Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, I speak with Raphael Cushnir. Raphael is a leading voice in the world of emotional connection and present moment awareness. He lectures worldwide and is a faculty member of the Esalen Institute, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. He’s a popular contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine; Spirituality & Health; Psychology Today; and The Huffington Post.
Raphael Cushnir’s books include How Now: 100 Ways to Celebrate the Present Moment; Setting Your Heart on Fire, and with Sounds True, Raphael has created an audio based on his book The One Thing Holding You Back: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Connection.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Raphael and I spoke about what exactly emotional connection is, and he then shared a simple emotional connection process that listeners can practice. We also talked about what Raphael calls “emotional surfing” and how two or more people may collaborate in the emotional connection process, using a method he calls “communing.”
Raphael also shared events in his past that have influenced his body of work. And finally, we talked about an intriguing new series he’s hosting, called “Teaching What We Need to Learn,” a series in which Raphael is the interviewer, and he talks to spiritual teachers about the importance of vulnerability and transparency. Here’s my conversation with Raphael Cushnir.
One of the great joys of hosting this series is that I get to become familiar with people’s work that otherwise I might not be familiar with. And Raphael, in your case, that’s definitely what’s happening here—that I’ve had the experience of immersing myself in your work on emotional connection. I’m so glad that I’ve had the opportunity, and I have to say I think you’re doing really, really fabulous work. So I just want to start on that note.
Raphael Cushnir: Thank you so much. That’s an auspicious beginning.
TS: It is, and I want to bring our listeners in and to do that—to begin, help them understand what you mean by emotional connection. You distinguish it from emotional intelligence. So let’s start there and let people know—what do you mean by emotional connection?
RC: Sure. So in order to answer that question, we have to go back to our core definition. What is an emotion? From my perspective, the simplest way to describe that is that an emotion is a message from our brain that is delivered to our body as a physical sensation. So the key in that is, first of all, that emotions are feedback from our being to help us understand how we’re meant to relate to what we’re experiencing both within and without and, ultimately, what to do about it.
That feedback comes in a physical form, and so most people, in order to become better at connecting to their emotions, need to become more familiar with what it is to sense subtly inside of their physical body. So if you’re going to be a good emotional connector, as someone once said, “Take the elevator downstairs.” And so with that as a backdrop, what I would say about emotional connection, again as simply as possible, is that emotional connection means feeling the feeling as a sensation where it shows up in the physical body. And then allowing it to move and shift and change however it needs to so that ultimately, we get the information, or we get the message of the emotion, which is strictly the sensation itself, not about meaning or interpretation or about the doing that might come later. We get the message of the sensation in our physical body.
When we do that sufficiently, we end up in a more present and expanded state, and the emotion dissipates because the message has been received, its purpose has been fulfilled, and we’re left, as I said, more present and more open. If it was a difficult or challenging feeling, we’re also not needing to feel it anymore because we did what we needed to do. So that in a nutshell is how I would describe emotional connection.
TS: And just to be clear how you distinguish it from emotional intelligence …
RC: Oh, good. Thanks for bringing me back to that. So emotional intelligence is a term that can be used by many different people in different ways, but generally, it’s about being aware of our emotions and then being skillful and then how to work with our emotions internally and then also between others as we move about the world. So it’s a huge, hugely important field.
It came into great prominence in the ’90s through Daniel Goleman’s work, and then many, many other people have brought it to greater popularity and developed it since then. But what I find in the world of emotional intelligence, which is a little bit odd to me, is that even when people are really positive about the need for emotional awareness, they often move very quickly from the idea of awareness of emotions to management of emotion.
Management of emotions, of course, is important in the sense that we don’t want people acting out impulsively or reacting in negative ways, but it has a kind of left-brain-controlling, top-down approach. My understanding and experience is that we can’t actually manage our emotions peacefully and successfully unless we actually have them fully first. So often in the world of emotional intelligence, I would say that the missed step is where we have to be up close, personal, connected, non-interfering, and consistent in our awareness of that internal emotional flow before we go to the management step.
In fact, if we do what I just mentioned, there’s often no management that’s required because we’re re-synched up with ourselves, and intuitively and naturally, what’s meant to happen next for the highest good of the individual and the collective actually happens with greater ease, without force and without a lot of trying.
TS: Now, it’s interesting because I love the emphasis that you put on the physicality of emotions and experiencing in the body, and I’ve been talking to a few people just in the last 24 hours about your work, and the main thing I’ve noticed is that as I describe it, and I say, you know, “Tune into your body. What emotion might be there?” as we’re talking or imagining a different emotion—that people can do it for about five seconds or less, and then there’s some sort of bouncing off, and they want to change the subject. “Oh yeah, okay, okay.” But there’s some discomfort in going in the body for a long period of time, meaning more than five seconds. I’m curious what you think about that. Why is it so difficult?
