"You're really activated right now mate, what's up?"
"What does that even mean, and why does hearing that annoy me so much?"
This is a paraphrased conversation a good friend and I had at about hour 4 of a shared acid trip we had together in nature last year. A topic about his life had sparked a strong response verbally and physically, and I was curious as to why.
Of course, 'activated' isn't an emotion, but it points to something that elicits a strong response. These physiological, body-based responses to the world, and our awareness of them, is what we're covering today.
This is the basis of interoception.
🔍 Defining Interoception
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” ― Michel de Montaigne
Interoception is your ability to sense the internal state of your body.
Interoception is a sense, like seeing or hearing. A level of perception that you have, and a skill you can cultivate.
This is done at a conscious and unconscious level. On one hand, it's your mind/body's unconscious ability to turn the sum total of sensations and activity within your body into a coherent experience. On the other hand, it's your conscious ability to understand that the pain you feel is coming from your stomach rather than your spine.
On the unconscious level, this is an essential process for your body to be able to regulate itself and maintain homeostasis. On the conscious level, this is an essential process for cultivating self-awareness at it's most direct and fundamental level.
Like any cultivated skill, this is a sense you can become more deeply attuned to your inner world as a result.
As we've covered before, across everything from Hedonic Engineering, to the Yoga of Becoming, with Embodied Awakening and even in Death Practices — being deeply attuned to the reality of what it's like to be you at this moment is an essential skill.
Self-awareness is the foundation that the rest of your evolutionary process is built upon. This makes interoception, the ability to sense yourself across your mind/body/spirit complex — a fundamental prerequisite.
In modern physiology, interoception often refers to physial systems and signals, but in this essay we'll explore this and create a link to how this relates to your pain-body, your emotions, and your freedom.
🕵️♂️ Facets of Interoception
“At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” ― Lao Tzu
There are several 'facets of interoception', core components that help make up this sense and help you more finely attune it. These move in a linear progression, so if you want to build your self-awareness and your ability to tune into yourself, start at the top and work your way down.
- Attention: Your ability to observe internal bodily sensations. Do you put focus on sensing your internal state of Being, and are you able to maintain your attention internally for extended periods of time. Meditation is an invaluable technique for cultivating this inward concentration and attention.
- Detection: Once you can direct your attention, detection is the conscious report of sensations within your body. Can you detect specific aspects of your phenomenological field. Think of things like feeling your heartbeat, or a rumbling stomach.
- Magnitude: Magnitude is the felt intensity of a sensation. Is it intense or subtle? Active or passive? Strong or weak? Warm or cold? Once you can detect differences in your field of experience, the next step is to key into the magnitude of the sensation.
- Discrimination: With detection and magnitude, you begin to increase your sensitivity to sensations, and begin to localize this more to specific phenomena or areas of your body. Can you feel the difference between your kidneys and your liver? Are you hungry or dehydrated? How do you know?
- Accuracy: Detection and more advanced discrimination leads to accuracy, how correct you are in reporting these sensations? This involves how precisely and how correctly you can monitor a specific process unfolding in your body, and over what period of time you can do so for.
- Self-Report: Through refining your interoception, your conscious self-reporting, the meaning-making and interpreting function of interoception, becomes essential. What does this sensation mean? Is it indicating that something is working well, or not functioning correctly? If you've noticed something, what's the correct course of action to deal with it?
Cultivating these capacities increases your overall sense of interoceptive awareness.
You are cultivating a more precise ability to sense and make sense of what is happening in your body, at a physiological level, on a moment-to-moment basis.
💛 Emotional Interoception
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” ― Ralph Ellison
Your body is a signalling mechanism. An ancient technology steeped in millenia of evolutionary intelligence. If your unconscious, the pre-verbal, archaic part of your psyche wanted to send 'you', the conscious partipant of experience, a message, how would it do that?
It would send you signals in your body. This is why anxiety and depression are signals, they are symptomatic indicators of larger imbalances, rather than isolated conditions to be treated directly.
The physiological signals and responses of your body form the base layer, the input data, that through self-reporting, become your emotions.
This is where we unlock the true power of interoception.
There is a simple yet highly effective way to graph the signals that come from your body. It's spread out over 2 axes, pictured above. One axis is the arousal axis — whether a signal is active (intensifying) or passive (dulling). The second axis is the valence axis — the hedonic tone of the signal as either positive or negative.
Every single emotion you have ever experienced can be graphed on this chart.
