Have you ever been in a situation that affected you in a very profound way, only to find out that others had experienced the same situation in a very different way? Events are neutral, but how we experience them depends on how we perceive and interpret them. A missed plane: an opportunity or an inconvenience, just another blip in my travel plans or an insurmountable obstacle? It's up to me. Realizing that the quality of my life is determined by my perception and interpretation of what happens, I have concluded that since I often can't change circumstances and events to improve it, I can work on my interpretation of what happens to me.
Whatever my perceptions, my interpretations can be further distorted, perhaps indelibly, by my emotional response. If I construe an event as threatening to me, I can react with fear or anger. If it is something I find pleasurable, my emotion will lead me to react in a positive way. But is my response objective enough to give me some leeway in choosing how I behave? How can I master my emotions and put them at the service of my life goals? Do I base my interpretation on my emotional response, or can I respond from my higher rational center, the executive mind?
I'm afraid that I don't have my instincts on my side. For protection and survival, my instincts are programmed to kick in rapidly on the basis of limited information. A moving shadow is hastily perceived as a predator, an insect as something deadly. These are simple perceptions and they call for simple reactions: I'm startled, I scream, or I stand ready to run. But generally my life is more complicated and the response of a scream or flight is not what is called for. My mind, when it feels threatened or in pain, becomes defensive and will respond with a story it considers reality. This story fuels my reaction and makes assumptions about others' behavior.
Here is an example. Walking on a city sidewalk with some companions, I stopped to tie my shoe. That delay caused me to miss the crossing light at the next corner, while my friends walked safely across. I stood on my side of the busy street watching them hurry along the sidewalk toward our destination. I called out across the street for them to wait. They turned around, saw me stranded there, and continued walking away. Feelings from a source deep in my past were evoked: abandonment as a child and being ostracized by a teenage clique. I was angry and felt completely alone. Even my long-time friends did not stay by my side and I was doomed to continue on alone forever! That's the story I told myself, based on the pain I was feeling.
Was the story real, or were there other interpretations closer to what really happened? Another one could have gone like this: "I'm all right and we can meet at our destination just a half block from here." If I had told myself this story, the consequences would have been much happier for me and my friends. I would have met them in a few minutes and the day would have proceeded with all of us having a good time. Instead I responded to the pain. My mind seized on the pain and fueled it. The pain lasted for a long time and the event became painful for my friends also.
How can I go from the react and flight response of the instincts to the discerning control of the executive mind (that part of the thinking process that is more objective than just instinctual emotional reactions)? My spiritual work over many years has shown me that it's a matter of choice and control: to be able to feel the pain, acknowledge it and let it go through its process without allowing the reacting mind to touch it.
Standing on the street corner waiting for the light to change, I could feel the pain of being left behind, but if I had just paused for a few minutes and thought more clearly, I could have stopped my mind from interpreting what had happened in such a negative, emotionally laden way. When the light changed I could have hurried across the street and continued after my companions. This would have given my executive mind time to take charge and get a bigger picture. "Let's get some more information," my exec could think. "I'm O.K., not hurt, not lost. Let's find out what my friends have to say. I am glad I didn't delay them in getting to where we're going."
I am realizing there is always more than one way to respond to life. I am trying to choose the one that allows me to act from my best self, not from that part of me that is driven by unconscious instinct and defensiveness. Though it's not that easy-I keep working on it!! Can animals do that- I don't think so, it's the gift of my Humanity!!)
My mind can be just as ornery when it wants to be right. Unconscious conditioning and childhood experiences play a hidden role, going hand in hand with an interest in protecting a faulty self-image. To maintain my interpretation that I am right, I ignore certain outcomes. I have learned that my interpretations may not only be distorted, but also limiting. I want to be right so badly that I interpret events, evidence and circumstances to support my rightness. It is devastating to think how much I have closed my mind off because of my desire to be right. Sometimes my interpretation of what is right and good is based on information which is no longer applicable, but because I have always done it that way, despite changing circumstances, I continue with what was "right."
When planting my garden, I always followed my grandfather's advice: "Plant peas on St. Patrick's Day when the soil is dry enough to turn over." This worked well as long as I could determine with a certain degree of accuracy the wetness of the soil. When I moved from rocky New England to stony New York, I still followed my grandfather's advice and had similar success. But when I moved to the Rocky Mountains, my St. Patrick's Day peas would either remain dormant and rot or bravely sprout, soon to be defeated by a deluge of melting snow.
