A Gentle Perspective
Daily mental health
B. Alan Wallace, one of the world’s leading scholars, writers, and teachers on Tibetan Buddhism wrote this: “Imagine walking along a sidewalk with your arms full of groceries, and someone roughly bumps into you so that you fall and your groceries are strewn over the ground. As you rise up from the puddle of broken eggs and tomato juice, you are ready to shout out, 'You idiot! What's wrong with you? Are you blind?' But just before you can catch your breath to speak, you see that the person who bumped into you is actually blind. He, too, is sprawled in the spilled groceries, and your anger vanishes in an instant, to be replaced by sympathetic concern: 'Are you hurt? Can I help you up? Can I help you up?”
And this is what we do so often, isn’t it? The limited vision, the reactivity that we’re conditioned toward, keeps us in a primitive brain reality of life, living with only part of the story or picture of what’s real. So we respond from a kind of ignorance, unable to see completely, in part because of the way our brains operate to keep us safe.
What is this primitive brain reality? Imagine at the very center of your brain the first part of your brain that formed before you were even born. Part of this section of your brain is called the amygdala. Now imagine this part—the amygdala—as a little puppy. It’s job is to figure out if you’re safe. Like a little puppy, it can get triggered easily if something reminds it of a previous time it was unsafe, and then it might get snarly or retreat to a corner. During these times, you might be operating with very little awareness and too much old, habitual patterning. In other words, your vision narrows to a very limited and likely reactive view.
I witness this in myself. The limited vision, the reactive patterning that has me ready to snap, to blame, to snarl or sometimes cower under the covers. I witness it most when I haven’t slept enough, or I’ve taken on too many projects and I’m rushing through them all, or when I’m overwhelmed by uncertainty. And if I waited for all of the external stimuli of life to stop, I’d never access the more spacious, less limiting part of my brain at all. The triggered, puppy part of us doesn’t calm down because stimuli or uncertainty goes away. It calms down when we have some tools to engage another part of our brain and nervous system to weather uncertainty and stimuli.
The amazing thing is that we have an inherent, inborn technology system that is made to help us navigate uncertainty, manage stress and our emotions. This is the job of your parasympathetic nervous system and frontal cortex.
The puppy part of us is nestled deep in the brain, like it’s tucked inside a safe cocoon. The outer portion of the brain is our higher level thinking place, called the frontal cortex. This is the part of you that can discern if there is actually something worth freaking out over or if you have some tools to access create a sense of mental ease and respond to the world with greater wisdom. It allows to access metacognition, which is your ability to witness your thoughts and access choices to your response. I’m including a short demo and practice for this for all readers this week because I think understanding this some and having some tools to access this part of us is essential for the world at large. (Click here to watch a short video that will demo this brain description and offer you a short practice for ease.)
The stimuli that your brain is interpreting comes through the nervous system. The part of the nervous system that is like a gas pedal tells us to mobilize for action. The part of the nervous system that is like a brake pedal, helps us slow down and relax in a situation. When the brake system is accessed, you have a better ability to move into that higher level thinking part of your brain. This part of the nervous system helps you bounce back from stress, cope with uncertainty, and manage your emotions. The thing is, it’s hard to access when you’re already overwhelmed so we have to “preload” practices that help us to access it.
And here’s the part about practice. The yoga practice isn’t intended to be a self-improvement project. Rather, it gives us tools to find ease and relax into our own life a little more. But we have this negativity bias that leads us more easily toward overestimating perceived threats and underestimating positive opportunities. So you have to practice a little every day for your nervous system, and thereby your brain, to recognize the choice toward ease and calm. The choice that can move you toward a wider, less limited perspective.
Watch the video above and try the very short practice of softly breathing while relaxing your whole face into a gentle smile. Consider trying it every single morning so it can really stick. And then, try it through the day. Perhaps when you notice that you’re rushing to get someone and overwhelmed. Or before you begin a conversation with someone who has the potential to trigger you. Or while you’re answering emails. See what it offers you, maybe how it changes things. Perhaps you’ll find your vision becomes a whole lot more relaxed and clear.
Paid subscribers, you have an additional 60-minute yoga and meditation practice you can watch by scrolling past the poem below to the practice link.
This poem by Faisal Mohyudding felt like a perfect accompaniment for this reflection and practice, with the way it feels like it’s unfolding with the rhythm of breath. And with its reminder that our bodies contain both the silent space of prayer and distraction. The form is different so it didn’t paste in correctly. Poetry lovers, click on the link here to read or listen to it read.