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Understanding emotions and learning to work with them

Wanterfall Work:
How to Use the Wanterfall Chart

It is one thing to explain the meaning of the Wanterfall Chart (which was introduced in the previous article) - but what is it good for? Well, as it is basically a minimal representation of my Wanterfall model of subjective experience, it should at least be useful as an aid while studying that model. So keep a copy of the chart (see link above) handy…

The purpose of the Wanterfall model is to provide a framework for understanding our subjective experience, and the chart has an essential role in that process. It can be used as a place to represent, arrange and rearrange the elements of your subjective experience in ways that make it easier to understand.

This arranging might be a purely abstract process. Or, if you write ideas and feelings on a spare copy of the chart – or on a hundred spare copies, for that matter – it can also have a concrete element. Indeed, it could grow into something rather like a "mind map".[14]

However, the value of this exercise in isolation is very limited. To make the Wanterfall Chart really useful, two more things are necessary. They are, in a sense, the two pillars on which the practical application of this book rests. The first pillar facilitates the exploration of your own mind. The second pillar facilitates the healing of painful emotions – because some will certainly be discovered during the exploration referred to.

The first pillar is a simple but powerful mental practice which is not often talked about in the West, but which has been popular for millennia in the East. This practice is sometimes translated as "mindfulness". However, that term does not explain itself, and when others explain it, the explanations vary quite a lot. I prefer to call it constant, non-judgmental self-awareness. It may be a mouthful, but it is much easier to understand.

The second pillar starts with exploring emotions from the perspective of the Wanterfall Chart, and continues by applying everything learned in the next three sections of the book – The Anatomy of Emotions, The Ramifications of Emotions and The Healing of Emotions. An important corollary of this, is that the second pillar is very wobbly – and therefore not to be relied on – until the whole book has been read and understood.

The First Pillar of Wanterfall Work:
Constant, Non-Judgmental

As mentioned above, this is the first of two things needed, to make the Wanterfall Chart really useful. And as you can see, there are three parts to it – two adjectives, and one noun. These three are approximately equal in importance. Let's look at each, starting with the noun and working backwards.


In this context[15], self-awareness is a matter of noticing one's own thoughts and feelings. In other words, it is the subjective part of awareness in general. There is nothing complicated or arcane about it. Although it is, in my opinion, the most important thing we ever do, it is nevertheless very ordinary and very simple. Notice that thoughts are under surveillance here, as well as feelings. Because of the constant interaction between thought and emotion, it is essential to observe both.


Non-judgmental means that the self-awareness is practised without either approval or disapproval of the thoughts and feelings which are noticed. This is necessary because, if you praise or condemn as you go along, one of three adverse effects will occur.

Firstly, you might suffer considerable guilt, shame etc – and therefore either hate yourself passionately (not recommended) or give up the practice of self-awareness altogether (not usually recommended – but probably necessary for survival, if self-awareness is judgmental).

Secondly, you might suffer a severe case of overconfidence, inappropriate elation, egotism, grandiosity etc. If you are lucky, your friends will prick that balloon before it carries you away. Otherwise, the consequences can be serious. This response is not common, but it can happen. It seems very different from the first problem, but in a sense it is the same – just in the opposite direction.

Thirdly, you might develop selective self-awareness, as a self-protective mechanism. Anything which looks disturbing might be passed over, and only the acceptable parts explored. The result of this reaction is a very distorted view of self – which can only lead you astray. Indeed, nothing which has passed through the filter of a judgmental attitude – or any other form of bias – can possibly emerge undistorted.

So self-awareness must be non-judgmental. But does a non-judgmental approach require the suspension of all critical faculties? Not at all. It only requires the suspension of praise and condemnation (which, incidentally, is another example of a minor duality). Non-judgmental self-awareness is a way of seeing clearly and dispassionately – of observing existing thoughts and emotions, without introducing new emotions into the observation process.

Also, as it is just observation, it has nothing to do with choice or action. It therefore does not prevent you from making changes as a result of your insights, if you choose to do so – nor does it apply any pressure to make changes, if you choose not to. Changes are a matter of choice. And choice, together with any action that follows it, is separate from observation.

