I am reading Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's book My Stroke of Insight. She is a neuroscientist who had a hemorrhagic stroke in her 30s and then recovered her brain function over 8 years. The book is brilliant and so is she. See her TED talk on YouTube if you can. I've only read part of it so far, but what she writes about the brain and emotion resonates with me. And I think she agrees with Rumi.
This Rumi poem is the map for how I try to approach emotion:
The Guest House
Darling, the body is like a guest house;
every morning someone new arrives.
Don't say, "O, another weight around my neck!"
or your guest will fly back to nothingness.
Whatever enters your heart is a guest
from the invisible world: entertain it well.
Every day and every moment a thought comes
like an honored guest into your heart.
My soul, regard each thought as a person,
for every person's true value
is in the quality of the thought they hold.
If a sorrowful thought stands in the way,
it is also preparing the way for joy.
It furiously sweeps your house clean,
in order that some new joy
may appear from the Source.
It scatters the withered leaves
from the bough of the heart,
in order that fresh green leaves might grow.
It uproots the old joy so that
a new joy may enter from Beyond.
Sorrow pulls up the rotten root
that was hidden from sight.
Whatever sorrow takes away
or causes the heart to sacrifice,
it puts something better in its place--
especially for one who is certain
that sorrow is the servant of the intuitive.
Without the frown of clouds and lightning,
the vines would be burned by the smiling sun.
Both good and bad luck
become guests in your heart:
like planets traveling from sign to sign.
When something transits your sign,
and be as harmonious as its ruling sign,
so that when it rejoins the Moon,
it will speak kindly to the Lord of the Heart.
Whenever sorrows come again,
meet it with smiles and laughter,
saying, "O my Creator, save me from its harm;
and do not deprive me of its good.
Lord, remind me to be thankful,
let me feel no regret if its benefit passes away.
And if the pearl is not in sorrow's hand,
Let it go and still be pleased.
Increase your sweet practice.
Your practice will benefit you at another time;
someday your need will be suddenly fulfilled."
Rumi, translated by Kabir Helminski
MATHNAWI V, 3644-46; 3676-88;3693-96; 3700-01
Now, while you are trying to absorb that, here is what Dr. Taylor says about emotion:
"The limbic system functions by placing an affect, or emotion, on information streaming in through our senses. Because we share these structures with other creatures, the limbic system cells are often referred to as the "reptilian brain" or the "emotional brain". When we are newborns, these cells become wired together in response to sensory stimulation. It is interesting to note that although our limbic system functions throughout our lifetime, it does not mature. As a result, when our emotional "buttons" are pushed, we retain the ability to react to incoming stimulation as though we were a two-year-old, even though we are adults." (p. 16)
"Because the word "feeling" is broadly used, I'd like to clarify where different experiences occur in the brain. First, when we experience feelings of sadness, joy, anger, frustration, or excitement, these are emotions that are generated by the cells of our limbic system. Second, to feel something in your hands refers to the tactile or kinesthetic sensation of feeling through the action of palpation. This type of feeling occurs via the sensory system of touch and involves the postcentral gyrus of the cerebral cortex. Finally, when someone contrasts what she or he feels intuitively about something (often referred to as a "gut feeling") to what they think about it, this insightful awareness is a higher cognition that is grounded in the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex." (pp.17-18)
Funny that I chose the name "Lizardinlaw".
So, I used to be really angry. Anger was the surface response I used and what it covered up was grief and confusion and fear. The grief and confusion and fear were a response to things that happened when I was very young, from before birth to age three. The limbic system was being wired. I worked very, very hard to learn to control this anger, but what I had to do was learn how to feel grief and confusion and fear. More about this another time.
I am a family practice physician and I sometimes have patients who are angry. I am really good with angry patients because I mostly don't get angry back and I don't react. My response is curiosity with an assumption that was unconscious until recently. My brain assumes that if someone is angry, they are actually scared, confused or afraid. So my genuine response is mostly concern. This does not always work and I can't say that I am never reactive. I'll probably have a tantrum today, just because I've written this. But Rumi's poem matched what I had been trying for years to learn about emotion. Emotion is the surface of the brain. It's not the deep part. I think of emotion as the weather over the ocean. Sometimes it's stormy. Sometimes it's sunny. But the deep part of the ocean is still there and the deep currents are slow, slow to change. I try to welcome each emotion that comes, as Rumi says, as a guest. I want that emotion to take a good report of me back to the source, and besides, I've learned that trying to deny a feeling only makes it bang on the cellar door and grow and grow until I deal with it.
Dr. Taylor's book lays out the brain explanation to match Rumi's poem and my experience/intuition simply and beautifully. The emotional response to everything around us is stuck at the two year old stage. We have to use our higher cognition, our right cerebral hemisphere, to really examine what is happening. We have to use our left brain and our right brain to really respond, not just have a two year old reaction.
Her book gives me enormous hope that we can, as a species, learn to use our higher cognition to heal our emotions and each other.
And I've only read the first 30 pages, so I am joyful that I still have the rest of the book.
For Science Quest 2012.
I even learned some HTML for this.
HTML + poet = confusion.
And dammit, confusion can be spark to the tinder of anger.....