‘Feeling is part of the fabric of the universe’
Steve Taylor meets Michael Jawer.
08 February 2021
Michael Jawer's new book is Sensitive Soul: The Unseen Role of Emotion in Extraordinary States.
Emotion is central to your argument in your new book. Does your interpretation of the term emotion differ from the conventional meaning?
I consider emotion to be the expression or emanation of feeling as it moves through the body. This is what you do when you ‘emote’ – you make that feeling known. Anger, sadness, joy, and a whole palette of other feelings become emotions when they are expressed. Problems often arise when a feeling is not expressed, or, at the very least, when it is not acknowledged. (I’ve adapted this view of things via my study of bioenergetics, developed by psychotherapist Alexander Lowen.)
How does emotion relate to empathy?
We can only really empathise with someone when we can gather how she or he is feeling. A person’s feeling of concern, i.e., empathy, is the first part of what we hope is a two-part process. Following on the heels of empathy ought to be sympathy – the urge to act to help the person who’s distressed. Clearly, individuals differ both in their tendency to express emotion (to let others know how they’re feeling), and in their predilection for being both empathic and sympathetic.
In your book, you speak of the ‘empathosphere’ – what do you mean by this?
The concept of the empathosphere is that of veterinarian Michael Fox, who authors a syndicated column here in the US. ‘Psychosphere’ is a parallel term coined by Bernard Beitman, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. Both refer to a universal realm of feeling that transcends space and time – hypothesised, of course, though there’s plenty of evidence for it. One example is the strange but true accounts of pets who wander off from their owners and then, months or even years later, somehow find their way back to the family home. How do they do it? I – and others – suggest emotional bonds are at work.
Back in the 1960s, the late psychiatrist Berthold Swartz originated the term telesomatic to describe experiences where people spontaneously feel unwell or that something’s amiss at approximately the same time as someone else, usually a loved one, is feeling acute pain or anguish in an entirely different place and without consciously communicating it. Beitman himself experienced this, sadly. Late one night, he suddenly began choking – and later learned that his father had been choking – and dying – at the same time 3,000 miles away.
One psychologist you refer to and believe should be better known is Ernest Hartmann. Why is he so important do you think?
Hartmann, who passed away in 2013, developed and promulgated an enormously useful concept – that of Boundaries. The idea is that everyone differs along a personality spectrum ranging from extremely thick boundary (close-minded, armored, highly organised, not conversant with feelings) to extremely thin boundary (open, sensitive, traffics in differences and nuances, highly conversant with feelings). Thick-skinned and thin-skinned, you might say, and everything in between. The construct resembles Openness to Experience but there’s more to it than that. The correspondence between boundaries and fluidity of feelings is what fascinates me. I’ve written about this in an article for ScientificAmerican.com, and of course in my three books.
You discuss the concept of thin and thick boundaries in relation to some unusual states of consciousness. Why is this so important?
Feelings are essential to who we are. Our very sense of self derives from how we feel. So, any appraisal of anyone must take into account their style of feeling – how quickly and acutely they’re apt to feel something. This is what a person’s boundary type approximates. In unusual states of consciousness, and with highly unusual situations, the role of feelings is even more noteworthy, in my estimation. So much of our feeling life – our emotional biology – happens beneath consciousness. This submerged power of feelings, especially if they’re denied expression, if the person doesn’t even acknowledge them, plays a significant role in unusual personalities and extraordinary occurrences.
The ‘extraordinary states’ you examine include PTSD, autism, synesthesia, savantism, child prodigies, and children who claim to remember past lives… not to mention migraine and déjà vu. What is the connection between all of these, in terms of your argument in the book?
The connection is the amalgam of nature and nurture that produces a person at whatever place they might be on the boundary spectrum – which, in turn, conditions their ability to experience or produce something extraordinary.
