Double Take

'When you've seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there. And the time will come when you see we're all one, and life flows on within you and without you – George Harrison

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Talking About Our Emotions Guiding Us by Nigel Summerley and Rowena J Ronson

Talking About Our Emotions Guiding Us by Nigel Summerley and Rowena J Ronson
Image: Clarity by Rowena J Ronson

RJR: Have you ever thought why we actually have emotions, and how they actually might serve us? I am interested in exploring our primary emotions in this Double Take with you Nigel, and I also welcome our readers to contribute. What do you think our feelings of anxiety might be trying to tell us?

NS: We have given labels to all sorts of emotions, as if they were colours of the rainbow or different species of birds, but in reality perhaps there is only emotion and emotional responses. Anxiety or neurosis, or whatever we call it, does not come out of nowhere and take control of us. It is actually us. This is what we are. So what that feeling is telling us is this is what you are. But then we are capable of having – and being – what we call ‘mixed emotions’. So what meaning does that have for us?

RJR: I am wondering about the role of anxiety telling us there is something wrong in our lives that we need to put our attention to. What do you think about that?

NS: Yes, that must be right. The anxiety is a sign of our dis-ease and we need to attend to that. Sometimes our anxious state can be triggered by external events, for example, just out of the blue, suppose an idiot or a bigot became the head of state of a major power in the world – it would be quite understandable for us to be in an anxious state. We can attend to our internal imbalances, hopefully, but what do we do about being anxious for an arguably good reason?

RJR: What a great question. Well I think there is much we can do internally to keep our equilibrium when something external creates dis-ease in our emotions. I think the answer lies in how we choose to think about a situation. Do we allow ourselves to be influenced by the media, for example? Do we have the opinions of certain people whom we trust? Do we have our own self-reflection process to rely on to get us back into our own state of balance? Do we know how it feels to be balanced? For me Donald Trump, at this time, represents for people the issue of change. None of us are mind readers, but most of us resist change. And for those that resist, change brings about anxiety….

NS: Obviously, I don’t want to talk too much about Donald Trump, and I think that your answer spells out how to look at our anxious state when it is created by outside factors. But aren’t there times when it is completely the right thing to be in an anxious state? Or a state of fear? Suppose you are being attacked or having to confront a bully?

RJR: Absolutely! The oldest part of our brain – our reptilian brain – will hopefully save us from danger by triggering numerous chemical reactions in our bodies to enable us to either protect ourselves or move us swiftly out of danger, by way of our fight or flight response. But what happens if the danger is more chronic? Suppose we are doing something in our lives that is not sustainable? Perhaps we are in a relationship that we know is not good for us or we are living beyond our means? Perhaps we are not taking care of our health or forever procrastinating on something that we know we need to address? Do you think our system sending out anxiety is a good way to help us to focus in?

NS: Yes. In those ‘acute’ situations, fear or anxiety spur us to action – it’s all instantaneous. The ‘chronic’ situation you mention is different, of course. But I would argue that our system isn’t ‘sending out’ anxiety – we are that anxiety – it’s how we are and how we live – and we do everything in a constant state of anxiety. If that becomes our normal way of being, how can we get out of it?

RJR: Mindfulness teaches us that we are separate from our thoughts and our feelings to a certain extent, and by perceiving ourselves that way, we can calm ourselves out of anxiety. I am not sure that we all do live in a constant state of anxiety. So in answer to your question – mindfulness.

NS; How can the thinker be separate from the thought? Isn’t it only when there is awareness (or mindfulness, if you like) that there is no separation, that there may be clarity? I didn’t intend to suggest that we are all living in a state of constant anxiety – I was just referring to when we are in that state. The question remains: are our emotions useful or do they make life more difficult?

RJR: Mindfulness is a practice. If you see that you have control over your thoughts, then the result is that you have control over your thoughts. Your thoughts define how you feel, so you can influence both. The separation can lead to clarity, especially when we are overwhelmed by circling thoughts, and intense feelings. Our emotions guide us, I believe. They all serve a purpose somehow.

NS: If ‘you’ and ‘your thoughts’ are inseparable, I can’t see how the former can control the latter. We probably have to disagree here. But we may not act on thoughts, for example, we might feel like killing someone, but it’s unlikely that we will actually do it. Emotions are a guide, and maybe we need to embrace them. Maybe they are proof that we are alive. Could we live without emotions?

