Tuesday, November 22, 2011

We get to Choose!

We get to choose how we feel everyday about everything that happens. However, that decision is made so fast and so automatically that its made before we realize it. That truck cuts us off in traffic, our adrenalin spikes and we’re angry! How dare he cut me off like that? He could have caused an accident! We find ourselves irritated, angry, upset, confused, sad, or hurt. Sometimes those knee-jerk emotional reactions are nice like when we smell chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven and a warm sensation of contentment and pleasure washes over us. Our positive connotations with food are what tempt us over and over again to eat more than we need, by the way. Food gets all tangled up with comfort and, well, that’s why we call them “comfort foods”.

But how is that a choice? It just happens, right? We can’t help the way it makes us feel. The truth is we are choosing every moment of every day how to react and how to feel. The problem is we chose a long time ago, probably when we were children, before we could rationalize, before we could defend ourselves properly. We were so vulnerable as children. We came into the world trusting and open and defenseless. And somebody or some situation taught us to get angry when someone interfered with us. Or maybe we lived in an unsafe environment and had to constantly be on alert and our fear reaction was born. Yogic philosophy and modern developmental psychology teaches us that our ego develops sometime during the first 2 years of life and that’s when we realize we are a separate being and therefore its possible for “others” to get in our way or hurt us.

And because of the frustration and fear, we build our defenses over time and sometimes we have experiences that create in us knee-jerk defensive reactions that can stay with us all our lives. These “reactions” can become scripts that we play out over and over again with the right stimulus. In yoga we call these “samskaras”, and they are like well-walked trails. Sometimes they are so old and so deep, its like walking in a canyon with high walls on either side of us. We’ve forgotten that there is any other way to be, and from our vantage point, there is nothing else.

But there is something else and as overwhelming as it may seem to overcome these old groves in our brains, there is one very effective way. First, we have to abandon hope.


Yes, let go of whatever hope you have been holding onto. Just let it go. Let it float up into the sky, or drop with a sploosh into the amorphic abyss. Good. It wasn’t helping anyways, was it? If it was, you would be making progress already. Its usually something like, “If only. . .” or “When this happens, then I can be happy.” Am I right? Well, I can’t see into your heart right now, but I do know that we all hold out hope that things could be different. The fact is, it is what it is. Our lives are what they are. Let’s embrace our subjective reality as it is.

Whew! What a relief! You mean, I can't ever go back and make things different?! No. We can't. And thank goodness, too. Because that would just be way too much work and worry.

Now, we can get down to the real work. We can change ourselves. Notice I said we can change ourselves. We will not change anybody else. We can not change the world. (Good grief!!!!! How pessimistic does that sound?) The only thing we can change is ourselves. And as Dr. Phil likes to say, that’s the bad news. What’s the good news, Dr. Phil? We can change ourselves, and that’s the crux of the matter. Its not what anyone else is doing or what’s happening out in the world, it’s the way we perceive it that makes us unhappy. Your mother cannot make you unhappy. Your boyfriend cannot make you unhappy. Your past cannot make you unhappy. How you perceive those people and your past can make you unhappy.

So, back to those knee-jerk emotional reactions and scripts. Now that we’ve embraced our reality and acknowledged the power we have to change ourselves, we can start re-programming ourselves. But we have to do it one step at a time (Oh, I’m big on that cliché).

Here’s a simple way to start acknowledging your samskaras: Every time you feel offended or have a strong emotional reaction to anything, say to yourself “That’s my ego talking” or “there’s one of those samskara things Melissa talked about.” Just make yourself aware that its happening. Don’t judge it or yourself. Just be a witness to it. Then let the emotion burn itself out. The chemical process in your body takes roughly 90 seconds to flush an emotion. If it goes on longer than that, you are holding onto it and pushing your own buttons over and over.

Use your breath to let it go: Practice inhaling gently through the nose, then exhaling with a woosh out the mouth a couple times, then let your breath come softly and gently. Bring your awareness back to the present moment, the sounds, the smells, the colors, the breeze or lack of one. Are you hot? Cold? Holding your shoulders too tight? Clenching you jaw? Let it go. Let it go.

Practice that for a few days and then I’ll get back to you in on the next step in the next blog post.

Heyam duhkham anagatam
“Future suffering is to be avoided”

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