In the book My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor explains that the natural life span of an emotion—the average time it takes for it to move through the nervous system and body—is only a minute and a half, a mere ninety seconds. After that, we need thoughts to keep the emotion rolling. So, if we wonder why we lock into painful emotional states like anxiety, depression, or rage, we need look no further than our own endless stream of inner dialogue.
Modern neuroscience has discovered a fundamental truth: Neurons that fire together, wire together. When we rehearse a looping set of thoughts and emotions, we create deeply grooved patterns of emotional reactivity. This means that the more you think and rethink about certain experiences, the stronger the memory and the more easily activated the related feelings become.
For example, if a young girl asks her father for help and he either ignores her or reacts with irritation, the emotional pain of rejection may become linked with any number of thoughts or beliefs: “I’m not loved,” “I’m not worth helping,” “I’m weak for wanting help,” “It’s dangerous to ask for help,” “He’s bad. I hate him.”
The more the child gets this response from either parent—or even imagines getting this response—the more the impulse to ask for help becomes paired with the belief that she will be refused and the accompanying feelings (fear or hurt, anger or shame). Years later, she may hesitate to ask for help at all. Or, if she does ask, and the other person so much as pauses or looks distracted, the old feelings instantly take over:She downplays her needs, apologizes, or becomes enraged.
Unless we learn to recognize and interrupt our compulsive thinking,these ingrained emotionaland behavioralpatterns continue to strengthen over time. Fortunately, it’s possible to break out of this patterning.
Researcher Benjamin Libet discovered that the part of the brain responsible for movement activates a quarter-second before we become aware of our intention to move. There is then another quarter-second before the movement begins. What does this mean? First, it casts an interesting light on what we call “free will”—before we make a conscious decision, our brain has already set the gears in motion! But secondly, it offers us an opportunity.
Say you’ve been obsessing about having a cigarette. During the space between impulse (“I need to smoke a cigarette”) and action (reaching for the pack), there is room for choice. Author Tara Bennett-Goleman named this space “the magic quarter-second.” Mindfulness enables us to take advantage of it.
By catching our thoughts in the magic quarter-second, we’re able to act from a wiser place, interrupting the circling of compulsive thinking that fuels anxiety and other painful emotions. For instance, if our child asks us to play a game and we automatically think “I’m too busy,” we might pause and choose to spend some time with her. If we’ve been caught up in composing an angry e-mail, we might pause and decide not to press the send button.
The Buddha taught that to be free—not identified with or possessed by thoughts or feelings—we need to investigate each and every part of our experience with an intimate and mindful attention. The first step is pausing, making use of the magic quarter second, and the second, choosing to be present with our moment –to- moment experience. We need to recognize the fear-based thoughts and the tension in our bodies with an accepting, curious and kind attention. The fruit of this presence is a capacity to release habitual reactivity, respond to our life circumstances with a wise heart and step out of the grip of oppressive emotions .
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? I have spent so much of my life focusing on other peoples opinions that I allowed it to shape my life. Now, I have taken that power back and refuse to let it go. I love being happy!
HOW OTHERS CAN HELP? I love hearing other peoples stories about the journey they took to get to where they are and what steps they are currently taking to achieve their dreams. I’m very open minded and would love to share ideas.
Everyday we feature a remarkable intent. Share yours at Intent.com
On my son Narayan’s sixth birthday I gave him an ant farm. He spent hours watching with fascination as the little creatures magically created their network of tunnels. He named several and followed their struggles and progress closely. After a few weeks he pointed out the ants’ graveyard and watched with wonder as several of them dragged the bodies of their dead comrades and deposited them there. The following day when I picked Narayan up after school he was visibly distressed. He told me than on the playground the kids had made a game out of stepping on ants. He was horrified that they were hurting these friends he so admired.
I tried to comfort him by explaining that when we really spend time with any living beings–as he had with the ants–we find out that they are real. They are changing, animated, hungry, social. Like us, their life is fragile and they want to stay alive. His playmates hadn’t had the chance to get to know ants in the way he did, I told him. If they had, they wouldn’t want to injure them either.
Whenever we wholeheartedly attend to the person we’re with, to the tree in our front yard or to a squirrel perched on a branch, this living energy becomes an intimate part of who we are. Krishnamurti wrote that “to pay attention means we care, which means we really love.” Attention is the most basic form of love. By paying attention we let ourselves be touched by life, and our hearts naturally become more open and engaged.
The poet Longfellow writes, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
What if we paid deeper attention to those we consider “bad other.” What if we paid deeper attention to those we live with? To the earth that is our home? To our own heart? Not only would we cease to cause harm, our attention would offer the medicine that could bring healing to our world.