RC: Well, there’s an exercise that I do with people at workshops where we follow our tension without attempting to put it into any particular arena for any particular amount of time. And when we do that, we find that there are basically three realms in which you are able to pay attention: there’s the external realm, everything you can sense with your senses; there’s the realm of thought; and then there’s the internal realm, where you would feel emotions and internal physical sensations. It’s my experience that of those three realms, the internal realm is the one that people are the least familiar with and the least comfortable with.
Some of that is cultural. Some of that perhaps is wired into us as human beings, but basically, the more that you hang out there, the easier it becomes to a) stay there longer and b) access information or sensory data more and more subtly. So for a beginner, often, they might feel something in their belly, let’s say, and just say, like, “a sharp pain.” But with a little practice, they might be able to tell you that it feels like it’s radiating out from all directions, that it’s sharper in the center, that they have an internal mental image that arises of a flaming ball, let’s say. And then they also could give the same sort of subtle specificity to what they’re describing as the sensation shifts and changes.
That’s another hallmark of getting more comfortable with the internal realm—is that you become absolutely clear that everything is always changing. You can’t place your attention on anything in the internal realm without seeing that just your attention begins to bring it into greater movement for you to follow.
So I know your original question, which is “Why is it so difficult?”—which, hopefully, I answered a little bit—but I also wanted to address the fact that once people just make that subtle shift in willingness and practice, that discomfort eases a lot. It doesn’t go away completely because in fact, a really skillful emotional connector may go in and out of connection many times even in the course of just one minute. They just know not to add resistance to the fact that they’ve checked out, and they just kind of peacefully and with no drama just check back in. And that’s always enough. So you don’t have to be able to stay for longer and longer periods of time to do the connection we’re talking about. It just naturally starts to happen that way.
TS: Well, this is, of course, encouraging, Raphael. It seems to me that there’s some feeling that a lot of people have that being “uncomfortable” is something I don’t want to do. You know, when I tune in inside to an emotion, especially a difficult emotion, I may feel something at the physical level that I don’t like, and so I’m going to bounce off and change the subject.
RC: Yes. Well, I think there are a couple things that we’ve come to understand in neuroscience about just attraction and aversion, and those things that we’ve come to understand through the scientific process really match what some of the wisdom traditions—especially Buddhism has taught us—about just that natural human tendency to go toward what feels good and to go away from what feels bad. So I think that there’s that as a foundational piece in regard to the subject that you’re raising, but then I’ve found something in doing my own examination that takes that one step further, I think.
It turns out that when an emotion is generated, it needs to be felt. That’s, of course, why it’s there. And it’s coming from a part of your brain—usually it’s your limbic system—and so you’re getting the message “Hear this. Here it is. Feel it.” But also at the same time, another part of your brain, which is sometimes called the reptilian brain—I like to call it the primitive brain—it has the fundamental misunderstanding. This is what I call the glitch in our brains around emotion. That part of our brain is designed to keep us safe, to allow us to survive through any kind of threat. The glitch in that part of our brain is that it can’t distinguish between an external threat, like footsteps in a dark alley, and an internal threat, like, let’s say, grief, or jealousy, or longing.
So on this very primal level, deep inside of our brain stem, there’s an idea that a difficult emotion is life-threatening. So when it gets generated by that other part of the brain that says “Feel this,” the primitive brain says “No way!” And it uses every means at its disposal to block the feeling and then to keep blocking it over time because it actually thinks it’s saving your life in doing so. We need to rewire that, which we actually have the ability to do, in order for that foundational discomfort you’re talking about not to keep getting in the way and preventing us from connecting.
TS: Your approach to emotional connection involves teaching people a pretty simple process right out of the gate. I’d love for you to teach our listeners that process, and also I have a question for you about that, which is “How can something that is so simple to explain actually be so powerful, but yet hard to do?” What’s your understanding of that?
RC: Sure, well, I do like to say about this whole work that it’s simple but not easy. I would say that that’s also true about many personal and spiritual disciplines—that we often make it more complicated than it needs to be. So simple and deep, as far as I’m concerned, is really the aim because that allows us to get to know ourselves and our lives in the fullest possible way. And actually, in order to do what you just asked me to do, I’m going to talk about emotional surfing because lately I’ve found that that is the easiest way to get the message across for people.
So the first part of the explanation is to talk about actual surfing in the ocean and to say that when a person is surfing, there are two things that are moving together in an exquisite union: there’s the surfer on the board, and then there’s the waves beneath. When the surfer is relaxed on the board and on top of that wave, then he or she is really in a really close connection, naturally, intuitively following the micro-movements of that wave in order to stay connected with it and riding with it. And to do that gets the surfer all the way to shore and has a beautiful ride.
There are a lot of things that can get in the way of that when you’re surfing in the ocean. If you are on that wave, and you make a treacherous turn, and then you start ruminating about that, “Wow, that was kind of intense,” you’ll wipe out because you’re in the past. And if you look up ahead and see a rock formation and wonder “What am I supposed to do about…” then you’ll wipe out. And similarly, if you’re just grooving, and you look up, and you say, “That’s a kind of cool cloud formation. It reminds of a…” once again, you’ll wipe out.
