Friday, March 6, 2020

Oriented Toward the Future: Why We Have Painful Emotions and How Yoga Can Help

Farmer with a Pitchfork by Winslow Homer
by Nina Zolotow

“All organisms capable of long-term memory are necessarily oriented toward the future. A feature of memory apparently unique to humans, however, is the degree to which the decisions and plans that we make are based on representations that are future oriented—imaginings of specific events located forward in time.” —Stanley B. Klein, et al

Lately I’ve been practicing a bit of self-study (svdhyaya) when I’m meditating by quickly labeling each thought I notice with a category before I move my attention back to my object of meditation. And it took only a couple of sessions of that practice for me to realize that most of my thoughts were in the category of “making plans.” It’s actually not surprising to me because I recently read an article about how evolution has wired us to plan for the future called Facing the future: Memory as an evolved system for planning future acts. Apparently our ability to plan for the future is one of the qualities that made us so successful as a species. During the hunter-gather era, worry about the future helped us stockpile food for the winter and eventually led to the development of agriculture. And we also made plans to avoid repeating dangerous mistakes, for example, organizing a hunting party to take down a large animal instead of hunting solo (that took language!). In fact, this ability to plan for the future is said to be the basis for most—if not all—modern civilization, including the development of writing and our various systems of laws and forms of government. 

And this powerful urge to plan for the future tends to be associated with strong emotions, especially painful ones. Of course we all know that anxiety, fear, and anger in the present motivate us to make plans for the future. But memories of our past experiences, especially painful ones, also cause the same urge to plan. Shame, guilt, regret, anger, and grief about events in the past teach us not to make the same mistakes and to take steps to create a future with potentially different outcomes.

The problem is that many of the urges and impulses that served us well from an evolutionary perspective are not beneficial in modern society. For example, being drawn to fatty and calorie-rich foods served us well as hunter-gatherers but in modern society where we have easy access to an excess of calories, our natural food preferences can lead to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other health problems. The same is true for the painful emotions that once helped us to survive. Now we often transfer the same painful emotions that were once helpful to us into non-life threatening situations, such as road rage, performance anxiety, panic over work deadlines, and shame and guilt over minor mistakes.

Fortunately we also evolved with a capacity for self-awareness. Our witness mind allows us to observe ourselves when we’re experiencing these emotions both during and after the events that trigger them. We can then decide whether or not we should take action. And the practice of “holding space” (see Holding Space) allows us to experience these difficult emotions in a safe environment, when we can really take our time to use our witness mind to observe the emotions and associated memories and how they are affecting us. Sometimes the emotion is a message that calls for a reaction. Other times it is a primal response that we need to resolve within ourselves rather than by taking action. And sometimes there seems is a mixture of both, some actions to take and some emotions to resolve within ourselves.

If you’re in the throes of a painful emotion, using yoga stress management practices, such as restorative yoga, supported inverted poses, calming breath practices, and meditation, can help you cool down and enable you to think more clearly about what to do next. When you’re stressed out—which includes being very fearful, anxious, or angry—your thoughts “narrow” and you focus only on fight or flight strategies. Calming your nervous system literally changes the way you think! When you reduce your stress levels, although you still consider fight and flight strategies, your thoughts open up to include altruistic possibilities and actions that are more in line with your basic values and goals. This can help you interact with people and solve problems in a more peaceful and productive way. Psychologist Dan Libby, founder of the Veterans Yoga Project, describes it this way:

"The basic gist is that regulating our autonomic nervous system, which really means activating the more newly evolved part of the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve, allows for an expansion of your thought-behavior repertoire. Instead of having a limited, narrow, tunnel-vision, like we do when our sympathetic nervous system is dominant, we have more cognitive and behavioral options available to navigate our world."

You can simply practice whichever relaxation techniques work best for you and see what that does for your state of mind. If you can’t leave a situation to go practice yoga, you could try practicing simple breath awareness or any breath practice that lengthens the exhalation wherever you are.

As for strong emotions that are associated with memories, in his post Aparigraha (Non-Hoarding) and Healthy Aging, Ram Rao says that for emotions that we decide not to act on, we need to learn to let go of the feelings: 

“We tend to fill our minds with fear, worry, anxiety, grief, anger, rage, jealousy, and judgments, among others, and we do not let go of these emotions. Over time, these emotions—whether they are bitterness, fear, emotional damage, rejection or abandonment—build up. If you hoard/accumulate unexpressed or suppressed emotions and if they are not getting released, they keep building up in your body.” 

In this post, Ram recommends meditation for “releasing” these painful emotions. Of course, meditation is a calming practice that triggers the relaxation response (activating the parasympathetic nervous system). But it also gives you the chance to observe your emotional reactions without judgment and to consciously let them go.

Another technique you can try is to practicing kshama (forgiveness), which is one of the 10 yamas in the Yoga Yajnavalkya, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and other yoga texts. Practicing kshama does not mean confronting or reconciling with the person or people who caused you harm. Instead, it is a type of forgiveness that you practice within yourself so you can “release” the pain associated with the harm that was done to you. You could do this as you meditate by, for example, using a Loving Kindness meditation and focusing on either yourself (if you’re blaming yourself) or the person or people who hurt you. Or, you could take actions in your life, such as making charitable donations or doing a charitable deed, in honor of the person who you want to forgive. I hope to have more on kshama on our blog in the future, but in the meantime, you can read another post by Ram Forgiveness (Kshama).

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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