My father died four years ago at the age of 96. By that time, he moved slowly, his head bent over, and he used a walker most of the time. Luckily, his brain and his ability to think remained sharp; slowed, yes, more easily frustrated, but deep until the last two weeks of his life.
And as I get into my mid-seventies, I sometimes feel him inside me. I get tired and sense him leaning over inside me or my head coming forward like his did. I slow down and feel old. Then I recognize what I’m doing and straighten up. In my mind and body, I go from 96 to 30. My posture improves. I feel more limber and energetic.
Most of us know Shakespeare’s famous lines from his play As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” We enter a scene, and we form ourselves accordingly; depending on where we are or who we see, we put on a character, fabricate a history, try out gestures as we’d put on clothing. When meeting parents, or teachers, we think, feel, and act differently than meeting a close friend or an enemy.
But who are we acting for? Who is the audience? Is it for just for others or ourselves? There is often a performance aspect to our feelings and behavior even when no one else is around. We try out being different selves to help us decide what we feel comfortable doing or being, or try out different beliefs, attitudes to see how they feel. We might stand up straight not only to look brave to others but to convince ourselves.
I just started reading an interesting new book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, by Annie Murphy Paul. She clearly explains how we could increase our strength, resilience, level of success, and decrease how much we suffer. It is the same point that Buddhism and other meditation traditions have made for hundreds of years but now we have modern science to back it up. It’s less what we perceive or the events of our lives that shape us than how we respond to them.
Over a hundred years ago, psychologist William James said we often think we have an emotion and then act. We see a bear in the woods, or maybe a domestic terrorist on the street, and we feel fear, our heart pounds, palms sweat. We feel an impulse to run, and we run. We think the fear makes us run. But James said it’s the other way around. We feel fear because our body has begun to sweat, our heartbeat has sped up, our legs twitch. Likewise, we know we’re happy because we’re smiling. The body leads heart and mind.
Our emotions are not formed whole but are constructed of different elements. Murphy talks about building blocks of emotion. First, there’s interoception, or the awareness of internal sensations, as well as awareness of external sensations. These are added to a cognitive appraisal or interpretation of these sensations based on our beliefs, past experiences, our society, etc.
Buddhism calls the different elements skandhas, meaning aggregates, heaps, or our more modern word, systems. These include our form, or body; feeling positive, negative, or neutral; perceptions; thoughts or mental perceptions; and consciousness, or subjective experience.
Child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, in his book The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, delineates three stages in the construction of an emotion (and of a sense of self). First, there’s an initial orientation to a stimulus. We become alert; our energy level increases as we feel we should pay attention now. This is without words or conscious awareness. Then, we move to elaborative appraisal. Is the stimulus good or bad, positive, negative, or neutral? Is there danger? Should we approach or avoid? We assign tone and value. Memories enter the picture. Do we like, dislike, or feel neutral? We construct narratives as we move into the third stage of differentiation or channeling of energy into the construction of fully formed and conscious emotion.
What Murphy, and all the sources named here discuss, is that we can train ourselves to be more aware of this whole process. When we mindfully notice a shift in energy, an interoceptive sensation, we can monitor and regulate it, bring openness to it. Learn from it. And by doing this, we can interrupt or enhance the process, and act with more resilience, power, and compassion.
Murphy gives wonderful examples. We feel jittery in our stomach, our heartbeat and breathing speed up. We can interpret this as nervousness, or stress. But with interoceptive awareness, we realize this could also be excitement. The sensations are the same; the thoughts, appraisal, and response is what’s different. When we must face a difficult or challenging situation, like we need to confront our boss, step out on a stage, or play a sport, we might feel stressed beforehand. But if we realize that stress is an increase of energy we need to do well, this appraisal changes our whole attitude.
We feel competent instead of fearful; adaptable⎼ that we’re changing all the time, not static.
We realize how to do what before seemed too much for us. A skillful response includes not only noticing but naming what we sense or feel in as granular or precise a manner as we can. And we establish a level of continuing awareness and feeling, now, and the next now; a level that gives us the ability to mirror more accurately what or who actually stands before us, so we create the right person, right way of being, to greet them.
We speak to the internalized other we hold in our body. We see this illustrated in many ways; we’re with someone who is angry or sad, and we feel anger or sadness. Someone yawns and we yawn. A baby cries and others join in. We’re at a concert and play air-guitar along with the musician.
Going back to my father, I realized my sense that I had internalized more than his physical image was correct. When we had been together, my body was mirroring internally his heart rate, breathing, posture, so I could feel what it might feel to be him at that moment.
Murphy talks about how we think with our body. She talks about experiments that show that people, like financial traders, or professional athletes who are more aware of their heartbeat last longer and are more successful in their profession than others. Practicing mindful awareness of our internal sensations (like gut- feelings), combined with the wisdom or knowledge of how to respond to sensations in skillful ways, can help us understand ourselves better, think more clearly, be more joyful and successful, more in tune with others than those without such a practice.
And if we mirror those we meet, and each of those people mirror so many others⎼ and not only other people but other species, birds, ants, pets, plants, and trees. Then in some way we are never separate from others and the world. We are always one voice the universe uses to speak, one tiny part of a universe creating itself together. Or as a 13th century Zen teacher, Dogen Zenji, put it, we realize “mind is no other than mountains, rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars.” Wow. Knowing this can change everything.
This post is republished on Medium.