Become faster than your emotions
FERDINAND WULLIEMIER MD explains some of the neuroscience behind our emotional reactions, and why heart-based practices are so helpful in managing them.
Emotions are rapidly aroused and rapidly reach their target. They may be expressed physically, energetically or psychologically. The etymology of emotion (movere = to move) attests to its dynamic nature, and recent neurological studies have explained the rapidity of our emotional reactions because they bypass the cortex of our brain.
Let’s take an example: I’m expecting a student for a meditation session at 8:00 a.m. She is the first of four, scheduled to come almost one after the other. In addition I have to make two phone calls in between. It is an unusual situation and I already feel some inner tension when my wife, who is sitting close to my smartphone, tells me that the first student has just sent an SMS to say that she will be 10 minutes late. It is not the first time she has been late, and so far I have not reacted emotionally, even when she repeatedly asks to change the time or the day of our appointments. But on that particular day, I feel immediately irritated.
When she arrives I tell her that my retirement should not be an excuse for thinking I have a lot of time at my disposal, especially today when there will be three other students coming after her. She explains that she was late because of a traffic jam, as she had mentioned in her SMS message. I hadn’t read her SMS and because I was already angry I was unable to moderate my emotions immediately.
For a more complete understanding of this short story, let me add that my father was rigid on punctuality with us during my childhood, resulting in my own disciplined behavior in this domain. Both my sister and I were afraid to be late because of the risk of being told off. In fact, it was only during the meditation session that a sensible way of dealing with the situation appeared clearly to me: to explain to her that we would start the session immediately so that the next person would not have to wait.
This example illustrates the rapidity of the ‘motion of emotions’ and the persistence of such emotions coupled with some learned behavior stored in our memory. Neurological studies have shown the crucial importance of the cerebellar tonsil for memorizing such emotional reactions coupled with specific events. I had known about my tendency for a long time and had worked on it during psychoanalysis during my training as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Unfortunately that didn’t produce notable changes.
But when we examine the neuroscience, the lack of results is not surprising; such knowledge is intellectual, implying that it needs to pass through the cerebral cortex. The consequence of information having to traverse the cerebral cortex is that it will reach too late, because its trajectory is too long. It is much slower than the more direct and rapid emotional reaction, which bypasses the cortex.
Researchers have shown that using the nerve pathways from the heart neurons, via the pneumogastric (tenth) cranial nerve, to subcortical structures like the cerebellar tonsil, is an example of such a rapid trajectory of feelings.1 In addition, the powerful heart’s electromagnetic pulsations have another rapid influence on the whole body and beyond.2
What can we do to become quicker than emotions?
The inference from all this is profound: using our heart to respond, based on feeling rather than thinking, is the only way to manage and prevent our emotional reactions when we are facing daily challenges, which are so numerous in our modern way of living.
Here are two examples of such beneficial practices:3
The HeartMath Institute4 researchers have tested the effects on many volunteers of some specific exercises they have created, such as Freeze Frame and Cut Through.5 They showed that love and positive feelings, such as compassion, gratitude and recognition in the heart, create coherence that spreads health and well-being throughout the body. In addition, the electromagnetic field of such a coherent heart also positively affects other people around.
The Heartfulness Way6 uses a method of meditation on the heart, a technique of purification (called cleaning) of the field of consciousness, and Yogic Transmission (pranahuti). The absorption and integration of the effects of the practices allow meditators to remain in a preventive vibratory remembrance, which is made up of feelings of love.
When we become conscious of the multiple opportunities we have to react with inappropriate emotions during our daily interactions, practicing these effective methods seems very worthwhile.
1 Feelings, such as love and compassion, are altruistic in their nature. They should be differentiated from emotions, such as anger or sadness, which are egocentric.
2 Childre, D. & H. Martin, 2000. The Heartmath Solution, Harper One, USA.
3 For an extensive review, Wulliemier, F., 2018. Vers un Civilisation du Coeur, Recto-Verseau.
5 See note 2 above.