new one on me, and will have to learn more about it before wrapping my mind around it. Blessings, Joe

      • says

        The Clairvision school is a school of meditation and esoteric studies in the Western gnostic tradition founded by Dr Samuel Sagan in Australia in the late eighties. Took off like wildfire and now has centres here and in America. Sagan is a remarkable being, truly a Master of subtle energy and much else. I have a huge respect for him and owe him a great deal in terms of my own journey. Foundational to the school’s teachings is a meditation practice for awakening the third eye. ( free download of the practice on my website
        Thanks for your brilliant blog – dont know how you manage to keep up with everything and really appreciate ypur support for Marc and the way you help to keep Integral movement on its toes!! Loved the recent Terry Patten / Marco Morelli article on Beams and Struts: “Occupy Integral!”

  2. Calvino Rabeni says

    Hi, Joe,
    You’re on to a very interesting subject, and distinction here.

    For various reasons I’ve spent the past year studying the subject of emotions. This an involved study in two senses – the human processes and experiences of emotion and feeling are themselves complex, as are the corresponding conceptual and models used in research, philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and so on. Emotion and feeling as topics are interesting because they are at the core of what we mean by being human, and track and parallel the evolving understanding of human nature and consciousness.

    I noticed the words “emotion” and “feeling” being used in opposite senses. My impression though is that it is more common to use “emotion” to refer to the objective aspect (Wilber upper right) and “feeling” to refer to the subjective aspect (upper left).

    So in this usage, “emotions” refer to general categories of observable behavior – what we refer to by words such as “anger”, “grief”, “fear” and so on – as concepts these don’t have a lot of depth; while “feelings” refer to the qualitative aspects (or “qualia”) of one’s experience. In this sense feelings are subtle and capable of wrapping up a complex sense of one’s whole experience, enfolding past, present, and future in a sense of the extent and wholeness of the “greater present moment”. This depth of experience could therefore be well worth turning or “tuning” into.

    As far as what Masters was referring to – my guess is he’s talking about the practice of cultivating a deep awareness of the subtleties, qualities, and dynamics of one’s own felt sense and experience, which would pay dividends in self-awareness, richness of experience, and relational intelligence.

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