Our ways of bonding to others; how we trust; how comfortable we generally feel with ourselves; how quickly or slowly we can soothe ourselves after an upset have a firm foundation in the neural pathways laid down in the mammalian right brain in our early years.
You may be aware of the influence of both what I am calling the left and the right brains when you experience the familiar dilemma of having very good reasons to do the sensible thing, but find yourself doing the other thing all the same. The
1. Self-Observation Socrates stated that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ This is an extreme stance, but I do believe that the continuing development of a non-judgemental, self-observing part of ourselves is crucial for our wisdom and sanity.
2. Relating to Others We all need safe, trusting, reliable, nourishing relationships. These
someone who not only listens but reads between the lines and perhaps even gently challenges us.
Stress The right kind of stress creates positive stimulation. It will push us to learn new things and to be creative, but it will not be so overwhelming that it tips us over into panic.
4. What’s the Story? (Personal Narrative) If we get to know the stories we live by, we will be able to edit and change them if we need to.
We may have beliefs that start with ‘I’m the sort of person who …’ or ‘That’s not me; I don’t do that …’
The ability to observe and listen to feelings and bodily sensations is essential to staying sane.
There is a difference between saying ‘I am angry’ and saying ‘I feel angry’. The first statement is a description that appears closed. The second is an acknowledgement of a feeling, and does not define the whole self.
It may help to think of our self-observing part as a distinct component of ourselves. It is self-accepting and non-judgemental. It acknowledges what is, not what should be, and does not assign values such as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It notices emotions and thoughts but gives us space to decide how to act on them.
To begin self-observing, ask yourself these questions: What am I feeling now? What am I thinking now? What am I doing at this moment? How am I breathing?
What do I want for myself in this new moment? 3
take time to notice what I call post-rationalization, which could also be called self-justification. This describes the way we have of mentally ‘tidying up’ what is going on inside and outside of ourselves, often coming up with convenient explanations which may actually be nonsense, to justify our behaviour.
Elliot and other patients like him in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain.
Instead we can increase our tolerance for uncertainty, nurture our curiosity and continue to learn.
How the first?
A feeling cannot be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It is how we act out our feelings that is moral or immoral.
What you write is up to you. I am a fan of random memories, as well as what you are thinking and feeling at the moment of writing. I also like dreams.
stream-of-consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning just after waking, has been found to be effective in raising self-awareness.
If you read your diary back to yourself you may identify some of your behavioural and emotional habits. For example, can you spot how much justification or reasoning you are using, or how much compassion you show yourself, or how much of what you write is fantasy?
Our heads are always full of chatter, littered with phrases, images, repeated messages, running commentaries on our actions and thoughts. Much may be harmless, but some can be toxic:
Throughout our lives we have a desire and a need to be acknowledged and understood. Although this is most productively achieved in conjunction with another person, contemplative practice is one way we can achieve this on our own.
A brain, like a neuron, is not much use on its own. Our brains need other brains –or, as we more often put it, people need people.
We run about, earning a living, achieving things and making a decent show of it all (or not), but what affects us most are the people around us: our parents, our children, our lovers, our colleagues, our neighbours and our friends.
In crowded countries such as Japan and Britain we tend to have ‘negative-politeness’. This means that people are aware of others’ need for privacy, and their desire not to be intruded upon. In countries where there is more space, like the USA, people are more inclined to practise ‘positive politeness’, where the emphasis is on inclusion and openness. The anthropologist Kate Fox says that what looks like stand-offishness in a negative-politeness culture is really a sort of consideration for people’s privacy.