So the idea about surfing in the ocean is that you’ve got to be gentle and flexible in your stance and then stay really attentive to those subtle, probably million-fold shifts and movements of the current beneath you to get your ride. The one thing that a surfer would never do, because it would be absolutely insane, is to try to control the wave, to say “This wave should be bigger” or “I gotta see if I can get it to curve more to the right.” It would just never occur to somebody to do that. And that’s another hallmark of surfing. It’s really about getting yourself in synch with a flow, as opposed to interfering with that flow in any way. You with me so far?
TS: I’m totally with you.
RC: OK. So if we take all of that into surfing an emotion in your physical body, what we’re saying is that your attention is the surfer, and the felt sensation in your body is the wave. And what you’re meant to do is bring your attention up close, right to the edge of that sensation, just as if it were a wave in the ocean. In other words, even though many people are trained in mindfulness, and some mindfulness training might have you watching what’s happening as if it’s a movie and you’re seeing the screen from a distance, with emotions in the body—you can’t surf them. Just like you can’t surf a wave from the shore, you can’t surf an emotion in your body from a distance with your attention. So you’ve got to bring your attention right onto the crest of the sensation.
Then you’ve got to, once you’re there and you’re in that gentle pose that I was describing—and what I just mentioned is important because that’s a quality of attention. Sometimes we pay attention in a very tight, controlled way or very strained way, or there’s a lot of trying involved. This kind of attention is soft. It’s supple, and it’s spacious. So we’re right there on the wave. We want to follow its micro-movements just as if it were a wave in the ocean without interfering at all with the process of allowing and following.
We’re not trying to change the sensation to understand it or to make it go away. If we’re able to avoid all those things that I just described, we’re able to take the ride, and when we do that, the emotional message that I described earlier in our talk is completely received, and we get to shore, which in this case is that sense of presence and expansion that I described earlier.
So that’s why surfing is such a powerful metaphor. For people who have, let’s say, an Eastern philosophical bent or background, we could describe what I just spoke about—and if we have time and if you’d like to later, we can go into this more, but—you could describe that as a blending of vipassana and metta and tantra. But you don’t have to know anything at all about any philosophy, Eastern or Western, to be able to do what I just described. We could teach this to kids as little as about, like, four and five years old. There’s only two more things I need to say to make the model complete, since you asked me to, and that is that there are two very different things about surfing your emotions in your physical body rather than in the actual ocean.
The first one is that you most often will start at the place of a physical contraction. Your attention will be called to your body because something doesn’t feel good, and there’s tightness. That tightness is what the primitive brain has done to keep the emotion from you, and so that’s why often you’ll start there and why it’s important that if that is present, you have to start there. But the good news is that if you surf a contraction with attention in the way I just described, it will always release because what you’re doing is you’re telling your primitive brain, “Thanks for doing your thing. I get you’re trying to help me, but I just want to do something a little different here.”
And your primitive brain says, “OK, well, I’m not used to this. I’m not sure I’m OK with it, but I’ll stay nearby, let this go for a little while, and if I have to come back in and shut down the show, I will.” And as it takes that backward step, and you connect, it starts to get the message, “Oh, this isn’t killing me. I don’t have to come in and hold on so tightly as I have instinctively done all these years.” And it then watches what happens.
So the first thing that happens is that, as I said, the tension starts to dissipate, and then you get to be more directly in touch with the initial emotion that was shut down, which causes the tension. When you surf that, you get the ride I was talking about. So that’s point one: that surfing in your body starts most often with that tension, especially if there’s a difficult emotion involved.
The second point is that if you wipe out on a wave in the ocean, you have to paddle with effort back out to where the waves are breaking. You’ve got to wait there. And the next good wave might come, you know, in one minute, in an hour, or never. But in the body, when you wipe out—as I mentioned earlier, you will (even skillful emotional surfers wipe out all the time)—you know that always there’s another wave because whatever moment you’re in, there’s always going to be felt sensation in your body.
So if you were feeling a lot of sadness and surfing that really well, and then you got distracted by a loud sound outside or a thought about something else, as soon as you notice it, you just turn back to your body, and you don’t try to get back on the wave of that sadness that was there because this is a different moment, and you just look to see where the greatest degree of feeling is in your body, and you start there. And you’re just as good. You haven’t lost anything because you temporarily were gone because now you’re back, and this is a new moment with a new opportunity.
TS: Raphael, you talked about how these emotions are messengers. And I think a lot of people, when tuning into the physical component of the emotion, want to know, “What’s the message? What’s the message? Am I getting the message? Did I get the message?”
RC: Yes. Well, that word “message” is tricky because, as I said earlier, when I use the word “message,” I just mean feeling the feeling at the level of raw, unmediated sensation. And so often what we’re taught is that the message of an emotion is meaning, like “How am I supposed to understand this situation?” or “What am I supposed to get, and therefore, how am I supposed to respond?” So what I would say is that what we do—and I would say virtually all of us—is that we process our emotions out of order.
