👉 Link to Week 4 Handbook 👈
4.0 📝 SUMMARY // Key Ideas + Overview
Welcome to Week 4 of Nervous System Mastery – where we’ll be exploring what it means to cultivate emotional mastery.
To paraphrase Rumi ~ this is the work for which everything else has been mere preparation.
This is where we’re going to bring together everything we’ve practiced from interoception to self-regulation ~ into an arena where we’ll be putting ourselves to the test.
Because this subject matter is so rich the episodes are going to be a little longer than usual.
But first let’s briefly recap the territory we’ve explored so far.
- We begun by exploring polyvagal theory and learning how to tune into our interoceptive capacity to sense, track and feel our internal landscape.
- Then we explored various practices for self-regulation and co-regulation and how to ground into states of ventral vagal when we find ourselves in states of reactivity.
- And this week — we’re going to talk about the top of the RISE pyramid, which is the art and science of Emotional Mastery.
As a starting point, it’s helpful to ask what does Emotional Mastery mean?
It sounds wonderful in theory doesn’t it, to be able to ‘master our emotions’ — to be in complete control — and this is in fact almost the exact opposite of what we’ll be exploring. In this context, I’m referring to ‘mastery’ the way that Lzo Tsu meant when he said:
"True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering.”
It’s a paradox of sorts, the more we relinquish our attempts to grasp, control or otherwise restrict the fluid flow of our emotions – the more we develop emotional mastery.
Another way of phrasing this this practicing Emotional Fluidity ~ and learning to welcome the full spectrum of human emotions as they arise in us.
We’ll begin by exploring what some of the most recent neuroscience can tell us about what these slippery concepts we call emotions actually are.
Then we’ll look at the phenomenon of emotional debt – and the unfortunate flip side of what happens when we accumulate unprocessed emotion.
From here, we’ll head into practical theory and specific protocols for working with emotional charge as it arises – and increasing your emotional literacy through a protocol for ‘Somatic Surfing’ followed by a practice for Amplifying Joy.
Finally, we’ll announce the NSM ‘Edge Challenge’ — along with the opportunity to win some nervous system friendly prizes, including an Oura Ring, some Blue Blocking Glasses and a year’s supply of mouth tape!
So that’s the journey we’ll be exploring together this week, bring an extra dose of courageous curiosity with you this week!
4.1 ⚡ THEORY // Emotional Neuroscience 101
What Exactly is an Emotion Anyway?
Let’s begin with an obvious starting point.
Sometimes the simplest and most obvious questions are also the most vexxing. Even to this day — there is absolutely no scientific consensus on a precise definition of what an emotion actually is — which I think is fascinating and speaks to still how little we really know about this emerging field.
One poetic definition that I’ve always loved is from Marcel Proust — he described emotions as being like ‘geological upheavals of thought’.
Which is a beautiful image — however what recent neuroscience is informing us is that emotions are actually co-created by our identity structures.
The consensus is that emotions were a mammalian adaptive homeostatic response — in other words our ancient ancestors evolved emotions to keep us regulated.
One of the most fascinating developments in this area has come through the work of neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett and her peers — who have shown that emotions actually arise in the body purely as sensations — and then the insula, which is a portion of our brain’s cerebral cortex — effectively checks this sensation against the perceived context and converts it into meaning.
So to simplify the meaning that we call emotion equals sensations + context.
Let me repeat that because it’s a very important point — what we think of as emotions are in fact bodily sensations which are then interpreted through the context of our subjective story and situational context — and then converted into what we experience as an emotion.
I myself have had an intense experience of this whilst deep in grief — I remember tuning in so deeply to my bodily sensations and felt to my surprise, a deep open-hearted sense of connectedness.
I realise that in a different context — these exact same sensations of warmth in my chest and connection would have been interpreted as intense joy, not grief or loss.
And this research points to a crucial aspect of emotional fluidity ~ which is that especially early on in as we’re exploring our emotional landscape, the cognitive stories that we tell in any moment are powerful for eliciting sensations — for example, a memory of a break-up or maybe a conflict with a loved one — however, once we’ve connected with the sensation, the skilful move is one of letting go of this cognitive story to the extent that we can and being in our bodies, with the sensations.
When we stay in the mind – whatever the story may be, this can often inhibit our ability to drop down into the body and actually feel what is there to be felt.
I sense that some of you listening will know exactly what I’m talking about whilst others won’t understand at all.
