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But That’s Another Story…

February 1, 2013

I define responsibility (response-ability) as the ability to choose how we respond to stimulation coming in through our sensory systems at any moment in time. Although there are certain limbic system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our blood stream. My anger response, for example, is a programmed response that can be set off automatically. Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run. Moment by moment, I make the choice to either hook into my neurocircuitry or move back into the present moment, allowing that reaction to melt away as fleeting physiology.

Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight (p. 146)

Emotions are transient – they come and go like waves breaking upon the shore.  In the quote above, Jill Bolte Taylor posits a neurochemical basis for the transiency of emotions. She asserts that the physiological response to a given emotion will only last about 90 seconds unless we continue to trigger that emotion. Whether or not we accept the proposition that emotions are nothing more than the play of neurochemistry, we can agree that emotions will fade unless they are continuously re-triggered.

3D reaction

An effective emotional trigger

In our last post, (Hooked on a Feeling) we noted that emotions bring energy, focus, and a heightened sense of meaning to our lives.  We may find that energy, focus and sense of meaning very compelling, and we may voluntarily choose to trigger certain emotions in order to re-experience them. We can use external stimuli as a trigger — for instance we may participate in violent sports, browse internet porn, read romance novels, listen to rousing music, watch action movies, play video games or take drugs in order to engender emotions. We may become habituated to, dependent on, or even addicted to these emotions and the substances and activities that provoke them.  But we don’t need to use external stimuli to trigger emotions – we can trigger our emotions using only our minds. We can imagine an object or incident, and respond to it as if it were real. In this post, we’ll look at how we trigger, maintain and intensify emotions by means of internal narratives, or stories. (Pema Chödrön refers to these as storylines.)

Her love is heavenly
When her arms enfold me,
I hear her tender rhapsody.
But in reality, she doesn’t even know me.
It was just my imagination, 
(once again) 
running away with me

Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)(Whitfield/Strong)

Conceptuality is the aspect of mind that recalls the past and projects the future.  It can identify and compare alternative courses of action, and speculate about their possible outcomes. Here’s a description of the activity of conceptual mind given by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (one of the Bad Lama’s teachers) that appeared in our post Enter the Monkey:

Conceptual mind takes the nonexistent and makes it existent. It takes things that have already ceased and makes them exist now. It takes that which has not yet been produced, that which will arise only in the future, and brings it into the present. As for what does arise in the present moment, as soon as it arises, it ceases. Immediately upon having arisen, it is gone. But thinking mind takes that and keeps it hanging around as if it were some kind of a thing, a hard and solid thing. That is the activity of conceptuality.

Conceptuality is very helpful: as we noted in the post Distinguishing Concepts from Physical Sensations, it allows us to recognize patterns and make predictions. Because it is engaged with processing the past and predicting the future, the conceptual mind is often only loosely tethered to the here and now. Nonetheless, its activity happens in the here and now. Conceptual mind creates a kind of mental simulacrum of events  — a story  — and we respond physically and emotionally to that story as if it were actually happening here and now.  If the story is intense, our physical and emotional response may be correspondingly intense. For instance, if you are engaged in a fantasy in which you are arguing with someone, you might begin to feel angry, your body may begin to feel warm, and you might even gesture or shout. You might be aware that events of your story are not really happening here and now, but you nevertheless respond to them as if they were.

Someone hits you once, and then you hit yourself over and over again in your mind. – The Bad Lama

What's your favorite story?

What’s your favorite story?

The storytelling aspect of our conceptuality can be a very powerful part of our experience, so it’s good to become familiar with how it works. Here’s a meditation instruction:  As you sit, notice when you are telling yourself a story. Notice how you respond emotionally and physically to the story. Notice the kind of stories you tell yourself most frequently. Are they stories of conflict, of triumph, of failure, of seduction or rejection? What are your most common news features, and your most quoted historical fiction and your favorite bedtime stories?

Our memories are actually reconstructed every time we think of them. They aren’t movie clips that are stored in the brain in a certain location like files on a hard drive. They are nerve pathways that are firing anew each time we remember the event. This makes for some interesting effects. For example, the memory can change.  — Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D

Our memories invoke emotions. We can recall a past event that was pleasant, and feel a sweet nostalgia.  Or we can recall an incident in which we were wronged, and experience anger.  But these recollections are not an exact replaying of that event: as Susan Weinschenk points out in the quote above, our memories are reconstructions. When we recall a past incident, we’re telling ourselves a story, not actually reliving the past. Because we’re telling ourselves a story, we’re likely to add elements to or excise elements from that story. Over time, our memories shift and change, drifting away from the actual experience to which they refer. The more we recall something, the more we recreate it, and the more likely it is to drift away from its referent. But we respond emotionally and physically to these recreations as if they were real, and these emotional and physical responses serve as support for our belief that our memory must be accurate. In this way, individuals and whole groups can create false memories that they cherish as true history because of their deep emotional resonance.

