Hurt feelings, physical pain, suffering, anxiety, fear. These experiences are pervasive and compelling. Ignoring them is foolish, as is indulging them. Pretending there is no pain and suffering is willful ignorance, while focusing only on the power of pain and suffering places you in slavery to it. How does your ignoring or indulging the pain of the world help it be a better place? It doesn’t. So what does?
Life wants to live! Every organism, down to the smallest component is programmed to try to live and make more life like itself. We are designed so anything that might threaten our safety is a trigger for our defenses to engage and anything that might help us survive is valued and grabbed onto. To immediately stop taking what you see and experience quite so personally, remember that every living thing is busy figuring out how not only to survive, but to thrive. Transcending and integrating that survival programming with our desire for creative expression, spiritual and social growth and harmony with the environment is what having consciousness is all about!
Our nervous system provides signals we interpret as pain, anxiety, worry and fear which are designed to stimulate our defenses when we need to focus on survival. There are other signals, experienced as positive sensations, that tell us it is ok to relax. Some responses are automatic and happen without involving our brain, such as reflexes, but the majority of patterned responses our brain develops through making meaning of experiences, and lots of practice.
When we are young our brain is very elastic and we are excellent and quick learners. Our developing brains translate signals and stimuli from our nervous system, observing and creating response patterns to help with our survival. Later, these patterns become more rigid, and it is harder to integrate new information to strengthen and adapt old patterns and to create new patterns. But it can be done, if we really want to. And we should want to, because when we don’t our fear and conditioning get to run the show.
Why do we usually wait until things are really difficult to break out of our patterns? Can we train ourselves to be aware and more pro-active in our lives? Yes we can. We can do it through simple mindfulness of our breathing, by pausing and choosing an action consciously, by really listening and building solutions, rather than just defending our opinions.
The first step is to pay attention and notice our conditioning. When it tells us to withdraw, strike out, or submit/placate is the time to pause, take a breath and make a conscious decision whether to follow its advice, or not.
We always have the power to override conditioning, but we usually wait until extreme circumstances occur to do so. Suicide and self-sacrifice are two obvious extreme examples of consciously overriding our survival instinct. We override survival signals when we decide death is better than what is happening now. We also override survival signals when we perceive a problem, value or goal larger and more important than our individual survival.
Sometimes we do not consciously override our conditioned survival patterns; instead, due to an overloaded/disengaged nervous system, we default to a “nothing left to lose” mode. An overloaded/disengaged nervous system no longer provides consistent self-defense triggers or signals. Circumstances that typically overload/disengage nervous systems are prolonged life-threatening situations such as imprisonment/torture, war, and deprivation of basic needs. Such extreme conditions generally lead to depression, numbness, and withdrawal from life. Occasionally they lead to transcendent states or acts of uncommon bravery, but this depends on the individual's interpretation of their circumstances.
Most of us have systems that are hypersensitive/reactive, overloaded, numbed, or stuck in unhealthy patterns. But just because you can’t undo the hurt, redress all the wrongs, and alleviate the suffering you witness and feel doesn’t mean you can’t help yourself and others. As tempting as it is to try to run away or hide, life is so much more full when you stay aware and engaged. Pick a focus: a cause or problem you are passionate about, or the pain and suffering encountered in your daily life and address that. The meaning you attach to your experience and observation of pain and suffering is key to allow you to override and integrate your survival instincts to help yourself and others. You can consciously choose to affirm positive aspects of life rather than just surviving. You can align yourself with a larger sense of purpose that helps break through the conditioning. The conditioning isn’t bad and has its place, but it also isn’t complete. You include it, but are so much more than it. You can start right now. And you can start again anytime.