Lesson 11 — Dealing with Reactivity

Hate, anger, lust, jealousy, wanting, and fear are powerful emotions that all too often lead to reactive behavior and suffering for ourselves and others. Must we allow reactive emotions to run our lives? Of course not. But transcending their tendency to control our actions is not trivially easy. We must cultivate skillful ways of dealing with them, and this is made easier if we understand the role that these heavy-duty emotions play, and why they evolved.

We are told that most animal species — including insects, amphibians, birds, and reptiles — have no emotions. In the animals that evolved early on, like amphibians, a small range of simple perceptions give rise quite automatically to a few well-defined behaviors. Picture a frog sitting on a lily pad. Although the visual landscape registers optically on the retinas of the frog’s eyes, frog neurology responds only to changes in the scene. If a small dark object moves across the frog’s field of vision (a fly, perhaps?) the frog’s tongue automatically darts out in that direction, and perhaps a fly is caught. And if there is a sudden overall darkening (the approach of a hawk, perhaps?) the frog automatically jumps off the lily pad into the water. There is no complex thinking process involved here, it seems, just a visual system designed for food detection on the one hand, and danger detection on the other — but not very discriminating about either. All small moving things are interpreted as food, and every sudden decrease in overall light level is interpreted as threat. Given either stimulus, the frog’s response is automatic and predictable.

As animal life got more complex, however, more discriminating kinds of perception evolved, and a much wider range of behaviors. This, in turn, created pressure to evolve brains that could process the much-increased flow of data. When the number of significant stimuli and responses rises to a high number, the number of possible combinations becomes astronomical. To complicate the matter further, priorities must be sorted out and conflicts must be resolved very quickly. (If there is a lion on the path behind you and a snake in front of you, you can’t afford much time for situation evaluation and decision making.) As the number of combinations increased, it became increasingly difficult for brains to process the data quickly enough.

A way around the data-computation bottleneck evolved. It is widely believed that subjective experience in general, and selective attention in particular, began to play an active role in the decision-making process. Brains evolved that gave rise to complex minds, to subjective displays of data involving sight, sound, touch, taste, and odor — all simultaneously displayed in one mental “place.” Selective attention is a feature of these complex minds. When attention focuses on a specific item of mind content, the brain generates neuronal data concerning that item. This data is available to mechanical, unconscious brain processes. We do not yet understand the details, but it does seem clear that this new mental/physical approach allowed complexity to increase while still maintaining acceptable speed, and kept to a manageable level the amount of computation the brain needed to do.

Strong emotions were another part of evolution’s solution to this decision-making and behavior-guiding problem. In a frog, the automatic reaction to a perceived opportunity or danger is the action itself: go after the fly, jump off the lily pad. In a human being the automatic reaction to an opportunity or danger is likely to be an emotion rather than a direct action. Emotions are messages that suggest or promote certain kinds of action, but they don’t initiate action directly. Instead, emotions appear on the screen of mind along with perceptions, thoughts, and other forms of mental data. The message that an emotion presents is taken into account by the situation-evaluation and decision-making process, but it is just one of many pieces of data being considered.

Let’s imagine a situation that illustrates this. It’s a hot day and you are walking down the sidewalk past an ice cream vendor. There, not three feet away, you see a delicious-looking ice cream bar. If our behavior was hard-wired like the frog’s behavior, the sight of the ice cream might automatically lead to grabbing it and eating it, no matter what else was happening. In humans however, seeing ice cream does not automatically trigger ice-cream-eating behavior. Instead, seeing ice cream often triggers that mental experience we might call ice cream lust. A feeling of wanting arises in the mind, a desire to taste ice cream and feel its coolness.

This experience, however, may be just one of several experiences that simultaneously share space on the wide screen of awareness. As such, it will be just another piece of data that the brain takes into account when deciding what our behavior should be.

Under ordinary circumstances ice cream lust might lead to a few spoken words, then to an exchange of money, and finally to ice cream entering your mouth. But let’s imagine that just as the transaction starts to take place, a two-year-old boy runs past you into the street. On the awareness-screen of your mind the desire for the ice cream is still displayed, but now that screen also contains the image of a child in grave danger. Your attention goes to the image of the child, and within a fraction of a second

  • this new information is taken into account by your brain,
  • a new priority is established (snatch the child from the path of oncoming cars), and
  • you find yourself in motion, stepping toward the little boy and reaching out to grab him.

