Neuroscience tells us that every time we resist reacting with anger, we are reorganizing how our brain functions, which then allows us to remain calm, more perceptive, and therefore more caring.
This is because the source of our anger is often emanating from how we feel about ourselves at the moment, much more so than it is about how we feel about what just happened to us.
That’s not to say however, there is never an appropriate time to become angry, but it’s a topic for another day, and centered around intention.
Our ability to be observant of our feelings and then to intelligently respond to them -which might even be to not respond at all- is often referred to as “mindfulness.”
Some common situations which trigger an emotional response are:
-Feeling like we have been disrespected
-Feeling like we have been lied-to
-Feeling like we are being talked down-to
-Feeling like we being treated unfairly
-Feeling like our hard work is not acknowledged
-Feeling like we aren’t appreciated as a person
The key to mindfulness lies in our ability to develop more and more self-sensitivity. And by that I mean developing an ability to observe how we are feeling, as well as an ability to step back from it and objectively understand it.
On a neuroscience level, the better we become at this skill – which is developed and developable- the more we are using our prefrontal cortex to drive our behavior, and the less we are allowing our primitive limbic brain (which only has a primary role of self-preservation) to cause us to react. So, the difference comes down to responding verses reacting. The more we respond, the more “emotionally intelligent” our behavior. The more we “react,” the less intelligent it is.
For many of us this is a challenge, because we can’t really feel how we are feeling in the first place. In other words, we have buried our ability understand why we react to certain situations the way we do a long time ago, so the responses have become thoughtless and automatic.
Being more mindful throughout our day allows us the opportunity to not only spot our feelings at earlier stages – and before we might over-react, but it also allows us to treat ourselves with more compassion as well as the situation with a sense of curiosity.
By doing so, we can treat feelings like anxiety and anger as if we were a curious observer of the situation. And as a curious observer, we can then take a calm breath and simply ask ourselves, “That’s interesting, why am I feeling this way about this person or this situation?”
Mindfulness helps us to clarify our thinking and thus get to the root of what’s really happening – and not just react to a distorted perception of it. When we become more masterful at doing this, we will often discover that our anger or anxiety is based on circumstances which are completely outside of our control, or they’re based on other circumstances which have nothing to do with the other person or people involved. It’s just the way our life is unfolding at that moment, and our projecting upon it what we think other people’s motives might be is a pointless and unproductive exercise.
One of the most profound ways to discover the value of developing a higher level of mindfulness is when it causes us to realize that many of our automatic responses to many life situations are actually based upon distorted beliefs which don’t even apply at all to the current situation.
A great practice we can begin immediately in our life is through mindful communication. This involves being fully present during our conversations with others. And by “fully present,” I mean listening carefully while also being mindful of how our own mind and body are responding to what we are hearing and observing.
While communicating, we can learn to become more mindful of the emotions which are rising up in our body and the sensations we are feeling on an intuitive level. We can begin to notice what has happened that’s triggered our initial response as well as feeling the sensations it has created in our body.
This requires us to remain in a state of curiosity and observation rather than in assessment and judgment. And when we treat these thoughts and sensations with equanimity, we are less likely to react inappropriately during stressful situations.
When I mention staying curious, I mean to approach the experience with the curiosity of a child. When we are remain curious, we are inspecting our experience like a child who has seen a flower for the very first time. This helps take the power away from the strong emotions we might be feeling in that moment. To paraphrase Mary Osborne from this past weekend, “You are standing on the balcony, and not on the floor.”
This whole mindfulness practice is extremely important as it gives us a chance to hit the pause button. And when we pause, we’re able to respond rather than simply react. Reactions are often what our limbic brain wants us to thoughtlessly do. And if we have developed an insensitive pattern of reacting over the years, it can lead to regret and suffering. Hence, by developing an ability to pause our limbic brain’s instant impulses, we become more capable of responding in a much wiser fashion.
The discipline of mindfulness takes constant practice so that we learn how to better manage our limbic brain THROUGH our prefrontal cortex. But if we do, we will begin to more frequently be able to reflect on situations that would have set us off in the past.
Mindfulness is at the epicenter of a truly relationship-driven practice. And it’s a skill which can be developed and enhanced over our lifetime. Hence It’s at the epicenter of “knowing ourselves” as well.