I’ve found this over and over and over with myself and everyone that I work with: that when you do the surfing process that I just described, any insight that comes comes without effort, without searching, and it has the hallmark of a deep understanding and something that’s reliable when you get to it. If you do that process, then the looking for the meaning that you’re asking me about often is no longer necessary. You got everything you needed. But what we do instead most often is we feel something, especially if it’s uncomfortable, and think “Why is this happening, and what am I supposed to know about this?” We try to think our way into feeling or understanding. And that’s what takes us out of internal harmony.
So one of the things that I tell people in reorienting towards this work is to feel first and think last. In so doing, I think we right the order, and we no longer have that automatic compulsion to get in there and start figuring out, which is what usually gums up the work.
TS: Uh huh. Well, when you say that, “Think last,” when am I at the end of the feeling process? Meaning, “OK. I’ve been feeling this uncomfortable set of, you know, my stomach turning over left, right, left, right, left, right. Now I’m going to start thinking about why that could be happening.” Am I at the end of the process?
RC: [Laughs.] Well, this is a great question, and there can be no limit to how many times it’s helpful to come back to what you’re asking about, which is what is the hallmark of having done this sufficiently. And the answer is that when you can say that you feel open, generally, to what’s moving through you. You feel connected to it, and to some sufficient degree, at ease or peace, which doesn’t mean you like what you’re feeling or you want what you’re feeling. It just means that you’re not arguing with, or fighting against, or resisting what you’re feeling.
When you get to that place of openness, connection, and presence that I just described, you’ve done what you need to do. And if in that kind of state, you’re still, naturally and without tension, drawn to explore from a more mental or intellectual realm, you’re free to do it. I’m not interested in telling anybody what to do with his or her time or, you know, how to bring thought in. My main point, though, and this is a big key: if you come in with your thinking, your analyzing, your judging, your bargaining—all of those pieces—before you felt the feeling, you can’t actually trust your process of perception and thinking.
This is exactly how we get huge blind spots. In other words, there are many times in life when you’ve seen someone who’s brilliant, and that person seems not to understand about his or her life what everybody else around is completely clear about. How could that person who’s so bright be so deluded about this relationship or some aspect of their personality? What that shows us again and again is that there are emotions involved, connected to that issue, that that person is, as of yet, unwilling and/or unable to feel, and they’re trying the best as they can to see it clearly, but their perception is deeply skewed as a result of that block.
So somebody who is more intellectually oriented—and none of this, by the way, is about “feeling good, thinking bad.” They are both awesomely important parts of being a human. But for somebody who is oriented more intellectually and wants that understanding and wants it to be really reliable and skillful, what I’m saying is definitely use those powers, but use them when you can trust them, and you can’t trust them if you’ve still got unfelt feelings on board with relation to the issue.
TS: When does somebody know, when they’re going through the process of emotional connection, that they need someone else’s help? Like, “This is just too much. I can’t do this on my own.” What’s the surefire sign of that?
RC: You know, I would go even one step beyond that and to say that we’re not meant to do it alone. There’s that whole strange thing in our spiritual realms here in the U.S. and the West in general where on the one hand we say, “Oh it’s all one. We’re all interdependent,” and then so often when we’re having any kind of difficult emotion, we think we have to go off and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get through it all on our own. It’s unfortunate. So when I say that we’re not meant to do it alone, I don’t think anybody needs to be exiled and left to their own devices when they’re learning how to shift into this way of being.
So I would say that for most people, it’s great to get a little bit of training, a little bit of support to know what it’s like to do it when somebody is helping you stay on the wave and helping you hold the space and quality of awareness that is going to keep you connecting emotionally in a really positive way. If somebody gets those chops, let’s say, and then comes back to your question, it’s really as simple as “I know how to do this, I’ve done this lots of times before, and I’m finding that I’m not doing well. I’m stuck. I keep wiping out. I try to clear it, and I just shut back down” or “I thought I would move through this, but the same wave, so to speak, keeps coming back over and over, and I’m not getting anywhere. I feel like I’m stuck.” Those would be hallmarks of where it would be good to work with somebody who’s skilled at this.
By the way, it doesn’t have to be a professional, although that’s really helpful. I’m working more and more with people sharing a process that I’ve been calling “communing,” in which two people who have this orientation and really want to support other people in presence can be really great reflectors for each other and give them the support that they need and otherwise wouldn’t get.
TS: I like that term communing. I have to say that I feel like a natural fan of that, of communing. I’d love to hear your view of what happens when someone else is there communing with you while you’re doing this emotional surfing that can make it so much easier.
RC: Well, I’ll give you a specific example of that. All of us have one or more emotions that are particularly difficult for us to feel. For many people, it’s some variation of shame. It’s unworthy, not good enough, less than—and those come from, let’s say, the general constellation, the feeling. And most of us have gone our whole lives feeling that feeling and then going into deep resistance to it. We’ve even created an identity, in large part, that is about not having to feel that feeling. So we create compensation.