A desire is a message that advocates action of a particular kind, but it is not an imperative to act. The desire for ice cream was present, and strong, but the brain decided to ignore that desire. Wanting (or anger, hate, or fear for that matter) is simply a message, a suggestion that can be followed or ignored and in our example above, was ignored.

Dire emergencies are not the only situations where saying no to a reactive emotion makes sense. Take our desire for sweets, for example. Sugars are converted fairly directly into energy, and are nutritionally quite valuable. They had survival value for people, and through evolution’s sifting and sorting of biological characteristics, human beings acquired a liking for foods that tasted sweet. Whenever sweet things were encountered, a message of desire appeared on people’s mental screens: “Sweet. Good. Eat.” In many hunter-gatherer situations sweet things were not abundant, so it made nutritional sense to act on that message at every opportunity. In the pre-technological world, an urge to eat sweets was a fairly reliable message about what to do, a fairly reliable prescription for action.

Today, things are different. Sweets are no longer rarities. Countless factories now churn out more candy and cookies and ice cream than is healthy for us to consume. Yet our built-in system of desires hasn’t changed. We remain genetically programmed to desire sweets, and many of us, much of the time, respond to that desire by eating them.

From one perspective, fear, hate, anger, jealousy, sexual lust, the desire for sweets — and all other forms of wanting what we don’t have and wanting to get rid of what we do have — are powerful experiences. Functionally, however, they are just informational messages about the present situation — messages that happen to arrive in feeling-tinged form. They are warnings about some perceived or anticipated danger, or they are prods to take advantage of some perceived opportunity. They are messages that once helped individual humans survive and reproduce, and helped the human race avoid extinction. Today, however, they are alerting signals that are no longer trustworthy because the circumstances of life have changed so drastically. They still deserve to be considered when evaluating situations and making action decisions, but they should not be considered either absolute truths or imperatives to act. Even the most powerful desires and aversions are just feeling-coated information that we can take into account, and then either act upon or ignore.

Learning to say no to inappropriate urges increases our inner freedom immensely. We need to evaluate sensations, feelings, and emotions for their underlying informational content, not for their comfort or discomfort level. Our tendency, of course, is to do whatever it takes to get rid of discomfort. Here I’m saying that in many situations it is more prudent to allow the discomfort to remain present for a while than to take the particular action that it prompts us to take. Discomfort may tell us to order dessert, for instance, but perhaps we shouldn’t. The more skillful option might be to say to the discomfort, “Thanks, but no thanks,” — letting go of the desire for dessert in the process, and turning our attention elsewhere. The desire and the discomfort are intimately linked, and if we really do let go of the desire, the discomfort fades away within seconds.

We must not only deal with emotions of desire, but also with emotions of aversion. Unpleasant happenings arise all too frequently in our lives, and when they do, feelings of anger, hate, grief, or fear may arise. Often, however, by the time the emotion arises, the event that triggered it is already over. The cause of the emotion is history. Getting into an emotionally-charged stew over something in the past accomplishes nothing useful, yet we do it again and again. We repeatedly cry over spilled milk.

What does make sense in such situations is, again, to look beyond the upsetting feeling and assess its implicit message. Is the present situation threatening to my life? Is there some action that really is called for? I’m not saying that letting go of strong feelings is easy. It takes practice. But does any other response make sense? If the event has already happened, getting angry accomplishes nothing. Instead, we can work on letting go of our automatic tendency to exert control, and practice non-reactivity. We can practice not pouring time and energy into converting impulses of hurt and anger into prolonged, painful states of hurt and anger. We can, instead, bring our attention back to the immediate situation and present moment — which is where the action always is anyway. Over time, success in letting go of reactivity helps us develop the ability to respond appropriately to the need of the moment. Try it. Practice it. Get good at it. And enjoy your new-found freedom.

Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:

Write about your struggles, failures, and successes in saying “Thanks, but no thanks” to reactive emotions that urge you to initiate certain actions it would be wiser to avoid. Consider any or all of the relevant emotions: “hate, anger, lust, jealousy, wanting, and fear”; or use the list of “passions” delineated in the enneagram: anger, pride, deceit, envy, avarice, fear, gluttony, lust, and sloth.

Would you adopt this as a motto: “So it is: deal with it”?

Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.

(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)

Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.

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