Jan 26, 2008

The Role of Thought in Emotions

„When you become more agreeable, then your thoughts do. If you have no difficulty with them, they will have no difficulty with you either“ - Sogyal Rinpoche

Normally you hear about how our mind influences our body, so, for example, when you're depressed, your skin looks pale, you start losing or gaining weight, the edges of your mouth point downwards and you're teary-eyed most of the time. Or, if you're happy, your whole posture changes and suddenly your face „shines“, you smile all the time and you burst with energy. Similarly, we know that we have to be happy with ourselves before we can be happy with something or someone else, and that our social relationships depend on our mental state. However, little is said on the opposite direction – can we influence our mind by influencing our body, and/or our social relations?

The answer is yes. I'm sure you all know that, but people tend to forget, especially when they go through difficulties. So influencing our body and our „external self“ can really make a difference on the way we feel internally. Let's take an example: you go to the bank, and the bank teller is being a bitch to you. You have 2 options: being a bitch right back at her, or being nice to her. Most of the time, people take option no. 1, frown or become nasty, and she will do the same and it will all increase in intensity until either the manager comes, or the customer leaves cursing. Now let's face it: after such an interaction, no one is really happy to be alive, instead we normally make mental schemes of how to bring that bank to bankruptcy or do something mean to the teller.

So let's try option 2. We could respond by being nice. Never crossed your mind, has it? It is not one of the easy things to do, but it often has instantaneous and absolutely surprising results, the attitude of the bank teller will change immediately and hopefully return the kind treatment. And at the end of such an interaction? You leave smiling, because someone was nice to you. Thus, „when you become more agreeable, your thoughts do“.

Excerpt from „Destructive Emotions“:

In this experiment, O. would have two discussions, confrontations about issues where he and the person he talked with disagreed. As they talked, their physiology would be measured to assess the impact of their disagreement.

His partners would both be scientists dedicated to a rationalist view, and the topics were chosen to ensure a disagreement […]. For reasons of comparison, they chose two professors – one easygoing and the other […] abrasive – for O. to have this encounter with.

During the conversation both O. and his partner had their physiology monitored and their faces videotaped. The result: O's physiology was virtually the same no matter whom he was talking to. But his expressions were enormously different. O. smiled more often, and more simultaneously, with the gentle professor than with the difficult person.

While the easygoing professor discussed his differences of opinion with O., the two were smiling, keeping eye contact, and speaking fluidly. In fact, they had such a good time exploring their disagreements that they did not want to stop.

But that was not the case with the difficult person. From the start the physiological measures of the difficult man showed high emotional arousal. Yet over the course of their fifteen minute dispute, his arousal decreased, as talking with O. quieted him. At the end of their talk, he typically disputatious sparring partner spontaneously volunteered: „I couldn't be confrontational. I was always met with reason and smiles. It's overwhelming. I felt something – like a shadow or an aura – and I couldn't be aggressive.“


Sogyal Rinpoche – The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying [Amazon]

Daniel Goleman – Destructive Emotions: how can we overcome them? [Amazon]

I don't know who I am!

O: You see, the problem is I don't know who I am anymore...
Me: In what sense?
O: I don't know what I like, what I don't like... I didn't use to be like this. How do you know what you like? How do you get to know yourself?


In college, I once had an assigment to write an essay on the "self". This was one of the most frustrating things I ever had to do, but it also taught me an important lesson: there is not one thing that defines me as being me, it's rather a whole pile of things that would make me understand who I am. We're always looking for something permanent, unchangeable, something that we can always get back to and say: this is me.

Let's say I am my body. If I compare photos of me at age 2 and me at age 45, I will conclude that my body is not unchangeable and I am definitely not what I used to be years ago, in terms of my body. Let's say I am my memories. Should I suffer an accident and get amnesia, would that transform me into someone else?

We could play this game with pretty much everything we can think of to define us, and we would still not get much further. So I concluded that I am my body + my memories + my preferences + things I don't like + my friends + my family + my education + my career + my accomplishments + my failures + ... + n, and I've come to realize that accepting both the good and the bad parts makes me know myself. I know how I'll react in different situations, I can imagine liking or not liking something, I can imagine changing my views given certain conditions, and nothing comes as much of a surprise, mainly because I allow myself to be a permanently changing living organism.