Goleman explains how the neuroscience works, how chemical processes in the brain triggered by the release of adrenaline can create a "fight or flight" response that's both primitive and deeply human. Some people undergoing "cognitive hijacking" will simply break down and cry, or flee the scene entirely, while others will start screaming, throwing things, or become enraged. Goleman says it doesn't need to be this way, and I agree. One of the first principles of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, an ability to understand and manage our own sometimes-riotous emotional landscapes.
It is by developing self-awareness -- and it's a muscle much like any other muscle -- that we can observe our impulses and emotions yet choose not to act upon them. And yes, this is much easier said then done -- as Goleman's brilliant book makes clear.
Goleman also co-authored a book called "Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill" with a French-born Buddhist monk named Matthieu Ricard. I hadn't known about this book until my friend Matt G. recently told me about it (so thank you Matt). Anyway, Ricard and Goleman's "Happiness" is a delightfully multidisciplinary blend of neuroscience, Buddhist philosophy, thoughts on meditation, and (yes) emotional intelligence. It's gotten me thinking about the value of meditation in my own life or, as I call the practice, "slowing things down."
We all want to be open-minded, able to learn and interact with others from a perspective of patience and compassion, but our emotions so often get in the way. I can't speak for you, dear blog reader, but people often try my patience and challenge my capacity to remain compassionate. I have a reputation for being open and kind to people, for building bridges with others around deep emotions like curiosity and shared passions, but I can get "cognitively hijacked" by human interactions on occasion. It is at these moments where I need to move away, defy "evil impulses," slow down, reflect, and restore my better self.
I studied Buddhism in college and have stayed engaged with it over the years, though I remain deeply Christian/Catholic in my religious outlook. I meditate almost every day and try to remain meditative most of the time. Let me explain what I mean.
I've come to learn over these many years that speed is not my friend, and that I'm limited in the amount of stimuli I can manage at once (we all are, by the way). Like so many of us, I can get overwhelmed by multiple things coming at me simultaneously. That's when I can start spinning out of control, and it's ugly. Earlier in my life, I tended to bunker in, to stay inside a protective shell where I felt I could manage a few things well. I was shy, introverted, and often afraid of interactions.
As I've aged and gotten more meditative, I've been able to handle more stimuli, to be more outgoing, to be more fully myself and appreciate the full humanity of others -- even when it scares me (it sometimes does). I've learned that I need people around me to be mentally healthy and to learn about myself, others, and the world. People are always worth the risk because being isolated and alone isn't a sustainable life strategy.
"Meditation," at least the way I approach it, is simply slowing down my mind and focusing on my breath. It brings me into my deepest self, and helps me become more aware of my own body inhabiting the present moment. Meditation is an anchor for life's many storms. I don't "empty" my mind, but I do focus on my breathing -- my in-breaths and out-breaths, one after the other. When I get distracted by a thought ("did I email someone about something?"), I simply bring back the focus on my breath.
Meditation helps me in so many ways, but mostly it allows me to align myself around my values in a way that's compassionate. I am like you -- I want to be free of suffering, to have some control over my own thoughts and actions. Meditation helps me do that -- not to be free of suffering but to accept it as the cost of living. Meditation helps me be myself in an uncertain, stressful world of conflicting human emotion and suffering -- a world I sometimes want to "flee or fight." We cannot flee or fight but should seek to accept. Yes, easier said than done.
Meditation allows me to overcome the anxiety I'm feeling in the moment, enabling me to calmly say "this too shall pass." Because it will pass, as we all will. Meditation is at the foundation of any resilience I've been able to build -- it allows me to observe and question the impulses and emotions I feel. I can feel and think, and not be captive to either. Meditation helps me not to give into anger in my home, not to lose patience when I work with others, not to be a captive of despair, but to be open to the wonder of ideas and people.
Meditation is about developing a "mind that observes" -- first ourselves and then others. I've found that a calm, clear mind is the most creative, most compassionate, and wisest one, the mind best able to grow and learn and collaborate with others.
As I've gotten older, strange joys have sometimes overcome me. I'll sit on the back porch on a Saturday morning in May, across from a large oak tree, and just open my senses to the world, soon finding myself awash in birdsong so glorious that it makes me want to grow wings and fly. I've become someone who perennially stops and listens to birds, in the way others might "stop and smell the roses." I like to listen, to hear rhythms and the wild, call-and-response music of the outdoors. As a writer, listening and observing is pretty much all I do.
And meditation is good for the body too, for blood pressure, for weight loss (ever heard of "impulse eating"?), and for focusing on what matters most, which is so often being there for others as they struggle. That old cliche about compassion is 100% true: you need to put your own oxygen mask on first before you're able to help others with theirs. I think of meditation as putting on my oxygen mask.
Again, I'm not a Buddhist monk or a hippie or "smoking somethin'," but I do know that meditation is supported by solid neuroscience and thousands of years of practice -- and that it works for me. When I need to go fast, I begin by slowing down first -- grounding myself in patience and focusing on my breath. That's all I do, focus on my breath for a few minutes, become more aware of my own consciousness.
Reaching your destination begins by knowing where you stand. Meditation does that for me, telling me "YOU are here," providing me an anchor. It lets me reach out to others with a full awareness of my own limitations and an openness to theirs.
Life, especially the creative life, is so filled with complex human emotions. The things that unbalance me are often as much about elation and self-grandeur (like wanting to fly with the birds singing in the trees above my back porch) as depression and doubt. Yes, we must live with emotions but we need not act upon every impulse we have. We can be self-aware, reflect upon those emotions with a clear, calm, and observing mind, and act in a way that reflects our better angels. Slowing ourselves down is key to centering ourselves between our thoughts and our actions. That's the space of wisdom, patience, compassion, and growth.