So I’ll just say that speaking from my own experience, I’ve had dozens, maybe hundreds of experiences where emotions will arise, sometimes subtle and sometimes intense — and there is no story or narrative whatsoever connected to them.
And honestly it’s beautifully freeing to simply witness the energy arising and passing like a wave.
Another way of imagining this — is to think about how a child experiences emotion, often when they’re quite young — before they get told that certain emotions are right or wrong — it’s common to see children go from sadness to frustration to joy in the space of 20 or 30 seconds.
And in some ways what we’re learning here is regaining the emotional fluidity of young children – with the capacity to consciously self-regulate.
Let’s Talk about ‘Emotional Literacy’
Another question I’d like you to contemplate as I’m sharing this theory is — what is your relationship to emotions?
Another striking finding from neuroscience — is that if we don’t have a concept to describe an emotion, we won’t be able to perceive it.
I’ll share again the beautiful line from Ludwig Witginstein. He said that: ‘We cannot enter territory for which we do not have the language’
Neuroscientists call this ‘emotional granularity’ and you can imagine an extreme example of someone who has a limited emotional literacy to the extent where he or she says that they feel GOOD or BAD in any situation — like tasting a dish and you can only perceive sweet or savoury.
What the science tells us is that this lack of emotional literacy or ‘experiential blindness’ as neuroscientists describe it, will severely limit their capacity to handle life’s challenges – and I’ll come to a famous example of this in a moment with regards to decision making.
But we can summarise this by saying that having command of a more precise emotional literacy — as with say a writer having access to a wider vocabulary of language — gives us far greater flexibility and resilience to life’s curveballs.
And that a key takeaway here comes back once again to interoception — that it’s extremely beneficial to unpack the layered sensations that lie beneath the surface of our emotional labels.
I remember once telling myself that I felt really frustrated, I think I told someone these exact words, and shortly after, I realised that telling myself that I was frustrated was actually getting in the way of feeling the sensations of frustration in the body.
You might be thinking, this sounds a lot like what we’ve been practicing already through the Interoception practice —and yes it is, only now it’s tuning in in the context of emotions.
🧠 Emotions & Decision Making
I’d like to return to the earlier claim that a lack of emotional literacy leads to a lack of resilience or capacity — and speak to this in the context of decision making.
My experience has been that there is a pervasive – but thankfully slowly dying myth in western productivity-oriented culture that emotions are somehow at odds with or even get in the way of purely rational decision-making.
The idea of a stoic Spok-like, unfeeling creature making perfectly rational decisions is — as we now know from the science – entirely absurd.
There's a much cited, landmark study conducted a couple of decades ago by the famed neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (study and more context) in which he studied a patient who had the deep misfortune of getting a brain tumor in the frontal lobe tissue in his brain... which eventually grew so large that it had to be removed.
In the weeks following, this patient, named ‘Elliot’ who previously had a good job at a business firm — began to have his life fall apart... and even though his IQ remained just as high as before — Damasio realised that his emotional capacity had been severely limited to the extent that he was unable to make even basic decisions.
This went on to become the foundations for Damasio’ss o-called 'somatic marker' hypothesis, which essentially says that our emotions are tools for filtering data sets of information for any kind of decision — and we make choices based on what we think will allow us to feel good in the future.
And without these somatic markers (what we're training through interoception) even the most basic decisions are overwhelming.
Let’s talk about ‘Emotional Mapping’.
In a 2013 study coming out of a Finnish research lab, the researchers invited participants to draw what they called ‘body-maps’ of where they think they experience various emotions in the body.
You can find an image of this map in the Week 4 Handbook — but to describe it briefly, imagine 14 outlines of human bodies, with each containing shades of blue or red — blue represents the energy of de-activation & red is activation.
Now these aren’t fMRI scans but they do nicely illustrate the point we spoke to earlier around emotions being a combination of interoceptive sensations + context.
- Where do you feel it in the body?
- What sensations do you associate with this?
- What thought-loops or beliefs tend to arise?
- How might you describe your relationship to this emotion?
- Where might you feel safe to express this fully?
💡 Clarity lies on the Other Side of Feeling
Something that I learnt from a conversation with the executive coach Joe Hudson (link) — that is linked in this week’s notes — is that immense clarity and a sense of freedom always lie on the other side of clean emotional expression.
And by ‘clean’ expression – I mean one that isn’t kinked in some way which we’ll get to in the next episode – but the point here is that when we believe that we’re faced by a challenging dilemma or tough decision — it’s usually, and here Joe would say ALWAYS, because we’re resisting feeling something that’s getting in the way of our clarity.