Each of these conditions and each of these personalities features a particular ‘configuration’ of feeling. Synesthetes (whose senses overlap), for example, are highly empathetic – some of them even experience pain at the sight or sound of someone else in pain. Migraine is characteristic of a highly sensitive physiology; it can be triggered by any number of things but the most common is stress and emotional overload. Déjà vu can be interpreted as being at the threshold of a memory that’s automatically repressed – so you just get a glimmer of recognition. Sensory overstimulation is one of the hallmarks of autism; many young children involuntarily turn inward to escape all the ‘noise’. Savants, stunningly, know things they never learned; a head trauma is often the trigger. Child prodigies have been described as some of the most sensitive and morally ‘woke’ people around; some of them say they remember being in utero and copiously detail a previous life. Likewise, children who seem to remember someone else’s life often (70% of the time) report a violent, traumatic end to that life. It’s reminiscent of PTSD, but quite unaccountably in children. All of these unusual perceptions and conditions are prompted, in my view, by the emotional ‘configuration’ of the person.
You write eloquently about human beings’ connection to other animals such as pets. Why is this so significant to your writing?
Animals have become a greater and greater interest of mine. A whole range of investigators, from Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal and Mark Bekoff to Carl Safina, Sy Montgomery and the late Jaak Panksepp, have documented the plainly emotional lives of many species. Some of the mammals – led by elephants, dolphins, and orcas – have truly amazing sensitivities and abilities. Even non-mammals such as parrots and octopuses are now recognised to have individual personalities. The more we learn, the more those creatures we know best – farm animals and pets – merit humane treatment.
My particular contribution is to propose that the ability to feel and express feeling is the underpinning of spirituality. Furthermore, a couple of anomalous experiences that members of my family had in the aftermath of the passing of two beloved cats suggests to me that emotional bonds may well transcend time and space.
What have you learned from research into feelings in non-human animals? How can you reasonably compare emotion in a human being with emotion in another species?
It’s important to recognise that humans are one species of animal. As Panksepp demonstrated, our brain’s emotional architecture is remarkably similar to that of other mammals. He went so far as to declare: ‘All mammals are brothers and sisters under the skin’. However, other animals might actually feel things more keenly than we do. They’re less encumbered by the intricacies of thought, and by the complexity of human language, which can serve to distance us from our feelings. Ethologists Jeffrey Masson and Jonathan Balcombe have stated these ideas eloquently. My takeaway from reading them is that other creatures live their lives ‘closer to the bone’ – they don’t reflect and ruminate as much as we do, so sensations and feelings are perhaps more intense.
What is your perspective on consciousness? Many psychologists and scientists seem to be moving away from the assumption that consciousness is directly produced by – or is completely produced by – brain activity. What is your take on this?
I never bought into the presumption that the brain produces consciousness. In my first book, The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion, I emphasised the concept of the bodymind (from the 1977 book by Ken Dychtwald of that name). This view – which has been borne out through subsequent discoveries, especially in the fields of psychoneuroimmunology and embodied cognition – is that brain and body are two sides of the same coin, that coin being the mind. The enteric nervous system in our gut, which has been called ‘the second brain’, is in constant communication with the brain upstairs. And a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters is continuously flowing, so that the whole system – the bodymind – is bound together. The upshot is that what we think, what we believe, what we perceive, and especially what we feel are intimately bound up. The power of placebo is a perfect example. So are a whole raft of illnesses where trauma sustained in childhood manifestly influences our current health.
In view of all this, I’ve come to believe that sentience is far more important than consciousness. What we sense and what we feel inform what we consciously realise, but we’re often completely unaware of that activity. Consciousness is merely the tip of the iceberg. Our brains and our egos would like us to think otherwise but dreams, Freudian slips, sudden insights and eruptions of feeling – not to mention reams of experimental evidence – show that sentience is fundamental.
You discuss the evidence for some unusual phenomena such as psi (e.g., precognition or presentment). Some observers seem to have a fixed belief that such phenomena cannot exist. What do you think?
