I don't know about you, but with the craziness in our political "theater" currently, my fear can be triggered daily! Also, as I navigate through the process of separation and divorce, both fear and grief can open up for me daily. I can feel my nervous system (my mind and body) wants to calm down, but that's easier said than done because one can couple one's past trauma with these current "triggers" and phew, what a roller coaster life can feel at times for some of us!!
So, this morning I was listening to a dharma talk to help me navigate through some of my fear and loneliness. The teacher, Mathew Brensilver, was sharing how easy it is to get caught in what feels bad, our feelings of pain and suffering! I was totally on board to this simple truth-how easy it is to get hooked into what feels difficult and painful.
He mentioned neuroscience research that validates this inclination we all have, to be drawn towards and pulled into what feels bad (that always helps me a bit to hear how science corroborates our experience).
One psychology experiment that illustrates this sobering reality of being caught in pain is found in an experiment where participants gained or lost the same amount of money. Results show that the distress that participants felt over losing the money was greater than the joy that accompanied the gain. Yes, we register or feel distress more strongly than joy!
Our painful feelings can have a captivating effect on us as they draw us into their web. We are ensnared in the body experience and tension of our pain! There is a deep tension accompanying our pain since WE ALL want OUT of our pain-we fight against it! This only adds tension and pain to our already existing pain. We all want to feel free of our pain or suffering!
I can often experience how captivating my emotional pain can be and how I either have an instinct to fight my way out of it or be pulled under, like an ocean's undertow! When I was locked up this morning in my fear and loneliness it was humbling and human!
Embracing our pain feels completely counterintuitive! In previous columns, I've presented the value and the "how" to embrace our pain. In my upcoming workshop at Kripalu, Healing the Emotional Body, we deeply explore this process of embracing and healing our emotional challenges or pain.
In this column, I want to guide you in ways to track getting caught in pain and ways to just let go, to relax-to create an alternative path to this very primitive response we all have to be on the lookout for danger, threat and potential pain and to feel caught in fear and pain!
Our brain spontaneously scans for negativity, like a police radar scanning for speeding cars. Stephen Porges, a brilliant neuroscientist, called this process neuroception and located the circuitry for this unconscious activity in the most primitive parts of the brain, which are designed to scan for danger, threats, problems and potential pain. I never much related to the word, neuroception, so I will use threat perception instead.
Evolutionary neuroscience considers that this negativity bias, this "threat perception" proclivity in our brain was at one point a necessary part of our physical survival when there were man-eating beasts that surrounded our ancestors. They couldn't afford to forget where the saber tooth tigers dens were located or else that might be their last day on earth! So they were busy tracking potential life threats and sealing them deeply into memory!
Since threat perception is an unconscious program that is running ongoingly in the background of our mind and is busy scanning for threats and danger-well, just being conscious that this unconscious process is happening can really help!
To help strengthen our conscious awareness to this unconscious process, I find it helpful to track body tensions and shallow or restricted breathing. These tensions are indicators that "I'm on the lookout for danger." Relaxation training is key, yes we need to train our bodies and minds to relax whether it's through yoga, meditation, qigong, body scanning, walking in the woods or whatever you find truly relaxes mind and body.
Remember, we don't have to train ourselves to be on the lookout and prepared for danger which for most of us means becoming tense and defensive in some way, unless we've trained in a martial art like Tai Chi or Aikido or other specific martial forms where you actually learn to relax and drop into your center when under attack!!
We need to be able to track when we become tense which can let us know that our danger scanner is on as we are unconsciously looking for threats. We can then ask ourselves, "in this moment in time, am I truly in danger?" Or we might even suggest to our primitive brain and our tense body, "In this moment I am safe!" This simple question, "in this moment, am I truly in danger?" can wake us up and help us challenge and potentially let go of this primitive response. Or the simple reality statement to ourselves "in this moment, I AM safe" can wake us up to the truth of right now I am not under attack (unless of course you are) as you are embroiled in an argument where blame is being flung your way for instance.
Now I would like to present an alternative path to the negativity bias which is to consciously look for experiences that feel good in some way and then to deeply absorb the sensations of comfort, relaxation, renewal, well-being, joy or happiness. Looking for experiences that feel good could be as simply as a good cup of coffee, a delicious meal, listening to music that you enjoy, a beautiful scene, a heartfelt interaction with someone, a massage, deep relaxation from doing yoga etc.
One of the key things I've noticed is that in order to be on the lookout for experiences that feel good, my mind can't be racing. It will just speed past a momentary joy probably because it is on its habituated program to scan for danger! This is almost a catch 22 here. In order to notice good experiences and strengthen our capacity for love and joy so that we are not so prone to scanning and getting caught in fear and pain, we have to first slow down our fight/flight minds.
Grounding, settling down into ourselves, relaxing our bodies and breath can be key to resetting our nervous system out of the default mode of threat perception to the possibility of enjoyment perception. Looking for experiences that feel good sounded so easy didn't it? But I've noticed that it isn't so easy, so I didn't want to deceive you and have you end up feeling like a failure at this!
Next, we need to take some time to really register the good feelings we are having, to take in the body sensations of pleasure, happiness, connection and joy. To savor and absorb the experience of well-being into the body. To become absorbed for a short period of time before doing anything else! This deeply retrains the brain from its default setting of threat perception and absorption to enjoyment perception and absorption!
For those of you who want to read more about this process of taking in the good, I suggest Rick Hanson's book, Hardwiring Happiness. Also, Barbara Fredrickson's book, Love 2.0 is wonderful as well!
In these turbulent political times and also in these times where some of us are struggling with personal challenges and crisis, we all need support in finding our way back to some peace of mind, so that we can navigate these turbulent waters with greater skill and balance.