4.2 😦 THEORY // Exploring ‘Emotional Debt’
In this episode we’re going to explore the concept of ‘Emotional Debt’.
Remember the metaphor of the nervous system as a complex circuit board that we used — well you think think of ‘Emotional Debt’ refers as what happens when our nervous systems are flooded with emotional charge but doesn’t have anywhere to go – or in somatic-speak the ‘mobilisation reflex response’ isn’t fully completed – so it gets buffered in our memory for later.
You could also imagine this as being like not closing an app or a tab window in your computer, which obviously is find for a while, but eventually — with enough open tabs or incomplete reflexes — the RAM will get overloaded.
This is most obvious to grasp in the more extreme cases — when there are large amounts of this mobilisation energy — let’s say if we experienced something like a car crash or shock trauma — but it’s also present when if we’ve experienced strong emotional responses, but perhaps it didn’t feel safe or appropriate to express that emotion at the time.
In neuroscience terminology, this emotional debt is referred to and measured as an increase in what's known as 'allostatic load', and typically presents as fluctuating or heightened neuroendocrine response — or to frame in terms of Polyvagal theory — we get stuck in sympathetic mode of being with a diminished capacity to ease on the ventral brake.
For individuals who have accumulated a higher degree of emotional debt — and I put myself in this category in my late-twenties — then our nervous system will be more prone to greater reactivity, fragility or the dorsal freeze response.
I imagine that some of you listening are familiar with the work of Gabor Mate, Bassel Van Der Kolk and Peter Levine, who are all working to helped to bring these ideas of ‘incomplete mobilisation reflexes’ to mainstream dialogue.
Let me give an example from my days when I was working on my startup — I remember there were a few people for whom I was very sensitive to receiving critical feedback.
I remember responding in a seemingly disproportionate fashion (which is a sign of emotional debt being at play) and feeling a sense of having been wrong, and in hindsight this was shame arising and this in turn severely diminished my capacity to act rationally or empathise with either myself or others.
Now it’s super important to note that — in the short-term, there are times when holding back emotion and building up some emotional debt is absolutely essential as it allows us to get through a stressful experience — it’s fair to say that this capacity to buffer powerful experiences probably allowed our ancestors to survive.
But, and this is the crucial point — if left unaddressed — and especially in the environment of a world filled with ambient sources of stress – these buffered experiences accumulate, increase fragility and manifest as greater susceptibility to emotional triggers as well as in the long-run arise in the form of various health conditions.
I read an evocative description from my friend Dan Shipper of emotional fragility that arises from accumulated unprocessed emotional debt:
“Heartbeats became earthquakes. The placid stream of my breathing, once flowing automatically, could start, stop, or flood at any moment without my constant monitoring. Relationships—with co-workers, customers, friends, family—became winding, high-altitude passes fraught with danger and calamitous falls lest they find out that I could suffer an attack at the slightest provocation.”
📝 To Summarise..
So to summarise, as Bessel Van Der Kolk said: ‘The body keeps the score’ or put it another way — our issues are actually in our tissues.
I imagine that by now — you’re thinking, okay – this makes sense, but what the hell can I actually do to begin paying off some of this accumulated emotional debt? Well that’s exactly what we’re going to explore in the following episodes.
4.3 🚰 THEORY // Un-kinking the Hosepipe of E-Motion
Okay, so to briefly recap — we’ve touched on the value of increasing our so-called ‘emotional fluidity’ as well as the highly detrimental long-term consequences of not doing so in terms of accumulating emotional debt and fragility in life.
🚰 How Do Emotions Get Kinked?
Okay — so how exactly do emotions get ‘kinked’? Well, earlier, I mentioned the idea of ‘cleanly’ expressing emotion — and so now I’d like to share the two ways in which emotions can come out unclean or ‘kinked’ in their expression.
Let’s use the example of anger to illustrate this.
So if you imagine a hosepipe that is running the sensations of anger ~ if the hose gets kinked one way — then the anger is subtly or not-so-subtly repressed and comes out as either passive aggression or silent resentment that accumulates over time. Which is let’s say sub-optimal for life and healthy relationships.
The other way that the hose can kink is through over-expression — which might look like blaming others, domination, or even verbal or physical aggression.
I’m sure you all have ample examples of witnessing both of these kinked versions of anger in your own life – or in movies where the villain is brutally killing the good guys.
And this gives anger a really bad rep — however, it’s my understanding that anger that is felt and expressed cleanly (with ventral vagal tone present) is simply the energy of expressing that a boundary has been crossed — or the desire to protect something or someone that we care about — and can absolutely be done from a place of love and deep caring.
