Flow morphia slow, let the sun and light come streaming into my life

August 9, 2008

I was attracted to mindfulness because one of our lecturers told me about the Buddhist monks who meditate. After a while, neuroscientists measured their amydgala, the centre of emotional reactions in the brain, and found it had shrunk.

I want that.

Until this year, I’d have said that I was the sort of person that things happen to. There was always stuff going on. Sometimes I was in the heights, but more often I was miserable. Life was never calm. There was always some romantic drama or some work drama (or, usually, both).

Sometimes I wanted a quiet life, but I defined a quiet life to be ‘quiet circumstances’, rather than ‘a quiet me’. But more often I liked my dramatic life – okay, so I was miserable, but at least I wasn’t bored. But I was miserable a lot of the time. And I made the people around me miserable, because I created drama, because I sabotaged the good things in my life.

And the reality is that most or all of this drama took place inside my head.

I have always been very emotionally reactive. Under the name of ‘neuroticism’, this is one of the Big Five personality traits that have been extensively studied by psychologists. Neuroticism is a big predictor of unhappiness, and of lack of success in life.

Neurotic people lead with the amydgala. Something happens, they react. Then the reaction becomes their reality. That’s been me for most of my life. It’s been very painful and it’s certainly been a major factor in the failures of my career and my relationships.

As with so much, I’m learning that it doesn’t have to be like this.

The first thing I’ve learned is that my emotions are like Scottish weather. They don’t last. My ex and I stayed on the West Coast of Scotland, and our host said ‘don’t worry if you don’t like the weather. There’ll be some more along in a minute’. I think that how I feel at the time is the truth. But it isn’t, any more than rain is the truth of the weather.

The next thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have to react from my emotions. In the past, when I got an email, I’d dash off a response, led by my impulses, driven by the feelings that the email had triggered. This was often unwise and certainly never optimal. When something happens, I’ve learned to wait before I respond, and I’m getting better every day at consulting someone else before I do anything, especially for the big stuff. So my actions are wiser. But, more importantly, I’m learning new and less reactive behaviour patterns. This is calming down my life from the outside in, and the mindfulness is calming it down from the inside out.

And it feels different now. When I get an email that I don’t like, I feel a twinge, but I don’t feel a jolt that slams my whole body.

I bet my amygdala is a bit smaller than it was at the beginning of the year.

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