For example: happiness is active-positive, depression is passive-negative, rage is active-negative, peace is passive-positive.
If you really want to make massive evolutionary progress, it's better to stay at the level of the interoceptive graph, rather than making the jump to labelling these sensations as various emotions.
😡 Problems with Labelling Emotions
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” ― C.G. Jung
There are several problems that arise the moment you begin to label physiological sensations as emotions.
Primarily, this has to do with the limitations of language itself, and the associated collective meaning-making and cultural baggage that comes with those emotional labels.
- Cognitive Distance: Labelling sensations is a mental activity. The more you rely on emotional labels, the further disconnected from your body you become. Sure, you're 'happy' — but what does that feel like in your body? Your body doesn't communicate in emotion/language, it communicates through sensation. Speaking the same language as your body allows for better communication, understanding, and meaning-making.
- Personal/Cultural Baggage: Are there certain emotions you 'should' feel, and others you 'shouldn't'? Why? Who told you that? Who told you that some parts of your human experience weren't beautiful, and why did you believe them? Emotional labels immediately divide the totality of your experience into things you want or don't want. This creates an internal division, and nothing good comes from being divided within yourself. There's a lot of cultural and personal baggage associated with certain emotions, and you can drop all of this, allowing for higher-quality, unfiltered signal, by staying at the level of sensation and direct phenomenological experience.
- Incorrect Meaning-Making: If you're in a relationship that doesn't serve you, you might feel 'bad' or 'sad'. To correct that, you might do things to make you happier. But if you flip the script, and start asking "every time I interact with this person, I feel passive (less energy) and negative (poor valence) — why is that, and what do I want to do about it?" This line of questioning comes from meeting your body at a physiological level, and will take you much further, much faster, than merely passing over it with emotional labels.
Labelling emotions hits you on several levels: it removes you from your own experience, it erodes personal agency by allowing cultural paradigms to influence and filter your lived reality, and it distorts the meaning-making process.
Fortunately, the solution is quite simple: stay on the level of sensation, use your sense of interoceptive awareness, and work with decisions on that level.
🌀 Interoception as Strange Loop
“But you can't get away from yourself. You can't decide not to see yourself anymore. You can't decide to turn off the noise in your head.” ― Jay Asher
Like any good strange loop mirroring the nature of reality, you'll begin to notice over time that your self-reporting will influence and affect systems in your body, starting the process over again by providing new stimuli and phenomena that you can direct your attention towards.
This is why meditation, inner work, and exploring the Self can be an endlessly fascinating and thrilling process. You have an entire world inside of you, inherently generative and dynamic, filled with signal if you sit down and tune in.
Trying to make a decision about what to do next? Find the stimuli that create active-positive sensations in your body. Want to understand how you're feeling? Pull back to the base layer, and check in with your body's level of arousal and valence.
The best part about strange loops, as we've covered before, is that they create the possibility for upward spirals.
If the growth you want is internal, cultivating deeper levels of Self-Awareness through interoceptive awareness is the starting point.
☯️ Steady-State Mindfulness & Breaking Karmic Loops
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change." ― Carl R. Rogers
By making mindfulness (attention on external and internal shifts simultaneously) a sustained waking state, you begin to see with absolute clarity what external events trigger internal shifts, and also what internal states lead to more positive external events.
Noticing with absolute clarity what events generate passive-negative physiological states will help you cultivate the most activating, exciting life for yourself. Move relentlessly towards that which lights you up.
We can take this a step further, and make the case that interoception is a central force in breaking karmic loops and freeing yourself from the samsaric nature of karma.
Karma is the cosmic chain of cause and effect.
Without awareness and intention behind what you're doing, you are a slave to what happens, to how you're 'supposed' to respond. You're life is reactive. You are stuck in a loop, bound to fate, controlled by the world.
With interoception and mindfulness, you become liberated from this chain, as you can notice on a moment-to-moment basis what's occurring and decide where you'd like to go. You become self-sovereign, no longer bound to the chains of karmic load. The chain of cause-effect breaks because you decide fully the cause and action in each moment.
This is internal freedom, true freedom. You are able to explore far deeper into yourself, into others, and into the world. You are able to notice the flow of life inside and outside of you, and respond accordingly.
This is the ethos of the Edge of Being. Seeing how far in, and how far out, you can get. You become a full, active participant in Life as it unfolds. You are no longer a mere passive agent, but a fully conscious participant.
This is the promise and potential of cultivating Self-Awareness.
This is the true power of interoception.