😡 Clean vs. Unclean Expression
There’s a second key concept here around clean or ‘unkinked’ emotional expression — and that is allowing the emotion to be present and authentically expressed without directing it ‘AT’ someone.
This is most obvious to witness in the context of anger — allowing anger to be present, but at the same time not being angry AT someone or blaming another for the anger that is arising in you. Which requires us to take full ownership of our emotional experience.
And this ‘clean’ expression can also apply in more subtly ways with say sadness — we may well have witnessed situations where someone (perhaps it was you) was sad ‘AT’ another person — or in other words blaming that person for the sadness they were experiencing — as opposed to taking responsibility for their own emotional expression. This, although generally common in many social situations, can lead to either unconscious or conscious manipulative power dynamics. Which again, is distinctly sub-optimal when it comes to healthy relationships and connections.
AND, if you're listening and you’re thinking — well gosh, I’m not sure if I might be unconsciously using my emotions to manipulate others — first know that it doesn’t make you a bad person, we’ve almost all done this at some point…
The key, as with really all of this work, is to bring these learned behaviours — which mostly boil down to strategies that we learnt to keep love and belonging growing up — into our conscious awareness — and be willing to look at ourselves honestly, and explore ways in which we might in fact be using our emotions to change another’s behaviour — and from there, let go of any need to change or control them.
🙏 Emotional Safety
A tangential but highly related term is the concept of ‘emotional safety’. We’ll come back to this later, but essentially our brains are prediction making machines and they are constantly tracking our environments and internal state to assess how safe we are.
And, you can probably see where this is going — we tend to express emotions to the degree that we feel a sense of internal and external safety to do so ~ this is why when you’re paying a somatic therapist or breathworker, and I’ve had this experience — they may not even need to explicitly say or do anything before the emotions rise to the surface. The sense of embodied safety does all the work.
Another way of conceptualising emotion that I’ve found really lands is simply to break down the word emotion into — E—MOTION or ENERGY—IN—MOTION.
And what I find interesting about this metaphor is that it’s also true on a literal level — in that our neurons use so-called ‘action potentials’ as literal electrical signals through our synapses to communicate the spinal cord and then up to the thalamus.
This metaphor of our nervous system as being like a biological circuit board — is on some level is true as there are literally micro-watts of action potential flowing through our axons — where if too many Watts are charged through it will begin to overheat — which is akin to our sympathetic response...
And then our Dorsal system is almost like the fuse that trips if we spend too long in this over-heated place.
I left my iphone outside in the sun the other day, and it did that ‘iphone is overheating’ thing which I ignored and it locked me out of using it for 10 minutes.
The frame of ‘Energy-in-Motion’ also helps because I believe it depersonalises the stories or potential judgement that we might have when emotions arise — especially around emotions with so-called ‘negative-valence’ – like anger, shame or grief.
So, by viewing emotions as simply energy in motion, we get to witness them and are less likely to get in our own way or get stuck in mental story loops.
For example, and I believe this is surprisingly common — although I wasn’t consciously aware of it, I had a story that expressing anger made me a bad person – that I couldn’t be loved whilst in my anger – and so I just thought of myself as someone who was calm and never got angry — this was until I learnt to treat it as a sensation and feedback from my body and found safe containers to express it and rewire my system to comfortable again in that state.
🙋 Personal Anecdote
You’ve probably noticed by now, that this section of the curriculum is the one that I’m most personally excited to share and explore.
As I mentioned in the introduction to NSM I wouldn’t be here today researching + exploring the human nervous system had it not been for an intense chapter of moving through grief.
Initially, it was too overwhelming that I didn't have sufficient capacity to hold it.
It was the experience of so-called ‘titrating’ or ‘pendulating’ – imagine a pendulum swinging in and out — through the intense waves of grief in the months and years that followed that allowed me to process and move through that experience.
This process opened my eyes to how emotionally disconnected I had been for much of my life and also opened me up to processing years of buried emotions that ranged from burning out whilst working at my start-up to experiences from much earlier in life.
Life will always throw us more curveballs — in fact at times it almost seems that it will unfold specifically to elicit the precise ways in which we are still defensive or emotionally kinked.
But I can say now that I feel far greater ease & safety feeling into and expressing shame, fear, or anger whenever these sensations arise — and that this has enormously improved my intimate relationships, my friendships my creativity, and my sense of moment-to-moment aliveness.