There’s a quote I like by cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. He once remarked: ‘A lot of times there'll be these embarrassing facts that you tuck away, thinking there's got to be an answer to them if only you had the time to look into it. But what you don't realize is that sometimes those facts are the ones that hold the key to a mystery, and so you've got to take those facts seriously because they change everything.’
Among those ‘embarrassing facts’ are precognitive, clairvoyant, telesomatic, and apparitional experiences that people have reported across cultures and throughout history. What science is demonstrating today is that, while we all have the same basic mental and physical equipment, one person’s perceptions can be far different than another’s. Phenomena like synesthesia and phantom pain bear this out. Feelings, and the energy they comprise, represent perhaps the most significant source of this difference.
My sense is that, while some number of anomalous reports can be chalked up to magical thinking, discomfort with ambiguity, hallucination, and just plain gullibility, many of them relate to certain people’s pronounced emotional sensitivity. They could be apprehending what the vast majority of us don’t. Indeed, my current conjecture is that feeling is part of the fabric of the universe. The operation of this unseen but fundamental force relates to the paranormal. Like fish, we could be swimming in a veritable sea of emotion that we barely comprehend.
William James said ‘There is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomena are impossible’. I agree, and also with Bertrand Russell’s opinion that ‘What we need is not the will to believe but the will to find out’.
You propose that spirituality is, at its core, a matter of 'fellow feeling’. What do you mean by that?
My view is that the feelings we have for other people – and for animals and nature – are what make us soulful. Consider: a computer or a robot can’t in any sense be spiritual because it has no feelings. But we who are embodied and can emote, who can empathise with others and extend our sympathy – we’re soulful. The same is true of many other animals. Those that express gratitude, love, fear, awe, those that play, act to save a fellow creature, or react mournfully to the loss of one of their own are all demonstrating fellow feeling. That’s what connects us to one another and to the natural world. Our ability to feel and emote ensouls us in this life.
Ultimately, why do you believe that the study of emotion is so important?
The titles of two neuroscience books have it right. The signal thing about being human is The Feeling of What Happens (by Antonio Damasio) and The Feeling of Life Itself (Christof Koch). The parts of the brain that process feeling preceded those that process thought in our evolution. So, what we sense and what we feel are truly fundamental. In many ways, we live for what moves us – what excites us, thrills us, gets us going. When we feel and express emotion, we’re truly alive.
Michael Jawer is a Washington, DC-based writer, speaker and researcher. His expertise is the nexus of personality development, body/mind, emotion, and spirituality. Jawer is the author of three books: Sensitive Soul (Park Street Press, 2020) and, with Marc Micozzi, MD, PhD, The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion (Park Street Press, 2009) and Your Emotional Type (Healing Arts Press, 2011). His papers have appeared in Frontiers in Psychology–Consciousness Research, Journal of Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies, Science & Consciousness Review, Explore, Seminars in Integrative Medicine, and the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, while his feature articles and interviews have run in Psychology Today, Spirituality & Health, Aeon, Nautilus, Minding Nature, Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, Edge Science, Noetic Now, PsychCentral, and Scientific American. Jawer also blogs for Psychology Today (“Feeling Too Much”). Further information about his work via https://michaeljawer.com/
Steve Taylor PhD is the author of 13 books on psychology and spirituality, and is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University. He is the chair of the Transpersonal Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. His books include his new book The Clear Light, Waking From Sleep, The Fall, Out of the Darkness, Back to Sanity, The Calm Center, The Leap and Spiritual Science. His books have been published in 20 languages, and his articles and essays have been published in many academic journals, magazines and newspapers, including The Psychologist, Philosophy Now, The Journal of Humanistic Psychology and The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. He regularly appears in the media in the UK, including on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, BBC Breakfast, BBC World TV, Radio FiveLive and TalkRadio. He writes blog articles for Scientific American and for Psychology Today. Steve lives in Manchester, England with his wife and three young children.