For example, a person who feels really bad often about themselves works really hard to be seen as good in other people’s eyes just to deflect any more moments than necessary that they have to be connected to that raw, shameful feeling. So that’s a deep conditioning, a groove, and a habit of behavior. And what happens with a person, even if he or she spent a good amount of time in therapy, meditation, and spiritual practice, is that they have a pocket like that of feeling, and they know about acceptance, and they understand that spirit is all, that there’s nothing left out, but what they’re really saying to themselves, not in actual words but through their behavior, is that everything is a part of the one, and everything gets to belong—except this, except my shame. That’s one thing that cannot be brought into the light and held and included.
When there’s somebody else there helping them first put the toe in the water and then open more and more to be able to stay with the sensation, the other person is proof through their nonjudgmental, spacious, compassionate holding that this inclusion, which perhaps the person has longed for their whole life but never been able to get to, is actually possible, and it is even present in the relation between the two people. That’s like a bridge where you say, “Well, I’ve said the worst thing about myself, I’ve talked about this feeling in a way perhaps I’ve never shared with anybody else, and that other person is still here. They still feel connected to me. They still feel like they’re valuing me. And as a matter of fact, they feel closer to me and more honoring of me because of what I just shared.” That provides, as I said, a bridge to “Well, maybe I could also source that within myself.”
So I wanted to use shame as an example because it’s so prevalent and also specific to answer your question about what happens in the exchange. I think something like that happens in every exchange, whether it’s about shame or any other difficult emotion.
TS: That’s very helpful. Thank you. I like that explanation. It’s beautiful. You said something in passing that you said we could circle back to, and I think it would be interesting to do that—that this emotional surfing at the sensation level combines vipassana, metta practice, and tantra. And I thought it would be good to circle back because there’s a way, Raphael, in describing all of this, you’ve made it so accessible, dare I say even potentially mainstream, meaning that this doesn’t—
RC: [Laughs.] God forbid!
TS: —sound very technical. Exactly! Not particularly technical, and yet, then you throw out that this combines vipassana practice, metta practice, and the tantric tradition. So tell me what you meant by that.
RC: Well, it’s interesting because—I’ve mentioned before, “simple but not easy”—and of course simple is also not simplistic. And sometimes it’s possible to miss that. And when you go mainstream, it can start to seem like it’s simplistic. So thanks for the opportunity to come back around and talk about it in a way that builds it out a little bit more.
So vipassana, or as we call it most of the time in the West, mindfulness, is really about paying attention. That’s the first piece of surfing successfully your emotions. You’ve got to be able to train yourself to pay attention and to be able to stay with something over a period of time or come back consistently every time that you get distracted. So when I talk about that first piece of vipassana, I’m really talking about the practice of ongoing awareness and being able to hold what you experience in a neutral way.
And then, when we bring in metta practice, or lovingkindness, it has to do with the way that we’re paying attention. This is so important because I’ve worked with people who are far better and more trained and experienced meditators than me, you know, by decades, but in their training, they’ve come to almost clinical observing of what they experience. Emotions are all about vulnerability. Often there’s a fragility to them also, and a tentativeness too. And so they are not interested or trusting of a kind of neutral and clinical awareness. They want to know that you care.
So the metta piece is about saying “Yes, I’m here. I am really paying attention to you because I love you.” It’s a deep kind of love that comes from saying yes because really, ultimately, the deepest love is about acceptance and inclusion. So this part of ourselves that has been exiled forever is now being told, “You get to come home. You get to belong. I will hold you. You can kick and scream. You can do whatever you need to do, and I’m going to be here with loving regard and holding the space for you.” That’s a critical piece.
Then when we come to the third one, which is tantra, and of course, that term can be misappropriated, misunderstood in a million ways, but what I mean by it is the tradition that says “Rather than go sit in a cave or on a mountain top and remove yourself from the powerful passions of being a human, instead what we want to do is to go right into the heart of those passions and come to recognize that our greatest moments of possible awakening come from being able to pay attention right in the fire.” So with emotions and surfing in the way that I’ve been describing, that’s exactly what you need to do.
You’re not, as I said before, on the shore trying to catch a wave, but you’re not even an inch away from the wave. You’re literally connected exquisitely and indivisibly with it. And it’s in that tantric degree of connection that you complete the pieces that are necessary: the awareness, the lovingkindness, and then the fully engaged. Those are the three pieces that I’ve synthesized into surfing—or when I’m talking about particularly vulnerable emotions, I change the metaphor and refer, as some others have as well, to cradling because that really emphasizes the gentleness that really vulnerable emotions need.
TS: When you were talking about vulnerable emotions, you almost personified them, as if there was this sort of force outside of me coming to get my attention.
RC: Well, it is outside of you in a certain sense because you’ve put it there. And I’m not talking necessarily about a vulnerable emotion that arises in this moment. Let’s say you say something, and I have a hurt feeling. That hurt feeling is not outside. It is not separate from me, and I have the ability to ride through that in the present moment. But most of us have a backlog of wounding that lives in the body and that longs to come forward and be re-included and healed ultimately so that we can be whole, but it doesn’t have a good track record with us. It’s used to all the things that we do, not just that primitive brain blocking and contracting like I described before, but also addiction, compulsion, everything that we have at our disposal to say “No, I don’t want to feel you.”