💡 A Powerful Perspective Shift
I remember during a breathwork teacher training a few years ago, I had a conversation with Kelly my partner, and fell into a shame response ~ one of the most intense I’d had, my stomach was clenched, I could barely look her in the eye ~ but a thought came ~ and the thought was ‘WOW, how interesting, I’m really excited to go into a breathwork journey now to see what’s underneath this.’
I was still feeling the same things ~ but there was a new perspective of:
‘oh how interesting that I responded so disproportionately to what my wife said, there must be something here for me to learn and feel and integrate.’
And honestly this, perhaps more than anything else I’m sharing in this course ~ has radically changed my life ~ this has happened enough times that my reaction to a trigger is often paired with a sense of curiosity or even sometimes anticipatory excitement to see what I’m holding underneath the surface.
And I believe this is the path towards genuine embodied wisdom and authentic expression ~ viewing our triggers and reactive tendencies as signposts towards how we can experience greater wholeness and integration.
🎨 Welcoming The Full Spectrum
There’s one final metaphor that I’d like to share — which illustrates the journey of emotional fluidity.
It originates from the Authentic Relating world — and it’s the idea of a crayon box.
If you can remember back to the days when you would colour in things ~ generally there were always a few crayons that we liked and then others that we never touched ~ for me this was the purples and the light greens.
The same is true of our emotions ~ most of us have some feelings that we’re comfortable in ~ and others that we avoid at all costs (for me these were historically shame + anger)
So the key to true emotional mastery is welcoming every single coloured crayon onto the page — shame, guilt, fear, anger, lust — many of these sensations have been exiled or labeled wrong through our societal conditioning or from behaviours we learned from our caregivers — and the ongoing invitation from this day forth — is to begin to welcome them back into our conscious experience.
4.4 ⚡ PRINCIPLES // Set & Setting
Alright, let's take another a step back. We’ve talked about the neuroscience of emotion, emotional debt, unkinking the hosepipe and welcoming the crayons back into the box.
Hopefully, now you have at least some sense of the beautifully complex process of what is going on in our bodies when we experience intense emotions but aren't able to express or release them.
In all honesty, there is no one size fits all protocol for mastering our emotions – and let me tell you there are sadly many neuroscientists out there who can lecture for hours on the latest theories and models — but aren’t in the slightest bit embodied or connected to the emotions they research.
And that’s not what we want here… so let’s explore how we can begin to explore this work for ourselves.
🍃 Set & Setting
You may have heard the term ‘set & setting’ especially if you’ve engaged in therapeutic work or psychedelic journeys.
The phrase refers to set — which is your inner ‘mindset’ and ‘setting’ which is your environment. And although there are practices and protocols for working with emotions — I would argue that set + setting are the two most fundamental pieces.
Once again, we are creating the conditions for emotional fluidity — not learning how to ‘DO’ emoting.
Let’s start with setting. Here I’m somewhat opinionated — in that I believe part of what is most sick about modern culture — the fact that so-called mental health disorders and suicide rates are skyrocketing largely comes down to two pieces.
The first is that we have lost touch with our sense of community. And the second, that we have lost the rituals and spaces which our ancestors used to safely process emotion.
Today, unless you live in Bali or Boulder, you generally have to go out of your way to find these types of spaces or design them for yourself.
Indigenous cultures understand the vital importance of these spaces — whether it’s in the form of sweat lodges and sauna culture, or working with sacraments, grief rites, or holding beathwork circles — these safe spaces for expressing emotion are largely missing from our culture.
So what is special or unique about these spaces — well I believe it largely comes down to three things — presence, permission and safety. Presence, meaning that there aren’t obvious distractions — permission, meaning that there is explicit permission to express the full spectrum of emotions, i.e. that all is welcome — and safety, in the sense that there will be no interuptions or judgement from others in the space.
And what are some of the spaces where you feel both permission and sufficient safety to be vulnerable and express emotion?
I'd like to share three principles…
1. Cultivate Courageous Curiosity
This is something of a meta-principle that applies to working with our emotional landscape, and that is holding an orientation of what I call courageous curiosity. If we can let go of any judgments that we have and have the deep interest to deeply enquire into the nature of our felt experience and the courage to explore, feel into or accept whatever we find, I believe this really is the key to cultivating emotional intelligence and wholeness as humans.
The poet Rumi once wrote: 'Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.' — what we are really investigating in this work are the various barriers that have been lodged in our minds and bodies to this innate wholeness.
2. All Emotions are Welcome
The second principle which follows from the first is that all emotions are welcome and none are inherently bad.
