JAMES N KRAUT, PSY.D.
Let’s start with a little exercise:
Take a blank piece of 8 ½ x 11 paper and sit down in a comfortable chair or on a cushion. Imagine that everything that you see, feel or otherwise experience in life as difficult, frightening, stressful or otherwise unpleasant is represented in that piece of paper. The paper symbolically holds all of your personal darkness. Close your eyes and take the paper in your right hand. (You can use your left hand if you prefer.) Crumple it up into a tight ball and squeeze the ball as tightly as you can, palm facing down, arm outstretched in front of you. Continue for about 30 seconds. Now rotate your arm so your palm is facing upwards. Aware that you are squeezing a symbolic representation of all the negativity in your life, feel the tension in your arm and hand. Try to squeeze a little harder for a few seconds. Then slowly release the tension, opening your fingers and leaving the paper in the palm of your hand. The ball is still sitting there but you have now relaxed.
And so it is with life itself. Whether we like it or not, all that the crumpled piece of paper represents is here in our lives. We have little to no control over how the universe interacts with us. But we can either clench or relax. Ultimately, we are best served by developing the ability to respond to what comes our way with equanimity, accepting what happens, moment by moment, rather than pushing against it, retreating from it or denying it.
In discussing character, Eleanor Roosevelt once said that while we cannot control that which interacts with us, we will always have a choice as to how we respond. While the wise response to a difficult situation is often a complex amalgam of sub-responses, one thing worthy of our efforts is trying to maintain calm in turmoil.
It is simple self-care.
When we are in the throes of a fight/flight/freeze reaction, the amygdala, a part of our brains which we inherited from our reptilian “ancestors,” initiates the firing of neurons to pump neurotransmitters of arousal, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, through our bodies, putting us in a state that favors gross reactions to emergency over thoughtful response. When we are calm, on the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is more in control of what is going on; the neurotransmitters present are not crisis bound and we can move our way through the situation with our best rational thinking processes.
Unfortunately, our hardwiring, going all the way back to our reptilian days, will default to the amygdala unless we undergo considerable conditioning to the contrary. Research has indicated – see, for example, Altered Traits by Goleman & Davidson, 2017 – that one of the positive effects of long-term regular meditation is a strengthening of the prefrontal cortex and a lessening of the knee jerk power of the amygdala. But we can also get into the habit of reconditioning ourselves consciously. Whenever something difficult comes along, remember the crumpled piece of paper in your clenched fist and what it stood for. Try to loosen your grip in the presence of difficulty and allow the trouble to exist in its moment. It will pass. But while it’s here, accept it. It’s obvious when you think about it: When we hit a patch of bad weather, the best response is acceptance and the knowledge that it, like everything else, in temporary.