I have people tell me all the time, “No, I don’t want to let that in—because that’s the cause of all of my upset and suffering, that feeling of not good enough. No, I don’t want that. I want to feel whole and complete. I want to feel good enough.” So in that sense, we’ve created an armor or a wall that says it must be on the outside. When we begin to surf in the way that I was just describing, we are beckoning it back in and moving toward it, and until we have some significant experience of being one with it, like the surfer and the wave, there’s always going to be an unease, a sense of separation, and on the part of the emotion, some degree of wariness or even distrust.
TS: Uh hum. Raphael, I’m curious a little bit about you personally in that how did you come to this whole body of work related to becoming emotionally connected? How did you give birth to this body of work? What was going on in your own life?
RC: Well, I could go back to different chapters over the decades of my life, but let’s just say that I first of all came into the world oriented, to some degree, in this way. I also came into this world as the whippersnapper, meaning that I became very comfortable tackling the problems in my life with my intellect. That was my go-to. And it served me pretty well for many years until it really didn’t.
There were a few key places in my life when that really did go haywire. The one of them that’s the most relevant to your question is that I really was riding high in my early 30s, and I thought that all of my spiritual and therapeutic practices were bearing fruit in this wonderful life that I had—a great career and a great marriage. And then it all just came crashing down, pretty much all at once, and I was in hell. I was in a classic dark night of the soul, and none of the things that had given me support and that had saved me or had worked in the past were working, and I really felt helpless and powerless, and I didn’t know what to do.
And I was really fortunate at that time because I had a mentor who said to me, “I have an idea about what you could do with everything that you’re feeling,” and of course I said, “What? Tell me anything!” And he said to me very placidly, “How about nothing? How about if you do nothing at all to try to change the way you feel?” And in that time, at that time in my life, the first thing I thought was “That’s torture” because I was in such pain. But also, something about it grabbed me—because what most people were saying out of the goodness of their heart were things like, “It’s good to keep busy.”
And I just knew from all the work I’d done on myself and in my life previously that distraction wasn’t the road for me. So I decided to take my mentor’s advice and run with it—I should really say stumbled and bumbled with it because I wasn’t so great, even though I had a meditation practice and all those things, because now what I was trying to do was find my way to emotional connection organically without even knowing what it was or even having a name for it.
In my experience—and I was really blessed because after about six months of that bumbling and stumbling, it led to an experience of grace, a kind of opening, a deep opening of the heart that was profoundly transformative and healing. And it was from there, living with this new consciousness that had been gifted to me, that I started looking more carefully at what I had been guided to and how I might be able to share that with others in a way that was more accessible than the usual way, that didn’t require a lot of jargon or having to sign up for a belief system or tradition with lots of rituals, et cetera … So that really became a new passion in my life.
I started writing about it in one way and over the years refined it, but the one thing that came out of all of that work and all the books that I’ve written, et cetera, is a recognition that it is emotion and our resistance to emotions that lays us all low. It’s the place where even the person who has enormous spiritual power finds him or herself abusing followers, or a person who is deeply committed to lovingkindness finds him or herself lashing out at a neighbor or even a loved one or a child.
So I really came to recognize that on the healing journey, and on the journey toward spiritual realization, that emotions are the nexus between self and spirit, that there’s no way around them to get to fulfillment and realization. There’s only going through them. And also, therefore, because emotions only arise in the body, the only way to get there reliably in an integrated way is through the body. So all of that recognition over the years has caused me to speak less about the spiritual themes that are behind this work in a general way and instead bring them more to bear specifically on the emotional realm.
TS: So there’s a lot I want to talk to you about here, Raphael, but I’ll try to be very specific, which is … There you were. You were having this difficult time in your life. Did you know at that point in your life that by doing “nothing,” you would be sticking with the physical sensations of what you were experiencing? Did you know that then?
RC: Well, I had that mentor, and he was pretty specific in saying that anything mind is doing to get you away from the visceral pain that you’re feeling is what you want to just let go of so that you can be in an unmediated relationship to your pain. So I don’t think that he had it in his language specifically that it was about microscopic sensations in the body. I think a lot of that was intuitive for me. And a lot of the refinements of it came over time. And I should also say that even prior to that experience, I had had a couple therapists who were skilled in a realm called IBP, which stands for Integrated Body Psychotherapy. So I was familiar to some degree with the connection between bodies and emotions and overall discomfort. So I brought that to bear too.
TS: You spent this period of six months staying with the visceral pain. And then you said there was an experience of grace. Can you tell me exactly what happened?
RC: You know, I could if we had months to talk. And then I probably wouldn’t even be doing it justice. As a matter of fact, just as a side note, at Brown University, there’s an ongoing, deep study of people who have had some kind of opening experience like what I’m describing while in the process of mindfulness meditation, and so I just recently had a three-hour interview where I went into the whole experience. I hadn’t really revisited it like that for 15 years, so it was quite a treat. That’s an area in which it’s wonderful that some people are bringing a scientific degree of exploration because it is so uncharted as a territory and so valuable for us to know more about.