For most of us aspiring adults, and I speak for myself here, we have work to do retraining our nervous systems to feel a sense of safety (i.e. ventral vagal tone) whilst expressing the full spectrum of our emotions.
Our culture tends to label certain emotions as undesirable or even bad, but the truth is that they're all sensations and an inherent part of the human experience.
3. Trust Your Body's Wisdom and Drop the Story.
As greater levels of awareness comes on line we'll increasingly be able to track sense and feel the more subtle sensations that lead to an emotional charge.
According to neuroscience and my own lived experience, emotions themselves, if fully leaned into, only last for a matter of seconds, at most 90 seconds) before most of the charge disappears or flow into another sensation.
If you think of young children who often display remarkable emotional fluidity, or even the Dalai Lama who might be moved to tears one moment and then belly laughing the next. We get stuck only when we're lost in the story.
In moments when I've found myself highly charged or triggered, I've found it helpful to ask myself the question 'if this sensation could speak what might it say' or even deliberately amplify the sensation itself and then witness my body move or express in any way that it needs to.
It really is a constant game of returning to the felt sensations and gently dropping stories or meaning or judgment that we have attached to the feeling.
Give yourself time to Recover + Integrate Afterwards
To the extent that you’re able to — ideally soon afterwards, give yourself time afterwards to let go of any doing or trying, and drop into a state of relaxation.
This might be listening to a 20 minute NSDR, or lying on your back listening to relaxing music. It’s in this relaxation time, when your nervous system is rewiring new neural pathways and integrating whatever surfaced earlier.
Drink plenty of fluids and be gentle with yourself for the remainder of the day. If this isn’t possible, if say you’re out of the house, then aim to get an early night in and be gentle on yourself the next day.
The gift on the other side of what is often very challenging and confronting work is not only deeper self-awareness, but in my experience, when we can unblock the natural flow of our emotions, a torrent of creativity and aliveness is unblocked — it's almost as if to truly master our nervous system, our conscious mind needs to surrender to its wisdom.
Finally, I’ll mention that like most things in life this is a skill. If you’re someone who finds it challenging to interocept, or feels a lot of resistance to certain feelings — congratulations, you’re a human.
Just start where you are, knowing that this is a life-long exploration — and trust that you will absolutely make progress in proportion to how much you are willing to lean in with courage and curiosity.
With time, as these practices become more intuitive, I've found that we also tend to be more embodied — which others will recognise in our presence and trust us more to express authentically.
And perhaps most importantly, we're gradually able to return home to ourselves and our full sense of aliveness in each moment.
4.5 🏄♂️ PROTOCOL // Somatic Surfing
Okay, we’ve spoken a lot about the context and theory behind emotions — but remember the proverb that is core to this training — that this knowledge is only a rumour until it lives in the muscle.
So let’s explore what it’s like to practice unkinking our emotional hosepipe. Now as I’ve mentioned, it’s almost always possible to go deeper and access more with the support of a 1:1 somatic experiencing or Hakomi practitioner or trauma-informed therapist.
However, many of us have location, financial and geographical constraints — accessing quality support is not always available — so it’s also important that we are able to guide and titrate ourselves into and through working skilfully with our emotions.
As I mentioned in an earlier episode — often we feel resistance to feeling emotions on the more so-called negative valence end of the scale — like sadness, or anger, or grief — but less intuitively, it can also be scary to fully feel our joy or happiness or lean into celebration, because of the fear that it might disappear.
So let’s move on to a foundational protocol for working with emotions skilfully and what I call surfing the somatic waves as they arise.
I’ll begin by saying that there are various approaches and models here that I’m drawing from — from FOCUSSING and EM-RES, to Somatic Experiencing, the Bio-Emotive framework and Facilitated Breath Repatterning which I myself am trained in.
The protocol that I’m outlining here is a distillation of many of these practices — combined with my own lived experience guiding clients to the completion of emotional releases and reflexes over the years.
I call this practice Somatic Surfing — because, as you’ll soon discover, the skill required is like learning to surf the waves of our emotions where we are the surfer whose art lies in being in conversation with the wave as it breaks, paying exquisite attention in each moment and responding accordingly.
When we learn to surf, we start out on a small beach break. We learn the fundamentals and realize that no matter how much we fear wiping out – we always pop out the other side.
And as with surfing — it’s always vulnerable and slightly scary every time we drop into a wave — and yet I’ve never regretted doing so in the ocean or riding the sensation of an emotional wave.
