In our lives, each of us experiences dealing with difficult emotions. When dealing with a serious illness in mid-life, losing a close friend or family member, losing a job, breaking up with a partner. No matter how difficult it is to say it, challenges are an integral part of our experience as human beings. No one wants or enjoys challenges, but they happen to us. The hard feelings flood us like some surge, a big wave that washes over us and floods us with rumination.
About two months after my brother passed away, I was right in the middle of a ride on the highway, and suddenly I experienced a huge wave of memories and feelings. I felt how much I missed him. I had a sense of intense longing, for our routine conversations about his new relationship, about thoughts he had regarding his career, about his plans for the next flight to a new and surprising place in the world. These feelings were so vivid that I was sure I was living the memory.
When we experience memories, sometimes the brain transmits to the body the same feeling as if the experience was real. Think about the feeling that comes to you when you daydream – for a moment you feel like you were somewhere else; When the daydream ends, you feel as if you have returned from another dimension to reality.
The powerful feelings I felt just flooded me.
Long time ago, before I learned how to work with my emotions, I could get into a whirlpool of thoughts. One emotion leads to another emotion, one thought leads to another thought. I could have sunk into despair, depression, and sorrow… Can understanding the mechanisms of attention in the human mind help us deal with difficult emotions? Can our shift in focus help us not to get caught up in emotional turmoil? And can a proactive choice in the way we want to perceive certain situations change our feelings about them? Turns out the answer is ‘yes’.
Reticular Activating System – what you focus on expands!
Science taught us that there is a system that causes us to change our focus without feeling it, this system is called a Reticular Activating System (RAS). The reticular activating system is a mechanism consisted of a bundle of neurons located at our brainstem just above the spinal column. It is five centimeters long and a pencil-width wide. All the input from our senses, except for smell, go through the RAS. This system basically connects the subconscious part of our brain to its conscious part. The RAS makes sure you concentrate only on those things which are essential to you. Once you define your focus, you will be able to, almost, change your reality, as everything else, not as important, would disappear. The RAS can’t make the choice for us. The choice of what type of thoughts we would have inside us is exclusively ours. The filtering mechanism works quite simply- whatever you give it, it will want more of it. If you choose to think in a criticizing way, your mind will constantly look for criticizing everything. If you decide to see reality through a filter of low self-esteem, everything you do would be affected by your low self-esteem. This mechanism also works conversely. If you seek to see reality through positive thinking, then even when things which are not so good happen to you, you would always look for how to grow out of it and what lessons you can learn from that experience.
How did I deal with such an emotion?
When I was in the middle of the highway ride, and the memories and emotions hit me like a hammer on an anvil, I had a choice. I did not expect them to come, but they just did. I decided to make two choices. The first choice was to understand that I’m on the highway and I can’t give way to anything other than full concentration on the road and in the cars driving to my right and left. The second choice was to acknowledge the pain of losing my brother and to acknowledge the emotion that must be given a enough space, without fighting it. It comes because it’s part of the human experience: to remind me how much I loved him, how much I miss him, how much he left a huge void in my life. But do not banish this emotion because it’s unpleasant, or because I must remain positive so as not to sink. I know I won’t sink into depression, I know I won’t break into sorrow. Because if he was here with me he would have told me exactly the same thing. He would tell me to go on with life and accept things as they are. Apparently the question of why he’s gone at such a young age will never be answered. And sometimes, it’s good to ask the question because it helps us in the stages of grief. Just accepting the fact that not everything has an answer, and mysterious are God’s ways.
Guests in Salon of the Soul/ Tali Versano-Iceman
The sadness suddenly appears,
Joy is an invited guest.
I’m the host of them both.
When joy comes,
I’m gathering her,
Making sure that she visits every organ in my body,
I clench my fists,
May she not run away from my body. That she will stay.
When sadness comes,
I look at him
I do no offer him nuts and drinks,
He stays as long as he stays,
And from both visits I grow up.
The poem describes exactly the feeling we all experience. When good feelings come, we try to hold on to them as much as possible. To stay as long as possible because they are very pleasant. But what happens when hard, painful and complex emotions come? We all want them to leave as soon as possible. The poem actually offers a different approach, which I chose to adopt. When hard feelings come, we should not banish them. We just need to be mindful of them. We just have to let them be. Perhaps we should all ask ourselves: Why did this emotion come about? What does it suppose to teach me about myself? What does the difficult emotion suppose to imply about my perception of the experience I had? But as the poem suggests, do not “offer him nuts and drinks”, that is, don’t allow the emotion to take over you, and don’t allow it to settle.
How to get through the wave of that harsh emotion?
I refer to harsh feelings as a big wave. It arrives, and then passes. I know for myself that nothing will overwhelm me. No strong emotion will knock me off my feet. I’ll give the emotion the space it needs and let it move on. Just as in the practice of Mindfulness Meditation, there are moments when a thought comes in and my reference to it is like a cloud passing by, so even when a surge of emotions comes, I treat it as if it was a huge wave. It will stay here for as long as I allow it, and then it will pass.