There are many types of breakthroughs. Some of them are like a sudden jolt of energy, revealing in a split of a second an incredibly clear insight, while others are like rivers, slowly flowing and accumulating, unseen and unnoticed, until they reach, in a silent and oh, so simple movement, the sea of understanding – and, suddenly, you just know something you never knew before (but you always felt like knowing it).
In today’s blog post I’m going to talk about the latter. A kind of realization that went underground – probably for years – and just recently surfaced, most likely pushed up by those long days of solitary walking during Camino de Santiago.
Your Story Follows Your State
Or, in other words: what you think is influenced by how you feel. Read that again. It may seem so obvious that there is some interdependence between our emotional state and our thoughts, that it can’t qualify for an insight, especially for one that claims to be so deep and important.
And yet, it does. Let me explain why.
Because cognition is the process by which we create our reality, “the story follows state” means the quality of the reality we’re creating is determined by our emotional state. That’s very important. If we feel emotionally weak, our reality will be biased by that, probably looking bleaker. If we feel emotionally strong and balanced, our reality will be biased by that too, probably looking “happier”.
And the “funny” thing is that it doesn’t really work the other way around. In other words, the amount in which our story, the thoughts we’re thinking, is influencing our emotional state, is unbalanced – it almost never works out. Just try to remember when was the last time you calmed down when somebody told you to “just calm down”. It doesn’t work like this, right? We can’t rationalize emotions. They are, by definition, irrational. So we can’t resort to rational thinking to feel better (or at least not out of the box, without some really thorough and long training).
The biological explanation for this is that the “siege” of the most powerful emotions (fear, rage) is in the limbic brain, which is responsible for our individual survival. Because of that, this part of the brain is triggered before the prefrontal cortex, where most of the rational processes occur. Even more, at times, the limbic brain can even “shortcut” the prefrontal cortex, taking control, if it “feels” it’s a question of life and death. Remember how you just “sensed” some danger even though there wasn’t anything rationally telling you about this? Well, that was the limbic brain, triggered by some specific stimuli.
We are still making our way in the world like animals trying to survive. Although the context in which we are living now is significantly less dangerous than the 10,000 years ago jungle, and we are better adapted, our bodies are still wired the way they used to be in order to survive in the jungle, avoiding, simply put, to be eaten by a predator. Like I said, the part of our body in charge for that is the limbic brain and it works in a very simple way: it assesses situations comparing them with previously stored patterns and, if the “life and death” criteria is met, it triggers immediate actions, in the form of a “fight”, “flight”, or “shut down” attitude.
For example, if the limbic brain has some stored memory of a person yelling at you, and it remembers that you “escaped” that situation by yelling back, harder, it will be triggered the same way when somebody yells at you now (or when you perceive that somebody yells at you). So, you will start yelling back, before you even understand what’s happening. The memory may be incredibly old, something from your early childhood, but because the limbic brain stored it as a “life and death” situation, it will always be triggered before assessing the situation rationally. As an aside, it may not even be something that happened to you, but something you witnessed, most likely at your caregivers.
That’s how fighting “from nothing” occurs. You may have what you think it’s a normal conversation, and then, boom, your partner starts yelling at you. Sometimes even accusing you of things you didn’t even say. What’s happened there was a limbic brain shortcut of the prefrontal cortex. Something from the conversation triggered a stored pattern, the limbic brain signaled “danger, danger!” and then, without rationalizing, yelling occurred.
And that’s how story follows state, because, even if you would want to write a different story now, you can’t, because you’re not in control anymore: the previous patterns are. Even more, the master of those previous patterns, the limbic brain, thinks it’s doing you a service: it just remembered you “escaped” before from this specific danger, so it is “saving” you again.
Re-Writing The Story Means Re-Writing The State
These triggers are sometimes called “wounds” and the process by which we’re trying to disengage the limbic brain is called “healing”. Many therapies – and quite a few spiritual disciplines – have as a goal this exact type of healing. Some of them may call it “liberation”, some of them “being a balanced individual”, but at the end of the day they are all aiming for this: prevent destructive auto-pilot reactions, based on subconscious patterns which are not helping you anymore.
So, if we agree that story follows state, then it’s obvious that if we want a different story (a different reality) we have to rewrite the state.
Which means rewriting the patterns stored in the limbic brain.
Which cannot be rewritten with rational thinking, because the limbic brain doesn’t understand rational, or even language, for what matters.
It seems like we hit some kind of roadblock here, isn’t it? If the programming of the limbic brain is already finished, are we forever subjects to the same triggers? Are we going to be prisoners of those early survival memories, randomly triggered by harmless events now, making us failing our jobs, our relationships, our lives?
I don’t think so.
I believe there is a way out. As a matter of fact, I believe there are as many ways out as many people are out there. Because each of us has different wounds and different triggers.
I believe that everything can be rewritten, you only have to learn how. Or, in other words, you only have to learn what you, the one reading this, have to unlearn. What are the patterns that are triggering you constantly? What are the same events occurring over and over, in which you seem to have no control, no option, and you have to always escape from them in the same way? Why are you switching jobs every two years? Why are you rejecting partners the moment you’re experiencing any kind of intimacy?
These are your patterns.
And the way you can rewrite those patterns, is by re-experiencing them.
The way you rewrite the limbic brain is by slowly engaging in those uncomfortable situations, but from the position of “here and now”. Instead of escaping those emotions, or burry them down, you address them head on, but with patience, and very, very slowly. You know that you’re in a different position now, one from which you can take better care of yourself. You’re not in survival mode anymore.
As you get triggered, you learn to maintain your ground for a while, and then back up, until you’re ready to engage again. This slow dance back and forth will eventually convince the limbic brain that there are no dangers in that pattern and it can be safely erased.
In simpler words, if your pattern is switching jobs every two years, try resisting the urge in the 12th month of the second year. Just give yourself one more month and see what’s happening. Observe your reactions, your fears, your escaping routes. Don’t deny them, but don’t give in either. Wait a month. And then try giving yourself another month.
Or, if your pattern is rejecting partners once you become intimate, just take a break – don’t run away. Step back a couple of weeks, a month, or more. Assess your fears, your reactions and then come back and try re-experience intimacy. Do this until the “danger” is avoided. Of course, you will have to discuss all of this upfront with your partner and he / she will have to be willing to help you in this process.
It goes without saying that all of the above should be done under the supervision of someone who properly learned how to do it. If you’re into therapy, a therapist. If you’re into spirituality, a qualified and trusted master. In any event, should be done in relationship with somebody. At the beginning, it can be just a friend, an accountability partner, someone that agrees to listen to you no matter what and witness your states. Alternatively, you can do the same thing for them, it may speed up the process.
Our emotions are part of our lives in a much deeper and profound way than we think. Denying them will just limit the field of experience, we will mortify ourselves. Succumbing to them, chasing them over and over, will make us their prisoners, addicted, codependent.
The way is somewhere in the middle.