Still, I continued to check the calendar and soon after March 17, I would turn over the soil and plant my peas. I always got the same disastrous results. Looking out at the wet snow falling on my newly planted peas, it did not occur to me that at this high altitude I would have to wait until later or-even more sensibly-not plant peas at all, since by the time they came up it would be too hot and they would wither in the summer sun. If that was when my grandfather planted his peas and it worked so well for me for so many years, then that is when peas should be planted! It took moving to a houseboat in the Caribbean for me to finally abandon this "grandfather" theory altogether.
What happens when we don't learn from our mistakes? We continue to repeat the same actions again and again, expecting different results. I will continue to tell myself the story of my previous success instead of my present failure.
I have discovered that reality is not how I perceive or interpret it or how I would expect it to be. To get a clearer view of reality it is important to perceive it without an emotional reaction or an interest in being right. I make assumptions about situations, others, and outcomes. This is not reality, but how I perceive reality.
There is a way to learn to hold back my instinctive, conditioned, and self-defensive reactions so that I can respond to a situation in a more expansive way. I can take the time for my executive brain, the thinking, rational brain located in the frontal cortex, to handle the situation. I can use this more rational point of view to see a bigger picture, to give others the benefit of the doubt, and to really see that I'm not threatened or hurt in any way and that there is a possibility I may not be right.
Sometimes this may take time: processing time. The emotion needs to ebb away. I need to let go of the way I have always done something. I can open myself to another's point of view. I can begin to work inwardly. I can engage my higher thinking mind.
It also takes practice. A very effective way that Cafh has taught me to engage my executive mind is to practice the Affective Meditation. It is a very powerful tool to train my brain to perceive and interpret situations in a more reflective way, and to work with my emotions and will so that I can respond with discernment. Through this practice, the executive part of my mind gradually learns to take over in my daily life and to choose responses that help me unfold spiritually.
As I have walked the path toward inner peace, I have found that starting the day with the Affective Meditation prepares me for the challenges ahead and predisposes me to make more elevated responses. I learn to engage my executive mind, acknowledge my emotions, choose a more inclusive perception, and admit my mistakes. Well worth the effort, don't you agree?
The Affective Meditation
The Affective Meditation is a tool for helping train the mind and heart to generate thoughts and feelings to respond to the challenges of life and learn from them. For example, I have the habit of waking up each morning dreading what awaits me at work. Realizing that this is not the way I want to start each day, I can engage the Affective Meditation to generate a different state of mind, one that is open to the challenges that the day may bring.
The Affective Meditation consists of six steps.
1. Invocation. This step helps me to center myself in the divine. My effort is not just for my personal benefit, but takes on a larger dimension for I am calling on my spiritual nature. I can invoke the Divine Mother to help me greet the day with openness and offering.
2. Imaginative Picture. I create a mental picture of myself awakening in the morning. I see the day before me as a gift from the Divine Mother. Opening the gift, I find it full of meaning because I will learn something and help someone.
3. Sensations. I feel the emotion that comes with opening the gift: joy at the opportunities before me.
4. Purpose. Each morning I will look to the day ahead as an opportunity to unfold and give back.
5. Consequences. I consider the consequences of this response: a day with meaning.
6. Summary of the preceding steps of the meditation.
Each time I visualize a situation and a desired result, I strengthen my ability to respond that way in the pressure of everyday life. The second step can be a picture of me behaving in a way I would like to change or in the way I would like to respond. I may also create a picture evoking the divine dimension, which tends to elude my everyday perception. With this technique, I can progress from rejecting a behavior I want to change, to practicing a more expansive one, and then to seeing how I am connected to a greater whole.
The Affective Meditation helps me train my mind and emotions to respond to life in the way that I choose. I practice in order to make new pathways in my mind and create ways of thinking that will help me unfold.
Other articles in the series "The Peace of a Meaningful Life" by Diana Autumn are My Wake-Up Call, Finding the Way, Step by Step with Silence, Getting Guidance, Taming the Beast, Reining in the Mind: Who's really in charge?, and Gaining Inner Strength: Learning to Choose.