So you are aware, observing, noticing – sensing what is going on within your own mind. The awareness itself is choiceless – in that it does not choose what to see.[16] It just looks – at whatever is there. And, in a sense, it is also unfocused – not in the sense of being blurred, but in the sense of not concentrating on one thing more than on another. Thought often needs to concentrate on particular things – but awareness is at its best when it just observes what is. In that sense, awareness is more like a film, rather than a film producer or a film critic.

It is like an uncensored film, at that. But here, I am talking about freedom within the mind of a person who chooses to explore it. Within that space, undefined and perhaps infinite, censorship of awareness is simply a form of distortion. It is thus the enemy of the truth, and the enemy of all true learning.

In the public domain, of course, some degree of censorship is usual, and in my opinion essential. Complete freedom of expression would allow the dissemination of whatever the sickest minds produce, to everyone – including children, the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill. This would often be distressing, and sometimes very harmful.

But the human mind, though perhaps less enclosed than we realise, is not the public domain. There may, however, be times when you become aware of a thought pattern which distresses you excessively, or seems detrimental in some way. The techniques for working with emotions, which will be described later, might solve this problem. But not usually immediately.

Perhaps the best example of this situation is obsessive-compulsive disorder.[17] In this disorder, deliberate thought blocking is sometimes advised, and can be very helpful. However, whenever possible, self-awareness should be uncensored to the point of choicelessness. Just noticing – nothing more, and nothing less.

Insights may sometimes occur during or after this process, but they are not achievable – they just happen. Insights may make some choices easier, or they may make the need for difficult choices more evident. Either way, they cannot be controlled. As with sleep, you cannot go to insight – it comes to you.

Choice, on the other hand, starts and ends with you – which doesn't make it easy, just different. But neither insights, nor the choices they sometimes lead to, are part of the constant, non-judgmental self-awareness so essential to the task in hand. They are important, but they are separate from this process.

Truly non-judgmental self-awareness, incidentally, would have no adverse emotional consequences of its own. However, if it brings to light feelings which are themselves painful, there will still be emotional distress to deal with. So the second pillar, which deals especially with painful emotions, is usually needed sooner or later – usually sooner, in my experience.


Constant means – well, I guess you know what constant means. The question is, why? And the answer is, because the more often your self-awareness is switched off, the more you will miss. It may sound like a burden, but it soon becomes a habit, and then it is not too difficult. It is as if the awareness sits quietly in the back of the mind, watching calmly but carefully – all the time.

During everyday life, your mind reveals its emotional content, bit by bit, as you observe it. Especially when you are communicating with another person. Relationship – which can be anything from asking for directions from a stranger, to a lifelong interaction with a relative, friend, or lover – is in some ways like a mirror, which shows you a reflection of your own mind. Intermittent awareness might miss these opportunities.


The three essential elements have now been discussed. But you may still feel that self-awareness is a difficult thing to define. If so, I agree with you. Is an unknown part of the mind observing the part of the mind that we think we know? Is one known part of the mind observing another known part? Or can the whole of the mind just look at itself?

I have no idea. But, subjectively, noticing thoughts and feelings is possible. You can easily prove that for yourself. And it provides one way to approach the mind. As I don't know of another effective approach, that is the one that I will be suggesting throughout this book. If you want to know yourself better, and live more fully, then everyday life, with all its complex relationships and challenges, is your schoolroom. But without the practice of constant, non-judgmental self-awareness, you are not paying attention in class.

Some of the lessons are hard. If you feel bad as a result of self exploration, it is usually a good sign. If you had been asleep, you would not have found whatever made you feel bad – and you would not have learned anything, either. This is, of course, the reason for the second pillar of Wanterfall work (below). However, as always, if you feel bad for days on end, or bad and getting worse, do not blame it on your exploration – see a doctor.

As you practise non-judgmental self-awareness over time, you can make for yourself a metaphorical map of your anxiety, sadness, guilt – or whatever other pleasant or unpleasant feelings you may find. But why would you want a map, if the territory is unpleasant? To find the way out of it, perhaps. If, on the other hand, you don't find your inner territory unpleasant, the map might come in handy when you go sightseeing.

