This week, listening to a wonderful interview with brain scientist Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor, I learnt that our thoughts all originate from a cluster of cells in our left hemisphere which are the size of a peanut. It is our thoughts that trigger our feelings and make us unhappy.
“She ignored me!”, “He’s being selfish!”, “I’m not good enough”, etc. Our peanut brain has a thought and this triggers a feeling. At this point we have a choice…. to feed the feeling (fan the fire) with further thoughts or recognise, allow, accept and empathise.
If we just allow ourselves to feel the feeling without judgement, with tenderness and without further feeding of the emotion with new thoughts (our stories that we love to tell ourselves and others), according to Dr Jill, the physiological process of our emotions takes about 90 seconds and then it’s usually over and we can come back to a state of balance. Mindfulness practices like slowing our breathing and focusing on the breath also help us to do this.
Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor, a neuro-anatomist then working at Harvard University, had a massive stroke in her late thirties that shut down the left hemisphere of her brain. She experienced a completely silent and blissful mind and the total connectedness of all life as energy. Over the next 9 years, as she slowly recovered from a completely infant-like state, she chose not to revive or recover certain parts of her pre-stroke personality. She was able to leave 37 years of emotional baggage behind and start again with a clean slate (wouldn’t that be nice!). She consciously chose to recover (a very painful and slow process) so that she could teach us that we can all access this silent, peaceful, blissful state. As Jill says, “Peace is just a thought away.”
Dr Jill calls these regular thought patterns “circuitry”. She says we can choose to use different circuitry in our brains (i.e. form new neural pathways). They are just thoughts and we can make a conscious choice in our thoughts. Oprah (her interviewer) asks her whether removing that peanut from our left hemispheres would give us a silent mind but Jill explains that we would then lose language. Our busy thinking mind is the price we pay for language. The left hemisphere is also essential for helping us to make sense of the world. In other words, we need both hemispheres to function well in our world. Whole-brain living.
In Compassionate Communication (NVC), thoughts are extremely valuable because they can give us great insights into what we are longing for in our lives. For example, if I think I’m being left out, I can empathise with myself and realise that I’m actually longing for inclusion and it’s much easier to look for ways to be included than to feed my insecurities and unhappiness with further thoughts about people leaving me out.
I find the analogy of the peanut so helpful. Every time I’m having an unhappy thought or a judgemental thought, I think “that’s just my peanut brain”. Then I think “What am I telling myself? (ie. what’s my story) … I’m telling myself….(e.g. he’s so inconsiderate)” and if I can just be present with myself and pay attention to my thoughts, the feelings emerge. And then, I just allow myself to feel the feelings such as sadness and disappointment. From there, maybe I will realise what I’m needing (such as a longing for consideration or respect) or maybe I just need to sit in my feelings for a while and hold myself as I would hold a dear friend who is in emotional pain. And perhaps then, when I’m ready, I can start to take some positive action steps to get more of what I want in my life.
“Peanut brain” has now become a joke in our household. “Woops, that’s my peanut brain talking” I say when I suddenly realise that I’m heading up the old super highways of judgement, comparison, diagnosis or any of the other roadblocks to communication and I want to pull back and head along my newly forming goat tracks of communication that foster connection. I find the idea that “peace is just a thought away” very comforting and it’s fun to think of this annoying but very insightful little motor-mouth of a peanut living in my left hemisphere. I’m also comforted by the idea that the seat of consciousness is right here in the right hemisphere of my brain.
I love it that science and spirituality are finally meeting – the same messages are everywhere.
And if you haven’t yet seen Dr Jill’s amazing and stirring TED talk “My Stroke of Insight”, here’s the link: http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight