You may find yourself in a state of worry and/or apprehension a good deal of the time. A sense of sadness may pervade your mood with your attention going to what is missing in life. Equanimity may elude you as you move through your life wondering how you can come to peace and experience joy.
Unfortunately our brains sort for what is negative. Over a period of eighty million years, we mammals survived by paying attention to threats to survival. And we still are primed to notice what is a threat which means that these negative experiences produce enduring changes in the physical structures of our brain. When an event is flagged as negative, the amygdala-hippocampus circuitry stores this imprint and compares current events to the imprint of old ones. Positive experiences do not have the impact of the more painful negative ones. (Trauma as well as stress can cause the hippocampus to shrink 10-20% which impairs our ability to remember positive experiences).
What actually helps heal the brain is emphasizing and storing positive experiences through conscious attention. This conscious remembering of the positive creates new neural networks as the parasympathetic system is activated and a feeling of inner peace and well- being is created. This change in the brain is called EXPERIENCE-DEPENDENT NEUROPLASTICITY according to Rick Hanson, PhD. As the mind changes, the brain changes and vice versa.
What we pay attention to, what we think and feel and how we work with our reactions all influence the functioning of our brain.
It is important to add that this process of storing positive experiences does not preclude working with feelings, body sensations, dreams, memories etc. as these need to be brought to consciousness and integrated rather than avoided. Building equanimity is not becoming a “Bliss Junky.” Our tendency as humans is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. However making friends with pain, exploring the messages evoked and noticing where the body is holding imprints of negative experience is crucial to healing. Controlling the mind is not a goal to be reached using these methods.
Some of the practices I have used to help move clients into equanimity are the following: (I have used these successfully with clients who have had severe trauma). Clients may also use these as ways to self soothe and build new neural pathways between sessions.
1. IMAGINE A CALM AND BEAUTIFUL PLACE. Spend time there noticing the time of day, the colors, the sounds and the feeling of peace evoked by being in calm and lovely surroundings.
2, LOOK AT A FLOWER for 10 seconds
3. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE, PETS, ETC. WHO LOVE YOU. Visualize those who love you and take time to look at each face and feel their love for you and your love for them. (Eckhart Tolle , the author of THE POWER OF NOW recommends this exercise to boost the immune system).
4. LET GOOD EXPERIENCES SINK IN. Feel these good experiences as a warm glow flowing through the chest or like a golden syrup sinking down inside.
5. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH NURTURING FIGURES, REAL OR IMAGINARY These figures can be real or imaginary, animal or spiritual, and may also be your nurturing adult self.
6. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PROTECTOR FIGURES. These can be figures you felt protected by as a child or imaginary ones such as Superman or animal protectors.
More to follow next month on this most important subject of establishing and cultivating Equanimity.