The Second Pillar of Wanterfall Work:
Dealing with Emotions

Many of the other articles in this series are about dealing with emotions – recognising, understanding and accepting them; exploring them in detail; learning to express them in harmless ways; evaluating them with the calmer clarity which follows expression – and usually choosing to leave some of them behind. However, I am not going to address all of that under the present heading.

I have included the heading here to make it clear that effective use of the Wanterfall Chart involves dealing with emotions, as well as constant, non-judgmental self-awareness. However, I have not included the actual content here, because is too large to place under a single heading. In fact, it has the rest of the book from which this series of articles is derived devoted to it.

You can see the first of those sections, The Anatomy of Emotions, in the next article. But first, I want to clarify the relationship between the Wanterfall work just discussed and another term, EEEEs work, which will be encountered quite often in the following sections of the book.

Although Wanterfall work has already been discussed, it may help if I summarise it briefly. In a nutshell, Wanterfall work is the practical application of everything covered in this book to the task of exploring one's own mind, and includes the following elements:

·      constant, non-judgmental self-awareness is employed for routine exploration of the mind throughout daily life (this is the first pillar of Wanterfall work)

·      everything we are going to learn about emotions aids the understanding of what is observed in the mind

·      everything we are going to learn about emotions is also used to deal with any emotional pain encountered (this and the previous point constitute the second pillar)

·      the Wanterfall Chart itself acts as the kernel of a map of mental discovery – which is always a work in progress

It is very important to remember that "everything we are going to learn about emotions" includes the whole book. Therefore, starting to practise Wanterfall work now would mean supporting it on only one pillar. That may seem fine initially, but the first significant challenge encountered will show that the method is very unbalanced. So think about Wanterfall work, by all means, as you learn about its second pillar. But digest the whole book before starting to practise it.

EEEEs[18] work, on the other hand, is not nearly as comprehensive as Wanterfall work. By EEEEs work, I mean the practical application of the Emotional EEEEs concept, which, as part of the approach to The Healing of Emotions, will be discussed in future articles. Ideally, this would be combined with as much understanding of emotions as possible. However, that is not a prerequisite. EEEEs work is designed purely for the healing of emotional pain, and can be used for that purpose whether or not the person has any interest in exploring the mind, or in understanding the emotions involved.

Now, if you are a logical person, you will find the next few paragraphs rather tedious. In fact, I think you should skip them. As everything we will learn about emotions is included in Wanterfall work, and only part of what we will learn about emotions is included in EEEEs work, the relationship between the two is really very simple. In fact, it is as simple as this:

·      Wanterfall work includes EEEEs work, and other things – because Wanterfall work includes everything in this book[19]

·      EEEEs work does NOT include Wanterfall work – it just happens to be one essential part of Wanterfall work

·      EEEEs work has been separated off for a reason – its use is not restricted to its role in Wanterfall work. It can be helpful, for example, when working through a bereavement – or indeed any painful emotional experience – even if you find that Wanterfall work itself does not appeal to you.

I'm glad I got that sorted out. The logical readers can return now. And that means that I will definitely have to refrain from talking about "Wanterfall work and EEEEs work". That would be like ordering a banana split and ice cream. I used to do that, quite often (no, not the banana split) but I think I have stopped. Time will tell…

And now for some anatomical dissection. In the next few articles, I will dissect the primary emotions already introduced, trying to demonstrate what makes them tick – and what they make tick. As before, keep a copy of the Wanterfall Chart handy as you read, to check where things fit. If you can't see where they fit, just wondering about it can be a valuable exercise in itself. But with practice, you will be able to place almost anything discussed in this book somewhere on the Wanterfall Chart.


(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)

[14] Mind maps are described in Buzan, T. 1991, The Mind Map Book, Penguin, New York.

[15] Self-awareness can be extended to include noticing things like sensations, posture and movements. However, the emphasis here will be on thoughts and feelings.

[16] The choiceless quality of your awareness must not be confused with your own capacity to make choices. Awareness works best when it makes no choices. But human beings who made no choices would just be robots.

[17] Unless in remission, this would be a reason to avoid this book altogether, until discussed with the treating professional.

[18] As discussed in later articles in this series, the four Es stand for Encourage, Explore, Express and Evaluate, which are the four steps in the healing process.

[19] Later, you can add everything you ever learn about life to it. I suppose you could call that Advanced Wanterfall Work.

(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)



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