Okay, you get the point, I’m sure — I also wish to restate that just as any surfer who wishes to stay in one piece will check for rip-currents or rocks — it’s vitally important that we first create the conditions for emotional safety before diving in.
This means — ensuring you won’t be interrupted and ground using any of the practices beforehand if necessary. Finding ideally a quiet and dimly lit space — soft music in the background or through headphones can also be supportive for accessing states and quieting the mind. Although, ideally choose a song with few lyrics and one that matches the emotional tone that you’re experiencing.
Now if you’re listening and you don’t have access to a quiet space — please press pause and come back to this later once you’ve found a space that you won’t be interrupted for the next 15-20 minutes — and if you wish to explore a gentle practice version of this somatic surfing practice.
Okay — I’m assuming you’re in a suitable space. You are welcome to listen to this seated upright or lying on your back.
For the purposes of this practice — please bring to mind a memory — or perhaps an imagined event in the future that is connected to an emotion — and choose something that is no more than a 3/10 in terms of intensity.
So just enough to connect with a sensation, but not too much for this practice session. I’ll give you a moment to bring this image or person or moment to mind.
Okay — FIRST, acknowledge that there is an emotion present. Labelling this out loud if you wish.
Second, I invite you to shift your attention away from the story or thoughts — although they will likely still be there, but move the spotlight of your attention down — and notice where you feel any sensations in your body.
This piece is essential — begin a gentle interceptive body scanning — the sensation may be obvious initially, in which case stay with it but if it’s not, then explore moving your awareness to other areas in your body — perhaps your lower belly, the band around your diaphragm below your rib-cage — or up higher in your chest, neck and throat area — move towards an area that feels like it has the most aliveness or tension.
From here, once you have made contact with something however subtle — give yourself explicit permission to soften into this place and feel what is there.
Bring curious awareness and if you can breathe into this area.
Explore the contours & texture of the sensation (rough, tight, numb, cold etc.) — invite this sensation to expand or grow.
And now, this is where the courage often comes in — visualise moving your attention towards and imagine walking into the epicentre of this sensation.
From inhabiting the very centre of this feeling — don’t move, but stay with it as if you were looking outside from the middle of this feeling. If your awareness shifts, and it likely well, then gently walk back into the middle of the sensation again.
It’s common for resistance to arise — or thoughts like why the hell am I listening to this — or I really should be doing the dishes — whatever. Welcome. It. All.
If the mind becomes busy — just notice that and without judgement — gently pendulate your awareness back towards the sensation.
From here, see if you can be 10% more curious — ask what does this sensation or part of me want right now? What does it wish to express? Or what wishes to be seen?
If this begins to feel like a lot —— remember you can always use a physiological sigh or some VOO-HUMming to ground and return to your anchor of ventral safety.
One more MOVE you can try, is play with noticing this sensation and simultaneously bringing the spotlight of your attention to another more neutral area – perhaps your feet on the ground, your right shoulder, or the palms of your hands. From here, hold awareness of both simultaneously, and patiently stay present with both sensations.
You will likely find that the sensation begins to shift or move. If it does then gently track it, as if you were tracking a deer in the wild. Being patient, listening and remember that this sensation wants to be felt, it wants to move, your work is to creatively create the conditions for this to emerge – and allow the mind to not get in the way.
I sometimes experience this for myself as an emergent dance – or a conversation between my present-moment awareness and the emergent sensations.
And then once you sense something release – perhaps it’s just a sigh or a yawn, or perhaps tears, or a felt sense of letting go — whatever you feel, remember that the sensations we call emotions rarely last more than 10-20 seconds before they flow into something else.
On the other side of this, it’s common to feel a sense of lightness, or clarity and often relief.
Okay — now let go of whatever focus you had — and let’s drop into some relaxation. You can lie down on your back if you aren’t already. And remember that it’s vitally important to allow time for relaxation and integration.
The time required to integrate will be proportional to the intensity of the emotional completion — at a minimum.
I’d recommend lying down and breathing gently into your belly for 5-10 minutes, sometimes longer.
The music will continue for another 10 minutes if you wish to stay here — feel free to get up in your own time.
4.6 💙 PRACTICE // Amplifying Joy
As we briefly touched on earlier, it’s not only the so called ‘negative-valence’ emotions that we resist, but the positive ones as well. It feels just as vulnerable to fully inhabit our joy or pleasure.
