How are you?

Sometimes people use thought to not participate in life.
— Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

'How are you?' is one of the most ubiquitous greetings in the world - chances are that, on average, a person is asked this question at least once, if not more often, every single day. Mostly, people offer short, hasty responses that are polite, but not entirely accurate or true; if everyone really felt fine, people would be a lot less miserable in general. Increasingly, though, more and more people are beginning to offer answers that are closer to the truth - they may not be fine, something might be bothering them, they're coping but could do better...

Whenever you inquire about someone's feelings, listen very carefully because it is a rare gift when people choose to share this part of themselves with you. If you do listen, you could come to realize how sad, or joyful, or angry they might be at that time. Often though, it might take a bit of work for you to discern this because many people couch their feelings in the language of thoughts. 'I'm frustrated' is a thought - the feeling behind that might be anger or sadness (or some combination thereof) at not being able to get something. Likewise, 'I'm so overwhelmed' is a thought - the feeling behind that might be fear of not being able to achieve or cope. The power of language when it comes to feelings is that words can distance you from the full impact of an emotion. 'I'm sad' might be a simple statement, but it strikes much closer to the heart of a matter than 'I feel despondent', or even the rather dramatic 'I feel like dying'. It also dulls the full effect of how one actually feels to the listener and makes it harder for them to fully engage with the feeling being presented.

Modern education systems favor logical thoughts over apparently amorphous feelings, so it is not a surprise that many people mistake their thoughts for feelings because they have been conditioned to think rather than feel. However, this way of being also allows most people to keep what might be very difficult feelings at arm's length - the full impact and vulnerability of saying 'I feel shamed' is lost when one instead says, 'I feel like crap'. What is lost when this kind of separation from your own feelings occurs is a real sense of what you are really experiencing, and what life really means for you at that time. In an almost imperceptible but potentially serious way, you can step further and further away from your own life, cognitively parsing information but always one step removed from feeling the impact of your circumstances and decisions because what you feel is shielded from your awareness by your own choice of words. In so doing, are you participating in life, or observing it?

To be able to feel, and to allow those feelings to guide and inform your thoughts - rather than vice versa - might not be easy. It will require practice and a real shift in how you engage with yourself, and what meaning you glean from your relationships and experiences, but it might be the only way to truly live.