Enlightenment, peace, and joy will not be granted by someone else. The well is within us, and if we dig deeply in the present moment, the water will spring forth.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step
Digging deeply into the present moment can be enraging, terrifying, or sorrow-filled. That’s why many of us are experts at avoiding our feelings, at living in our heads, at focusing on thinking and doing rather than being.
When we are stimulated into raw emotions such as rage, terror, or grief, we experience uncomfortable physical sensations in our bodies—a red face, butterflies in the stomach, an ache in the heart. This happens because our brains are programmed to respond to threatening stimuli by dumping chemicals into our bloodstreams, according to Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, author of My Stroke of Insight.
“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,” she said.
Hearing this on her CD, I got my own jolt. She was giving a physiological explanation for what my psychotherapist had taught me, a practice called the map the emotions. Practicing the map provided me with enormous assistance for successfully navigating the traumas I’ve endured since 2009—end-stage sarcoma, then divorce, then the loss of my 19-year-old.
And suddenly the experience of grief rising, cresting, and crashing like ocean waves made sense.
During those 90-second surges, I had practiced staying with the physical sensations in my body without thinking about them, analyzing them, judging them, or making stories about them. I did not have a choice about what happened those first 90 seconds inside my body. I did have a choice how I would respond. I could observe and accept the sensations, staying in my body and in the physiological experience; or I could ignore the sensations and get stuck in emotional pain.
After the 90 seconds were over, I had another choice. Was I going to turn my attention to the source of that stimulation, allow my negative story-teller to re-weave a web of drama, get emotionally triggered again, and continue the pain?
Or was I going to live in the present moment, turn my attention away from the trigger, and choose to let the experience go?
Sometimes I allowed myself to be triggered repeatedly for more than an hour. Yet I stayed with the practice of experiencing the physical sensations with each surge of emotion. Finally I would want some peace and I chose to stop setting off my brain’s limbic system with my thoughts.
It takes practice, like any other skill. Allow time to develop these new thinking and behavior patterns. If you choose this practice, be gentle with yourself as you learn this new way of engaging your thoughts and emotions.
By practicing the map of emotions, I made a conscious choice. I became response-able. Taylor said, “If you re-channel those energies into being aware of what is going on in the present moment, you will be able to make a breakthrough and discover joy and peace right in the present moment, inside of yourself and all around you.”
You will be digging deeply in the present moment, and the water of life will spring forth.
Thriver Soup Ingredient:
If you feel a sudden surge of emotion, focus on the physical sensations it creates. Notice how it moves around or possibly gets intense. Notice it lift after 90 seconds. Do all of this without engaging your mind. See if it brings you a sense of peace or relief, and watch your thoughts to see if they want to re-engage with the initial trigger.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam, March 1, 1992), pp. 41, 42.
Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (Viking, New York: 2008), pp. 146, 148, 152.