Chopping Scrub and Planting Giants

”Whatever you are doing at anytime, you are physically modifying your brain to become better at it. Since this is such a foundational mechanism of the brain, being self-aware can greatly enrich our life experience.” ~Athene

How much control do you have over your attention? How present is your focus? Try putting the other leg in first when you pull your pants on, or buttoning your shirt in the other direction. Try holding a straighter posture while you sit. You might be surprised at how automatically you function.

Your emotional state operates with a similar autonomy. And like the habit of dressing yourself, your emotions can be manipulated. All you need is enough self awareness.

Self awareness is a prerequisite for self possession. You cannot regulate that which you cannot discern, so it is important to cultivate the ability of self perception. This is easy while not tired or stressed, not hungry or satiated, not angry or frustrated, not sad, not in pain, not uncomfortable, not distracted, and not inebriated. In that narrow state, full self awareness comes automatically. It’s much harder to be aware when emotion hijacks our equanimity.

Fortunately it is possible to extend the capacity for self perception into those emotional states.

In fact, much progress is made by simply living life. You learn naturally not to break down and cry when in pain. You do not single-mindedly pursue food while hungry. Most people don’t go berserk when angry. This is because the consequences of this behavior are plain and unfavorable. We are all conditioned by society to tolerate certain levels of pain, hunger, and anger.

But getting ticked off at inconvenience and discomfort is socially acceptable, sympathized with, even considered inevitable. And those who seem immune are written off as freaks, monks, or annoyingly positive.

The problem with indulging in irritation is that it plants a thorny vine that wraps itself around whatever the trigger. Each time the traffic sucks, that vine saps some cheer from your day. Every time the toast burns, the heft of living life increases. Then the rancor we hold towards one thing can spread until every inconvenience, discomfort, and stumbling block becomes a lead cannonball to carry.

Conventional wisdom dictates that there is something inherent in us that responds with a respective emotion to the effects of our environment. The delay of getting to work in the snow must be met with stress. But this is not the case. Humanity is not doomed to be inextricably linked to these knee-jerk emotional reactions. We humans can control our emotional states by framing what happens to us in a light of our own choosing.

All it takes is practiced self awareness. Once self aware enough to recognize when an emotion has sparked, and honest enough to admit the cause, it is only a matter of choosing an appropriate response.

That response is not always smiles and laughter. Every emotion, even anger, has its uses. I’m advocating the possibility of avoiding unnecessary stress, anger, and sadness and the trouble they can lead to. I’m advocating a measured emotional response instead of an impulsive one.

Albeit slow to manifest, the benefits of self awareness are well worth the struggle. When developed, disturbance can be met with the calm acceptance that it is part of life. Frustration can be dampened by reassessing the difficulty of the task at hand. Dark days can be endured by understanding the cyclic nature of life. And just as negative emotions can be relieved, positive ones can be amplified.

It begins by expanding the capacity of rational thought. If you can rationally estimate the actual toll (and not the imagined toll) of a particular disturbance, you’ll usually see how trivial it really is. Strong emotion is rarely needed, and even more rarely helpful. The presence to take a step back in the heat of the moment is a valuable skill worth practicing.

Unfortunately, the road to self possession is one that must be walked alone. That’s why so few people have. No friend would so brazenly attempt to tweak your psyche. No therapist can be ever-present to remind you to keep your cool. And consider that, while in the throes of anger, the faintest suggestion that a situation should be reinterpreted can backfire, plunging you even deeper into rage. The mindfulness to recognize the onset of emotions must be cultivated internally, where no one else can reach.

But an indescribable peace and freedom lies at the end of that road.

Like any other habits, the emotional habits people possess become entwined in their identities. I’ve already emphasized in past posts how determined the ego is to maintain the status quo. This resistance to change makes those habits difficult to alter, even the ugly emotional ones.

But by slowly winnowing expressions of discontent, it naturally sprouts gratitude. By consciously choosing to smile through sadness, it naturally makes you a brighter, more attractive person. By choosing not to view things cynically, it uproots the bitterness of character that follows. The choices we make in our day to day emotions add up to who we are as people.

It is not the individual actions of enduring, smiling, calming, and accepting that have value. It is the ramifications of those actions. Smiling projects happiness, which attracts people, which augments happiness. Resisting the irritation caused by discomfort strengthens resilience to unpleasantness, which makes you more capable of handling situations with greater ease, which equips you to handle more difficult and rewarding endeavors. Developing an acute sense of self awareness has all the benefits for one trying to root out a bad habit, or implant a character trait.

Ultimately, you are not a victim of your emotions. Emotions aren’t landmines to be set off by triggers lurking around every corner. Do not let cultural norms dictate the boundaries of your emotional control. Push, push the limits of your composure. Practice recognizing when an emotion arises. Practice honestly assessing what has caused it. Then practice framing the situation in a way that suits you.

That is self mastery. That is self possession. Do this and you’ll control your world.

Thank you for reading.


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