And by doing so we are strengthening our ventral vagal tone and increasing our capacity to experience the full spectrum of feelings
David Stendl-Rast has a poignant quote — he defines the emotion of joy as:
The goal of emotional fluidity, is tapping into the full spectrum of human emotions, so in this short guided practice, we’ll be exploring our capacity to experience and amplify joy.
Please find yourself in a seated position. Where you can sit comfortably and won’t be disturbed for the next few minutes.
Firstly: close down the eyes, and we’ll practice 3 rounds of coherence breathing – inhaling for 3 – holding for 2 and exhaling for 5.
Now bring to mind a person or experience for whom it is very easy to feel a sense of joy or gratitude. When is a time in your life when you connected to feeling a sense of radiant aliveness and deep joy?
Or perhaps what moment in the future could you imagine feeling this way?
Once you have a specific moment or image in mind — imagine putting this moment of memory or person into a bucket — and see that bucket lowering down into the well of your body.
Begin tuning into your interoceptive sensations.
Take a slightly deeper inhale — so that your ribs and intercostal muscles expand to the sides and back.
Give yourself permission — just for this moment — to feel everything associated with this moment.
Invite a deeper inhale into this area and notice any aliveness or sensations that arise.
Allow the sensation to take up space and move. If you notice any resistance or slight contraction, then bring your awareness there and soften into it.
From here, see if you can allow that feeling to amplify just 10% more. Perhaps you feel it as a warmth or an openness.
And finally, let go of any doing — any attempt to feel anything and just be as physically still as you can for the next 30 seconds.
Okay, this exploration of joy is now complete — I invite you to take this experience with you and look for opportunities to experience even more joy throughout your day.
Remembering that we don’t need a reason to feel this way — but that it is simply an inherent state that we have access to in any moment.
4.7 💌 REFLECTION // Write a Letter
4.8 🏔️ ASSIGNMENT // The NSM Edge Challenge
Finally, this week we’re sharing a fun invitation — or opportunity for you to piece together everything that we’ve been learning so far in the course — from cultivating interoception, practising tools for returning to grounded calm — and finally working skilfully with our emotions as they arise.
The invitation or dare if you like – is for you to step into ‘An Edge Challenge’ ~ a specific action or conversation that you can step into ~ as a way of practicing these tools in a real-life example that previously you might not have leaned into.
What is an Edge and How to Find Yours?
Only you can know where your edge is. It lies in the venn diagram where the edge of your window of tolerance overlaps with the place where your comfort zone begins to fade into the unknown. The process of nudging at this frontier is how we learn and grow as humans.
Your edge must be something specific, that you can say you have done — or haven’t done. And it must be something that you can do this week or before the course is completed.
When you filled out the onboarding survey at the beginning of this course – which hopefully you did — one of the questions was:
Your answer to this question might provide a clue as to what your edge could be.
Here are some examples that might get the wheels of your mind spinning and give you some ideas:
- It could be a specific conversation that you’ve been avoiding where there was an emotional charge ~ maybe an apology, or maybe setting a boundary and giving loving feedback to someone who unknowingly impacted you.
- It might be asking someone out on a date, or reconnecting with someone from your past.
- Perhaps it’s a personal blog post that you’ve been avoiding writing or hitting publish on.
- Maybe it’s asking for a raise at work or maybe it’s handing in your notice and embarking on a career transition.
Only you can know what this edge is for you. For me, some of my edges recently have included ~ writing and sharing marriage vows with my now wife, consciously ending an old friendship and offering a reflection to a close friend that risked hurting her feelings but ultimately was well received.
👣 Here are the next steps:
- Write down what your edge is. Be as specific as possible and share this in our dedicated Circle Edge-Challenge space. Remember, you should be able to say concretely once you have done it.
- Commit a time to carry this out within the next week.
- Whilst you are in the moment — remember to be as present to your internal experience as possible, and know that you have the tools to down-regulate if needed.
- Reflect on how you felt afterward and if it feels appropriate, share your insights, wins and experience with our community.
🏆 Edge Challenge Awards
As an extra incentive — we’ll be offering three prizes for the most compelling write-ups of your edge challenge experience.
- First place will win a brand new Gen 3 Oura Ring
- Second place will win a pair of high-end RaOptics blue blockers
- Third place will win a year’s supply of mouth tape
This can be shared as either a written post in Circle or a video. You can impress the judges by considering these four criteria:
3 // Interoceptive awareness — what specific sensations arose before, during and afterwards? What emotion (if any) did you need to work through? What reactive tendency may have arisen in the past?
4 // Reflecting forward — how might you approach similar situations in the future now that you’ve leaned into this?