Call it what it is.
I was recently in a personal conversation that got heated rather quickly. It got intense because everyone involved cared so much.
Soon, the rational conversation was overtaken by strong emotions — ending abruptly, and unfortunately without much progress.Later, after having some time to reflect on it, I realized we were lost to our emotions.
We had forgotten to practice in this conversation something that I practice often in my morning meditation.
We had forgotten that the first step to controlling a runaway emotion is to actually notice that it’s happening.
This is a core component of Vipassana Meditation, where the focus is on noting any physical sensations or thoughts during the meditation — a way of maintaining our awareness of the present moment.
There is even some science to back this up. Matthew Lieberman, a research psychologist from UCLA, recently performed an experiment in which he showed a “fearful image” to patients hooked up to an fMRI machine. He saw that this immediately generated activity in the amygdala (a region of our brain known for its instinctual “fight or flight” reactions).
Later, Lieberman repeated the experiment — but this time, he asked patients to acknowledge and label the emotion they were experiencing. Incredibly, this shifted the brain activity to the prefrontal cortex (a more advanced area of our brain where rational thinking occurs).
Instead of defaulting to the reactionary part of their brains, the experiment subjects were able to acknowledge their emotions without fully getting swept up in them.
It’s a challenging practice in the quiet of my own mind during meditation — and even more so in the tensions of daily life — but it’s one I have found to be really helpful. Whether fear, anger, resentment or sadness, I have learned that the first step towards separating our thoughts from our emotions is to label them in in our minds, bringing them into our awareness.
This time of year can bring with it many conversations from the heart. We hope yours are filled with love, care, and a wonderful awareness of the beautiful spectrum of emotion.