In my case, I think what is the most helpful to know is that I was doing my best with what we’ve just been talking about, and yet, as is always the case, there’s still some degree of holding on, some degree of bargaining, like “If I just feel this more, maybe it will go away. Maybe I’ll have some relief.” I had an experience where somebody unwittingly challenged my path of acceptance. And they were asking me what I was doing to get over the loss of my relationship at that time.
I bristled at that because I realized that was not what I was doing. I was making a choice to hold open the possibility for reunion in the midst of all this darkness and pain that we were going through. And as I sat with that experience of hearing the question and then bristling, I came to not only accept that path of staying present, as we’ve been talking about, to those most difficult sensations, but I even came to celebrate it. I felt like my acceptance deepened to the point where I felt like it was a privilege to be able to do what I doing, to be what I was being, and in celebrating it, some last shred of resistance melted away.
And so shortly after that, I was back home because I was on a vacation when that happened. And I was doing my usual meditation practice, and I felt an opening and an energy arise in me that was really incredibly powerful and profound—something like I’ve never experienced before and which didn’t fit inside the framework of what my personality or ego thought was its own experience. I felt like something was awakening in me, coming to me and through me, that wasn’t what I would call mine in an ordinary sense, the same way I would, like, a headache or just a feeling of joy. It felt much bigger than me, and that was the beginning of a process that took many years to integrate and actually is still integrating. But that was the very first moment of grace that I was referring to.
The reason that I use that term grace is because I was suffused with a love that I had never known before. I mean, it was beyond anything I’d ever experienced, and I thought I was a loving guy, but it wasn’t like personal love. It was more of a transpersonal or oceanic love that felt like it contained everyone and everything and had always been there but that I just had not had access to. And I don’t talk about that experience a lot because I think that it’s easy, when somebody does talk about that, for somebody else to say, even in just the corners of their mind, “Hey, where’s my grace?” Like, “It’s easy for Raphael to talk about all this surfing stuff because he had that experience. I didn’t, so it’s not the same for me as it is for him.”
What I came to recognize over the years was that the heart opens uniquely for every individual. It’s not about the fireworks in the sense that actually, if you have something happen like what happened to me, it turns your whole life upside down. You don’t know who you are anymore, and there’s a lot of challenge with that. Whereas for many people, that same kind of opening happens so gradually that it’s even imperceptible, and in that case, they don’t have to throw everything out the window and start again.
So since you asked me about it, and I’m glad to answer, I wanted to add that piece to it and just share one last part of that, which is to say that at that time, I was reading a book called The Cloud of Unknowing, an ancient, Christian mystical text, and there was a passage that I came upon about this subject that really struck me, and I’ll just share it in the vernacular.
It said something like, “For those of you who think that you are special because you had some kind of spiritual awakening, perhaps you should look at it like this. Maybe you were so hardheaded that that’s the only way you ever would have got it.” And when I read that, I have to say, I felt guilty as charged. It’s important, I think really important, to add that because, as I said, otherwise there’s some idea that Raphael had some experience or something that I don’t have. And I would never really want anyone to come away with that impression.
TS: I think more where I’m going and what’s really interesting to me is I want to become a really good emotional connector. I really want to become well-versed and talented at emotional connection, and so my question to you, for me and for other people who are listening who perhaps have that as an aspiration, what tips can you give us?
RC: The first tip is probably annoying, which is just to do it. I say that because I have, you know, I work with lots of people at lots of places along their life path, and there are some people who call me up or email me, or I meet them at a workshop, and they’ve already rolled up their sleeves. And the only thing that I’m doing there is holding the space as we spoke about earlier. But there are some people who I would say are in a lifelong debate with themselves about whether they’re really willing to do it.
There’s lots of reasons for that. We haven’t talked in our discussion today about trauma, which plays a huge part in all of this. Many people have the kinds of trauma that make them very wary of going very undefended into these realms. So I always tell people you can only go forward as fast and as fully as the slow and most tentative parts of you can go. So there’s no push. There’s no “should.”
But wherever you are—anybody listening to this interview today, wherever you are, it’s always possible to take the next step forward and to see if it holds, if it’s OK, if you still feel connected to yourself, if you still feel safe—whether that’s with a professional or a “communer,” like we were talking about earlier, or even just on one’s own.
So another way to say that is to just be pretty courageous in one’s self-assessment. “How ready and willing am I to do this, if I’m honest?” And then to start there rather than to try in a more forced way to make it be like or look like, in you, something that you think it should be like, or something that you see or you think it is when you compare yourself to somebody else or when you watch how they do it. So that would be the other tip—is to just be really very dedicated to the idea of starting where you are and only there.
TS: And then, Raphael, just one final thing that I want to talk with you about, which is that you are now hosting a … was it 30-part series, or more? Where you’re…
RC: I think it’s about 40 now.
TS: …where you’re interviewing various spiritual teachers and leaders in the personal growth movement. You’re calling the series “Teaching What We Need to Learn,” and I’d love if you would introduce to our listeners a little bit of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it … What was your inspiration behind this series?
