The word "emotion" comes from the Latin for movement, agitation, stirring up. Like what happens in your guts when they are stirred up, agitated and moving. The body holds emotions; the body preserves the history of our emotional woundings. Our most primitive emotions dwell in our body like chemical deposits ready to erupt with instant urgency. Emotions are so raw and deep, they feel like truth. Like truth demanding a response.
It's important to recognize: Emotions just are. They aren't necessarily good or bad. At their core, emotions are just energy. Chemical energy. We don't have to do anything with them unless we truly choose to.
As human beings, we've inherited three motivational systems -- systems that have been necessary to our survival as a species. They motivate much of what drives us.
The first motivational system is the fight-flight-freeze system. It is the way we react to threats. The amygdala pumps adrenaline to tell us urgently "Fight for your life!" Or "Run!" Or "Freeze!" Our negative memories are stored in the amygdala, and it is wired negatively, to remember every possible or remotely possible threat. That shadow behind the tree? Is it a sheep or a lion? The amygdala will kill a thousand sheep to protect us from one shadow that might be a lion. Not good for the sheep though. The amygdala is primitive; we share it with the reptiles. And it is fast. Sending information almost instantly. "Fear!"
The second motivational system is the achievement/goal-seeking system. It gives us drive, excitement and vitality, and it rewards us with feelings of pleasure. The chemical is dopamine, and it comes from the basal ganglia in the forebrain. Dopamine is the chemical secreted by a job well done, a Razorback touchdown or by crack cocaine. Pleasure is particularly addictive, whether it is the pleasure of constructive accomplishment or the pleasure of beating a video game. A high-achieving workaholic and a video game addict experience a similar sense of reward.
The third motivational system is the tend-and-befriend system, something particularly present in mammals. This emotional system gives us feelings of contentment, safety and connection, like when you are holding a baby. It gives us feelings of soothing and well-being, connection with others. The chemical is oxytocin, and it is released by the pituitary, reaching into other parts of the neurological system. Oxytocin helps create the motivation of compassion.
But this third motivational system, the tend-and-befriend system, is easily overridden. The threat system of fight-flight-freeze is quicker and more urgent than tend-and-befriend system. In our primitive body, fear trumps love.
To a somewhat lesser degree the achievement/goal-seeking system also overrides our tend-and-befriend system. The drive for pleasure or accomplishment pushes us with deep urgency.
Now this is interesting: if all is quiet -- no immediate threat, no achievement drive -- number three is where we naturally dwell -- the place of tend-and-befriend, where we feel connected, content, and safe. The place of compassion.
Many spiritual practices are designed to help us detach from the force of the first two emotional systems in order to free us to live where we most naturally dwell, in the place of compassion and connection. The place of our fullest humanity. The place of love.
I particularly like the Christian practice of Centering Prayer (contemplativeoutreach.org). It shares techniques common to contemplative prayer from many traditions. The practice of Centering Prayer helps us detach from our thoughts and feelings -- detach from the chemicals that bubble up within us.
One technique of Centering Prayer is the practice of the Four R's. When we sit down in Centering Prayer, we gently deal with the distractions of our thoughts and feelings with the Four R's: Resist no thought. Retain no thought. React emotionally to no thought. Return ever-so-gently to your sacred word.
That same practice can help us when the adrenaline and dopamine of our conflictive emotions fire off within us during our ordinary hours. We experience a threat or a compulsion: Resist not. Retain not. React not. Return ever-so-gently to your center.
Emotions tend to dissipate if we don't add to them. They come and go. We can merely observe emotions; we don't have to do anything about them. We don't have to react. We can wait. We can observe rather than obey our emotions, letting them be our teachers, revealing the emotional patterns that tend to compromise our freedom.
When adrenaline or dopamine kick in: Resist not. Retain not. React not. Return ever-so-gently to your center.
Commentary on 08/02/2016
Print Headline: Get off the roller coaster