Your Emotional Brain

Have you ever wondered about how little emotional training we actually get? I invariably mention this when talking with students and clients because it’s quite an eye-opener to realise that most of us get either very little or none at all. And yet emotions play such a large part in our lives, usually determining how we act, and often in spite of all our best intentions.

In our culture we are trained to look after our bodies very well – knowledge of medicine, science and technology is extraordinary. And nearly everyone goes to school for at least 10 years, so we all get some mental training. But when it comes to emotions any knowledge and training we get is simply left to chance.


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Emotional training

It’s only in the last couple of decades that western science has begun to take seriously research into the emotions, and this is in large part spurred on by the discoveries of neuroscience.  A recently published book The Emotional Life of Your Brain by the neuropsychologist Richard Davidson and science writer Sharon Begley, shows how we each have what they call an “emotional style” , meaning that we all have a consistent way of responding to the experiences of our lives. What neuroscience has discovered, however, is that in spite of what we often think or feel, and in spite of what we may have been told, our habitual responses are not permanent. If we want to, we can change them.

Neuroscientists have completely changed their view on how the brain works because they have discovered that the brain is actually plastic, meaning that it is flexible. They had believed that it was fixed after its development during childhood, but they now know that this is not so – it changes throughout life. What this means is that that you can literally change your brain by training it. And meditation research has shown that practising meditation can cause profound changes in the structure of the brain.

In fact, Richard Davidson has studied brain scans of people who practise meditation and believes that this is an effective way of changing our emotional habits. This echoes the knowledge of eastern meditation traditions: our emotions, our thoughts, our minds and our brains can be trained in exactly the same way as we train our bodies. Davidson and Begley’s work confirms what the meditation tradition has been saying for thousands of years, and Lifeflow meditation has been teaching for over thirty: we can retrain our brains and become more resilient, let go of our unhealthy emotional habits, and live happier lives.

Looking after your emotions

All of this tells us our emotions don’t have to be left to chance. By practising meditation we can look after our emotional life in the same way that we look after our bodies. We take for granted that we need to eat good food, drink fresh water, clean our teeth and so on, and we know exactly what would happen if we didn’t do all of these things every day. And yet it doesn’t even occur to us that we can do the same for our emotions.

Just as our bodies can become diseased, so too can our minds and emotions. Giving some time to them and nourishing them through meditation helps to keep them in the best possible health, and acts as a preventative to the diseases which can arise through neglect. You can literally take your emotional and mental health into your own hands.

What are healthy emotions?

Davidson’s research also raises some interesting questions about how we tend to think about emotions – seeing some as far more desirable or “healthy” than others.  Davidson discovered that there is no fixed point where you can say an emotional response to a situation is healthy or unhealthy. Instead he suggests that the health of an emotional response is best understood in relation to each individual’s specific situation, and so will vary according to context.

This runs totally counter to what most of us believe about our emotions. We firmly believe that some emotions (like happiness for example) are “good”, and others (such as anger or sadness) are “bad”. What Davidson is saying, and the meditation tradition has also always understood, is that the health of an emotion totally depends on the situation.

To begin to understand how our emotions work, the best place to start is to look at the things we take for granted physically. We forget, for example, how difficult it was as a small child to learn how to stand up and keep our balance. Without being able to do this, we simply couldn’t walk. Once we have learned this skill of physical balance, each time we move we re-establish it so quickly and automatically that we don’t even know we do it.  Interestingly though, elite athletes will consciously train and refine this skill – before teeing off, running a race, or kicking a goal.

Keeping your balance

Emotionally it’s exactly the same. Without learning how to balance ourselves emotionally we can’t keep ourselves in emotional good health or “move” well emotionally. By this I mean respond effectively to all the different situations we face in of our lives.

Just like the athlete, the first thing you need to learn is how to recognise when you’re emotionally and mentally balanced, and to learn how to get there quickly whenever you choose. You can then establish your balance so quickly that it becomes an automatic habit. And this ensures that your responses to all the different situations you find yourself in will be effective and appropriate.

It’s not whether you feel emotionally “up” or “down” which is important. Any part of the full range of emotions – from sheer, exuberant, energetic joy, to deep sadness – can be appropriate. What is important is being able to move from a balanced state. Then you can afford to be completely open and gentle; set boundaries and limits firmly by showing the appropriate amount of anger; protect yourself from a diseased emotional environment by withdrawing quietly; or be enthusiastic and passionate.

Physically we all move differently.  Some of us keep within very careful limits, and others train themselves by stretching their body to its complete limit and beyond.  To be able to access the entire range of our rich emotional life with confidence and clarity is a sheer joy and to do so, through training, enables us to live far more creatively.  The wonderfully versatile skill of meditation provides you with the tools to keep your balance and so be able to live a much richer and more fulfilling life, responding effectively to any and every situation which life can present.

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Graham Williams