RC: Sure. Thanks for asking me. Well, it comes right back to the piece I was just describing when I had my opening experience and was made humble by what I had read in The Cloud of Unknowing—because I think that the, let’s say, older or traditional kind of spiritual teaching is about professing a certain degree of realization on the part of the teacher and therefore offering that teaching and that persona of spiritual teacher as some kind of evolution towards a perfection or perfectibility that then the students put themselves in the audience of and hope to be able to get somewhere closer to in the course of their own studies and their life experience.
And I think that we’ve seen that there are some real flaws and shadows in that approach. You know, so many gurus with feet of clay. I mentioned that earlier, and they happen in every tradition, whether it’s my tradition, the Jewish tradition—we’ve seen that over the last years with rabbis. There’s evangelical preachers. There’s Hindu gurus. There’s Buddhist teachers. So, we’ve seen it over and over. That system I think in some ways is not just fallible, but it’s broken.
I think that there’s a new way forward that values transparency and vulnerability on the part of the teacher and a recognition that you just happen to be in this role. This is where you are in your evolution—that you’re a teacher, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t still need to learn the very thing that you’re teaching. When teachers will share openly about their struggles, I think they create a field of commonality and connection that is the most healing and the most powerful in moving us forward to that state of oneness that most of us know about but haven’t yet fully experienced or stabilized inside of ourselves.
You know, there are degrees of that, too, because in doing the interviews for the series, I’ve found that many, many teachers are very good at taking a past struggle or suffering and turning it into a teaching story, but they are not really vulnerable when they tell that story because they’ve digested and synthesized all of it.
So in the series, what I’ve done as best as possible is ask people about where they are now. What are their challenges? What are their edges? It’s not because I want people to have the entertainment factor—someone was wondering if it was a kind of cheap thrill to be able to find out some dirt on your teachers—it was never that. It was the idea that if a teacher was willing to show their own unvarnished humanity to us, then it would deepen our trust in them and also in our ability to really learn from them.
So that was the motivation behind it. Every time I do one of those interviews, I feel really privileged. I hope that those listeners will feel privileged too because so many really well-known and what we thought of as very integrous teachers have only deepened our recognition of them as such because they’ve been willing to step forward in this way. So the motivation was what I just described, and then the result was really inspiring to me as well.
TS: It’s a rich series that Raphael is hosting, and for people who are interested in learning more about it, they can go to teachingwhatweneedtolearn.com. And just in the spirit of transparency and the confessional nature of both what you’re doing, Raphael, with “Teaching What We Need to Learn” and here at Insights at the Edge, I want to let listeners know that Raphael asked me to be interviewed for his series “Teaching What We Need to Learn” and that I was so impressed with the intention and by this work of helping bring a different quality of dialogue, a different quality of tenderness and self-revelation, to conversations, these types of conversations that Sounds True is actually a partner in offering this series to the public, “Teaching What We Need to Learn.”
And Raphael, in that spirit of transparency and vulnerability, I’m going to ask you one last question. Here you’ve had the chance through that interview series to ask now 40 different teachers what their growing edge is of their life and work. And I’m not going to let you get away without me having the chance to ask you that question here on Insights at the Edge. So, Mr. Emotional Connection, what’s your growing edge?
RC: [Laughs.] Well, I appreciate the question. And I appreciate you and Sounds True being part of this series because I really know how deeply you value these themes. For me, I think what I’ve come to see over and over as I’ve been doing this series and life has been happening to me simultaneously is that in my early years, I had a really difficult time bonding to either of both of my parents. So I had a deep conditioning that left me alone and, on the one hand, seeking intimacy but also having very mixed feelings about it and having an inner sanctum that I would go to that would keep me safe.
I’m married. I have a family. What I find I’m challenged by every day is that habit of consciousness to retreat into my own space in a way that has the potential often to be injurious to intimacy. So I would say that I’m learning every day and failing every day and hopefully getting a little bit better at staying connected to myself while also staying as fully as possibly connected to those who I share my life with.
And I hope that’s not too abstract because it shows up in any moment—not even when we have a conflict but just when there’s somebody else wanting or needing something different than what I’m wanting or needing, and I almost instinctively, when that moment occurs, jump back and get my space. And creating a shared space is a continuing edge for me.
TS: I can very much appreciate that. And thank you. Thank you for coming forward with that, especially in light of you describing this experience of grace and this great opening in your own life and then still saying “Yes, many years later, this is a kind of challenge I face day to day.”
RC: You’re more than welcome, and I’m glad that you brought attention to that. Just briefly to say “Amen” is that there’s no spiritual experience, no transformation that burns away conditioning and leaves you somehow not the personality that you were before. It may impact your personality, but there’s still this work to do, and I look forward to be doing this work until I take my last breath.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Raphael Cushnir, a very brilliant person with a very helpful body of work on emotional connection. Raphael has published with Sounds True an audio program based on his book The One Thing Holding You Back: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Connection, and he’s also hosting a new 40-part free series called “Teaching What We Need to Learn” If you’re interested in more information, you can visit teachingwhatweneedtolearn.com.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.