When I hear the same message twice from separate sources in the same week, I figure it’s a message I probably need to hear. And if its a message I need to hear, it’s probably a message worth sharing. And it’s this:
It takes just 90 seconds for an emotion to pass through us.
That’s how long – neurologically – an emotional experience lasts. And I say this with some certainty given that one of the sources for this information was the utterly remarkable neuroanatomist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor (author of ‘My Stroke of Insight’). I’m guessing she might know a thing or two about how the brain functions.
So if that’s all the time it takes for us to feel a feeling, and let it go – why do we feel anxious about something for days at a time? Why do some of us carry sadness with us day in day out for years?
Because (says Dr Jill Bolte Taylor) of the thoughts we have about these feelings.
Our thoughts keep our feelings alive. Our thoughts fuel our feelings. Our thoughts sustain them, and prolong their existence, far beyond their natural life span. Our thoughts are mighty powerful beasts. Our thoughts are like a life support machine to our feelings – good and bad.
Which suggests we should probably choose our thoughts carefully. That we should exercise a little discipline around our thinking, if we are going to avoid inadvertently and unnecessarily prolonging the life of feelings that don’t serve us.
To date, I’ve been a bit ambivalent about discipline in many areas of my life. For me the word conjours up images of angry drill sergeants and punishing exercise regimens – neither of which appeal. Right now it’s Sunday night, and I’m noticing the consequences of my lack of discipline around the kids laundry, which has built up into an unwieldy mountain through the week. My house is currently tidy because we had guests over today, but as I cleaned up in preparation this morning, I was well aware of my lack of discipline around housework.
But when it comes to disciplined thinking, my ambivalence is dissolving and I’m becoming something of a convert. And the more discipline I exercise around my thinking, the more I realise that on a moment by moment basis I am able to make a choice.
Which is a seismic change for me.
Because historically, I have unknowingly been supremely sloppy in my thinking. Historically, I have allowed my thoughts to take a 90 second feeling and run with it, for miles. I have allowed my thoughts to drag me down rabbit holes of fear, “what ifs” and “not enoughs”. I have allowed my thoughts to prolong what I now know were momentary emotional experiences – to spend far more time than was ever necessary with feelings that would have happily exited by the back door had I known that they were only ever just passing through. Instead, I invited them in, sat them down, fed them a four course meal, and made up a bed for them to sleep in.
These days, this discipline looks like starting the day with meditation and yoga practices. Which certainly set me off on a good foot every day. But what I’m also realising, is that exercising mental discipline over the 60 000 or so thoughts we all have every day, requires a moment by moment practice of making a conscious choice when the feelings start to bubble up, and the thoughts get all funky. Like they did this morning when my house was a mess, and the laundry pile was enormous, and the kids were demanding all sorts from me I didn’t want to give.
In that moment, as the feelings of frustration hit, I absolutely had the option to feed the frustration with my thoughts. To descend, deeply and rapidly into despair, and “woe is me” thinking about the fact that I live with 4 males and a dog, none of whom share my values of order and cleanliness.
But I also had the option of thinking something very different indeed. I also had the option to remember that I had a choice about the direction I took my thinking. In fact, in my kitchen right now, I have the words “I could see peace instead of this” (a line from ‘A Course in Miracles’) written in chalk on our blackboard in anticipation of such moments.
In reality, I probably landed somewhere in-between “seeing peace” and “woe is me”. Because I’m always a work in progress. And in those challenging moments, changing the way you think is a lot like a clumsy gear change at high speed. There’s some grinding, and definitely some resistance. Because the lure of the well trodden thought-path is strong.
But if I’m exercising discipline, I’m going to keep using these moments as opportunities to practice taking a more helpful path. In the hope that one day, the other, more peaceful path will start to become well trodden too….
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