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The Emotional Distinction Technique

The Emotional Distinction Technique (EDT) has four primary aims:

1) To truly and fully heal emotional upset when it arises.

2) To prevent emotions from deciding actions (or beliefs).

3) To prevent emotions from prolonging suffering unnecessarily.

4) To find meaning, use, and hope in emotional pain.

It features the active ingredient of vipassana meditation — nonjudgmental awareness — while focusing our attention in a way that not only accelerates healing, but helps us to define our experience and feel assured that we’re “doing it right.” The Emotional Distinction Technique thus bridges the gap between Western, objective approaches to healing, and traditional Eastern meditation practices.

The technique also does away with complex psychiatric notions and deals instead with basic elements of human experience: emotions, thoughts, and sensations. The effects observed while developing the technique indicate that dealing with these simple phenomena is all that is necessary to resolve many common ills, and to do so with uncommon efficiency.

Its fundamental premise is that in order to truly heal, we must feel what we need to feel, and not feel what we do not need to feel. This may sound obvious, but this distinction tends to go overlooked, largely because there is little belief that it can reliably be made.

What we need to feel is that which will recur if we do not feel it; what we do not need to feel is that which we create while feeling what we need to feel.

The Emotional Distinction Technique is a reliable method of feeling what we need to feel without inadvertently perpetuating it, and it unites the Eastern benefit of meditative awareness with the Western benefit of uncompromising efficiency.

It accomplishes all of this with just six words: Ignore the thoughts; Feel the sensations.

Chapter 1—

A Simple View of Emotions

Emotions are composed of two parts: thoughts and sensations.

A casual reflection upon our experience will show that together, these two concepts comprise emotional experience without leaving anything out. In distinguishing these two features, we can see that they play significantly different roles in the process of experiencing emotions.

The Emotional Distinction Technique works by treating each appropriately in accordance with their respective roles. This chapter will show these in sharp relief, laying the foundation for confidence in treating the two aspects very differently from one another.

1) Thoughts lead inevitably to action. Sensations do not lead to action.

2) Thoughts can either be true or untrue. Sensations are neither true nor untrue, but certainly real.

3) Thoughts will continue in cycles indefinitely, leading you through an endless attempt to “figure things out.” Sensations are limited in quantity and will “run out” when given the proper attention.

4) Paying attention to emotional thoughts leads to more emotions. Paying attention to emotional sensations leads to clarity and peace.

Thoughts lead inevitably to action.

The great philosopher and founding father of psychology William James noted that all thoughts result directly and inevitably in action, except when impeded by the presence of a conflicting thought.

He recalls the experience of struggling to get out of bed on a frigid morning. While consciously aware of both the warmth of the bed and the chill of the room, he is paralyzed with indecision and unable to move. Suddenly, he realizes that he has gotten up! Something had distracted him, or he had become lost in thought, and in the absence of contradictory thoughts of comfort and cold, his original thought of getting out of bed had expressed itself without any conscious willing. He was, as he explains, “aware of nothing between the conception and the execution.”

Sensations do not lead to action.

Even in the case of Pavlov, in which a dog is compelled to feel hunger and salivate at the sound of a bell, this is due to the association between the sound and the experience of hunger, which must be built up over time through conditioning. While it may be possible to condition a thought to be so strongly associated with a sensation that there is no “turnaround time” between the perception of the sensation and the action that follows, the mechanism by which this operates is still the thought of whatever has been associated with the sensation through conditioning — not the sensation itself.

It is safe to assume that the first time the dog heard the bell, he did not salivate.

But like Pavlov’s dog, when we develop a habit of overexpressing our emotions, we condition ourselves to obey them. We feel emotional sensations arise, and without an opportunity to stop and reflect, we find ourselves acting in according to the impulses of the thoughts that accompany them. This conditioned inability to pause and question our emotions is as common as it is destructive, to the extent that the great psychologist Wilhelm Reich called it “the emotional plague.”

Our vulnerability to this conditioning is one of the reasons I recommend consciously deciding to do nothing when an emotional upset arises. (This is explained in detail in Chapter 4.) Since the Emotional Distinction Technique requires a strict refusal to obey the impulses of your emotions, doing nothing is a simple and clear way to be sure, in the midst of an upset, that you are in command; as all newcomers to meditation discover, emotions hate to do nothing.

Thoughts could either be true or untrue.

Of course this is true of all thoughts, whether they arise from an emotion or not.

The problem with emotional thoughts is not that they are never true, but that they are never trustworthy. As emotions seek first and foremost to justify themselves, providing you with accurate facts and interpretations of the world is of secondary importance. (This is explained in detail in Chapter 2.)

Reich explains that the thoughts arising from an emotion nevertheless have a certain “coherence,” which allows them to appear rational and logical at the time without actually being either. While the emotion is present and striving to justify and express itself, errors and contradictions remain hidden from conscious awareness.

Therefore, it is impossible to skillfully judge the truth of a thought in the midst of emotional turmoil.

Sensations are neither true nor untrue, but certainly real.

No skill in judgment, or any faculty impaired by emotion, is required in order to clearly perceive sensations.

Thoughts will continue in cycles indefinitely, leading you through an endless attempt to “figure things out.”

Psychologists and people who have suffered from depression are well aware of the phenomenon ofrumination, of repeatedly thinking the same thoughts in an attempt to resolve an intractable problem and cure oneself of one’s inner ailments.This occurs in microcosm within many distressing emotional experiences; we become entangled in the thoughts arising from an emotion in the attempt to resolve it. Though it may feel at the time like we are “working on the problem,” rumination rarely leads to its actual resolution.

Sensations are limited in quantity and will “run out” when given the proper attention.

Imagine a pressurized air canister. When under pressure, it has power. When that pressure is suddenly released, it exerts a force, and propels the can across the room. Emotions behave as if similarly pressurized, and when triggered propel us to act in accordance with their impulses. If we refuse to obey that impulse, more sensations arise, and the pressure to act seems to intensify.

Simply feeling (paying vigorous attention to) the sensations and allowing them to pass is analogous to holding the air canister still with one hand and letting the air out with the other. The pressure loses its power, the can doesn’t fly across the room, and once the pressure is released we can put it wherever we like without worrying if it will “go off.” Its power to move us against our will is drained, and now the only reason it will move is at the request of our peaceful, united, rational self willing it — not its own trapped, explosive, volatile pressure. The emotion thus transforms from a nuisance to an asset; from a threat to a tool.

Paying attention to emotional thoughts leads to more emotions.

Thoughts are the mechanism by which emotions seek justification, expression through action, and perpetuation.

Paying attention to emotional sensations leads to clarity and peace.

The Emotional Distinction Technique, therefore, is this:

Ignore the thoughts; Feel the sensations.


Table of Contents

Part I – The Technique

1. A Simple View of Emotions

2. Pain and Attention

3. How to Ignore Thoughts

4. How to Feel Sensations

5. How to Practice (Caveats and Considerations)

Part II – Applications

6. Anxiety

7. Addiction and Overeating

8. Inquiry

Part III – Advanced Applications

9. [redacted] (for weirdos only)