History is rewritten as much as it is remembered…Most people are probably interested in what the moral and political message of the past is – or should be. And so we will always be constructing and reconstructing collective memories to serve in our collective struggles of today.  Claude Fischer, Professor of Sociology UC Berkeley

Road Rage

The result of storytelling while driving

Stories may also serve to maintain and intensify feelings that have already arisen.  Such stories might appear as explanations or justifications of a current feeling.  For instance, if I’m stuck in traffic and another car comes driving down the shoulder of the road and passes me, I might feel a spurt of anger.  I might then begin to tell myself the story of all the ways in which my anger is justified: I’m acting responsibly, and that other driver is acting irresponsibly. Through this storytelling, I might fan my momentary anger into full-blown indignation. As this goes on, my emotion is no longer arising in response to the momentary event, but rather in response to my story about the event. (See the post Working With Strong Emotions: Impulse Control for more on how this can lead to “expensive” reactions.)

We may also attach explanations to emotions that arise without any clear provocation. For example, I might wake up in the middle of the night and experience a kind of free-floating dread accompanied by a restless itchiness. These feelings are uncomfortable to me, and I want to understand them and control them. So I ask myself, “What am I feeling anxious about?” Actually, I’m not anxious about anything in particular — I’m experiencing an emotion that’s not connected to a particular object. But as soon as I select a reason for my anxiety, I create a story that solidifies my experience into the emotion “anxiety.” As I embellish the story, I fuel my emotion, and my “helpful” explanation turns into the cause of the anxiety.

These explanatory stories appear to help us understand our emotions; they lend a sense of meaning and stability to our lives, and suggest that we may be able to control our emotions. We may believe that if we could understand why an emotion arises, then we could learn to control the circumstances that lead to that emotion; if we could control the circumstances skillfully, we would never have to experience that troublesome emotion again. But our emotions are much more capricious than this: emotions may arise without any discernible cause. We cannot control our lives in such a way that we are guaranteed never to experience a given emotion, nor can we control our lives in such a way that we are guaranteed to be able to produce a given emotion reliably. Rather than learning to control the sort of emotions we experience, we can learn to work with our response to our emotions in general.  We can learn to drop our stories and rest with whatever emotions are arising. It takes bravery to learn to rest in this sort of emotional groundlessness.

Here’s another meditation instruction: Sit and notice the relationship of story and emotion.  Does the story arise before or after emotion? Notice if you’re using a story to provoke an emotion that hasn’t yet arisen or if you’re using a story to solidify and explain an emotion that is already present. See if you can drop the explanation of an emotion and simply rest in the sensations that you feel.

You can work with powerful stories in the same you work with the powerful impulses of a klesha: you can create a mindfulness “speed bump” in which you drop the story, and come back to an awareness of the sensations of your body and of your environment. It may happen, though, that the story that you are enmeshed in is so compelling that you can’t seem to let it go. In this case, you can use analysis to weaken the story’s grip.  By doing so, you can use the wisdom aspect of your conceptuality to combat the confused aspect of your conceptuality:

  1. Recognize that you are telling yourself a story and that you can stop. Even if you can’t seem to drop it, you have some degree of choice about how actively you’ll participate in the storytelling activity. You may try visualizations to help you with curtailing your storytelling. For instance, you might envision turning down the volume of the story.  Or you might personify the character that’s telling the story, thank them for their concern, and dismiss them.
  2. Ask “Is this story true?” Because of your strong emotional reaction, the story might seem as if it were the truth. Don’t accept that; challenge the veracity of the story. How do you know that the story is true? Are there other alternative stories? Is this story true right now, was it true only in the past, or is it something that might only become true in the future?
  3. Ask “Is this story helpful?” The story might be true.  Perhaps you are about to have an important job interview, and it’s true that you might screw it up, and that that could prevent you from getting the job. But is it helpful to imagine all of the ways that you could fail?  Are you planning well, or just rehearsing all possible means of failure? As the popular saying goes, “Worrying is praying for what you don’t want.” There are many true stories you could tell yourself.  Pick a helpful one.
  4. Ask “Is it helpful right now?” Even if the story is true and helpful, this might not be the time to think about it.  It’s true that you may need to develop an fire-safety evacuation plan for a future concert. But you may not need to do that when a good friend is opening her heart to you. If the story is helpful, but this is the wrong time to be thinking about it, you can always write it down and promise your conceptual mind that you will come back to it.

hurricaneEmotions change if we let them. Even large and powerful emotional weather systems, such as grief upon the loss of a loved one, are comprised of smaller, fleeting emotions.  In the midst of grief, we might suddenly find ourselves giggling. In the midst of joy, we might experience sadness. If we become concerned about whether our emotions are “appropriate,” we risk creating stories that generate the “appropriate” emotions.  Then our emotions are connected to those stories, and are no longer connected to the here and now. In this regard, the question “What are you really feeling?” is a dangerous one, as it invites us to create tidy stories which create appropriate emotions instead of experiencing the untidy and inappropriate emotions that happen to be arising in this moment.

Don’t worry about what you’re supposed to be feeling or whether there is some other “real” feeling lurking behind the emotion you seem to be experiencing.  Just sit, and allow your emotions to come and go. According to the teachings of Buddhism, or natures are fundamentally loving, compassionate and connected. So if we relax into our nature, and allow our emotions to freely come and go, we will ultimately experience loving-kindness, compassion and a feeling of connectedness.

Isn’t that a comforting story?

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