Emotionally Vague: Responding to Embodied Experience

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

April 2020 Soul Notes

Orlagh O’Brien, a graphic designer who conducted a research project into how emotions are experienced in the body, has created an interactive artistic representation of this concept. If you go to his website, emotionallyvague.com, you can look behind each column of colour to discover the detail of the emotional experiences that informs the image. So for example, behind “Anger” the summary tells you about rudeness, injustice, traffic, cyclists, arrogance, etc. It’s imperfect but compactly conveys a wealth of human triggers.  

I’m particularly drawn to this work right now. It feels like an image of our time. Pandemic time.  I wonder what words would reflect the experience of the research subjects if this project were now. A time where the emotional undercurrents run deep. A time of leaping from column to column – anger, joy, fear, sadness, love – all before breakfast, and then again over coffee. Whilst there’s something deeply rhythmic about my days in the new order – a distinct morning, afternoon, evening, nighttime routine– there is also something distorted about time and place and relationships. “What day is it?” being a familiar refrain. 

In that distortion, I don’t feel able to write a coherent piece on anything right now. My mind flutters from idea to judgment to fear to practicalities, shifting from deep thinking on what it means to really show up in these times, to how long will it take to bake the sweet potatoes. A sudden urge to rearrange my bookshelves in the middle of reading a psychoanalytic article on trauma. Feeling the urge to walk way beyond the allotted time for daily exercise and making do with more squats than I’ve ever managed instead. My mind is a funk. A Marian Keyes novel is the best I can do for reading (Grown Ups – I can highly recommend it); podcasts are my new favourite way of accessing information – listening somehow takes less effort and allows me to take in what I can and discard the rest. In frenzied moments, I’m creating aplenty and chaotically. A snippet of an article here; a thread of an online programme there; a collective leadership initiative birthing slowly. Grace is alongside me, drafting project plans as I write, to bring some order to a world that is resisting. And I feel the futility of the forcing. This scrappiest of scrapbooks is how it is right now. As I imagine yours is.  Can I; can we - allow that? 

As Mark Nepo writes so soulfully in his poem "Adrift'"; "Everything is beautiful and I am so sad". This captures so much about this moment in our lives.  I had a conversation with a stranger whom I passed in the woods last week. He stopped to let me by on the path so we didn’t get too close to one another. We ruminated about the starkness of the beauty of the wood, the bluebells, the sunshine, the peace against the backdrop of so many thousands of deaths reported each day. Life and death are always a part of our lives but never so keenly felt as now.  The idyll for many of us of a global pause, more time with our families, less hassle, sunny gardens and some financial stability. Meanwhile, children go without food because schools are closed; allsorts of abuse and trauma are perpetuated in homes that have become prisons; and nurses and doctors risk their lives to hold the hands of the dying who have no one else alongside them. Beautiful and sad. Light and shadow. 

And we’re all asking the big questions.  What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? What is my purpose here? What kind of parent am I? What kind of person am I? Friend? Partner? Neighbour? What kind of world have we created? What kind of world do we want? Who is leading us? How will I lead? Who can I help? Who can I care for? Who will care for me? 

I feel humbled to be part of the exploration of these questions with so many; witness to the emerging understanding and holding space for that to surface and be shared, slowly, delicately, kindly. There is something transformational that happens when someone feels into their truth and shapes it into words.  Robert McFarlane writes in his book of landscape and language Landmarks about how if you know the word for something, you get to experience it more deeply. There is something in this new world about learning a new language; identifying new landscapes that reflect both the truth of our experience and the world we want to be part of.

Mark Nepo writes in his Book of Awakening that:

 “We can never be prepared for everything…..we can only prepare for how we might respond to the gift of surprise that often moves in on us faster than our own reflex to resist.

Our response is likely to be a felt response first, emotional and raw, only later to be translated into language. Listening to, and responding to our embodied experience of this breathless world is more important than ever, if we are to decipher a true and coherent response to what we face right now. Personally. Collectively. Globally. 

  • Where and how are you feeling the current experience in your body?

  • What words do you associate with these feelings?

  • What sits behind the feeling?

  • How does identifying the feeling affect your experience?

  • What is the feeling pointing to? What do you need?

  • How will you respond to that need?

May we find the language and responses together.

With love and care

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