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June 1, 2023

What is the difference between a feeling and an emotion?


Photo Credit: Meredith_Farmer


By Joe Perez

Recently Robert Augustus Masters wrote:

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?

The sound of the words are different, and getting a feel for the words through sound symbolism (the investigation of the importance of vocal sounds for meaning) is an interesting entry point to this topic. In this post, consider the similarities between the sound of the phonemes in the words, such as the “fi” sound in “feeling” and “finger.”

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 ch’i; however in emotion, the ch’i 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 ch’i, 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’m a stickler for finding the right word. I do not see the point to “consciously and consistently turn toward … feeling,” which risks distracting our equanimity with pointless diversions. It is better said that 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. LaWanna Durbin says:

    I appreciate your attempt to make a distinction between feeling and emotion; there are many ways to do this, huh? I agree with most of what you say. However, to take it a step further, it seems you’re primarily speaking of feeling as a gross, physical, sensorimotor experience.

    On subtler levels, “feeling” has an entirely different meaning, does it not? “I have a feeling” is often terminology used to mean “I have a hunch” or “I have an intuition,” the hunch or intuition being experienced as a felt-sense, with ‘sense’ referring not to sensation or a physical perception (although that might be part of the equation too), but to something akin to or approaching understanding or intelligence or knowingness. So feeling in this regard seems pretty significant, worthy of attention, a global felt experience throughout one’s beingness correlated with something sensed-known.

    When we touch–come into direct contact–with goodness, truth, or beauty, say, we may experience extraordinary emotions, but like a localized weather event, they will pass (which isn’t to say they shouldn’t be attended to). Through repeated/sustained ‘touching’ or contact with g,t, and b, we create an inner “global climate” or feeling state in which all emotional weather occurs, is contained, and referenced back to.

    Just wanted to do a little honoring of feeling here, feeling states, offer a different take on the subject.
    Appreciate your blogs. Thanks.

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