RJR: In my reflective process today, I have chosen to have different thoughts than I did yesterday, yet I am still me. I am so much more than my thoughts. I agree it is a great idea to embrace our feelings. That is why we experience them. If we are feeling sad, the best way through that sadness, however painful, is to experience it. What is life like for those who suppress anger? A life without feelings is a regular complaint of people on antidepressants. They come to my practice in order to find an alternative, and most say that they cannot feel their emotions, and they are suffering as a result.

NS: Sorry to be argumentative, but isn’t choosing to have different thoughts… a thought? I think we agree about embracing emotions such as sadness – rather than go into denial about them or to spend our time wishing things were different to how they are. Emotions may be the best guide to what is going on with us, yes?

RJR: I would say it is more of a process than a thought. Emotions are our guide to finding out truth in any given situation. What do our readers think?

NS: Emotions are definitely a guide we should pay attention to in this complex area of thought, choice, decision and understanding. And sometimes perhaps doing nothing but paying attention – or even doing nothing – may lead to fresh insight. I think we definitely need some input from our readers on this.


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Talking About Our Brains by Rowena J Ronson and Nigel Summerley, Photograph by Rowena J Ronson

Talking About Our Brains

by Rowena J Ronson and Nigel Summerley

Open Book by Rowena J Ronson

Photograph, Open Book by Rowena J Ronson

RJR: What does it mean to be strong emotionally? What does that actually feel like? I have been wondering about this more and more recently and I am exploring the idea that it comes about as a result of how we choose to actively wire our brain. On a spiritual level, if we consider that all our experiences are a gift in learning, then if we process them through that lens, our brain can hardwire those thoughts into our foundations. So when the going gets tough, as it often does in life, if our brain has stable, strong wiring, we can feel that in place to support us, like a chemical safety net. We actually are what we create in our brains from our choices of how we view our lives. And so I choose to learn and to take care of my brain so it takes care of me. And as a result I do feel the benefits of those strong foundations. I wonder what you think about all of this Nigel.

NS: If I cut a slice out of my finger, the body will repair even quite a deep wound. I don’t have to do anything for this to happen, except to let it happen, it seems. If the brain is also simply part of our physical body, is it not likely that its inherent tendency is to be strong in adversity and heal itself of any mental wounds? I wonder if it is not a case of us actively choosing to wire our brains in a certain way – is such a thing possible? – but rather, NOT choosing to interfere with the brain’s instinctive intelligence. The problem, of course, is that we use the brain to think – and our negative, confused and neurotic thoughts must make it very difficult for the brain to operate in the same way as a ‘simpler’ part of the body healing and regenerating itself.

RJR: You actually do plenty for the healing of your finger to occur and a great deal of that healing is directed by the brain and the nervous system. I think what you are saying is that it is an unconscious process. The brain is not simply part of the physical body at all. Just as much as the physical body is not purely physical. But I digress. I don’t think we have an inherent tendency to be strong. We are how we are as a result of every single interaction we have while being nurtured by our parents throughout our young years. And of course what occurs in utero, in our genes and our karma play their part too. We are programmed to remember experiences when we are more fearful as a protection mechanism, so children who experience a great deal of trauma, for example, will create brains that a wired differently than those who feel safe and calm. So we can actually possess a traumatised brain from very young, and may not even know it. As for healing from mental wounds, our brain is being bombarded by neurotoxins all of the time. But we might have more control than we think….

NS: Phew… there’s a lot there… Yes that healing of the finger is definitely an unconscious process – “I” just let it happen. This automatic operation of the brain and the body is nothing short of miraculous. But how can you say that the brain is not simply part of the physical body – surely it is, isn’t it? But is the mind something different? And what do you mean by saying the physical body is not purely physical? If you could expand on this? Before I respond on the other things you have just said…

RJR: The brain is not simply part of the body, for many reasons including that the fact that it is evolving all of the time. It is very unique in that way. And we can influence its health uniquely too. Of course there are ways we can look after each of our bodily organs, and by doing so we can certainly change them. But how we look after and influence our brain is completely different. If we think different thoughts, our receptors alter and new pathways are created for use at other times. If we study, our brain responds by learning. Parts of our brain change in size depending on how we use them. And our physical body is also our energetic body but you know all of this Nigel, being a homeopath…..

NS: Well, a former homeopath! I take all those points about why the brain is different. But I would still wonder if the conditioning of the brain from outside sources – and also from within, ie through our use of it for thought – gets in the way of the brain’s natural inclinations and tendencies? I don’t know the answer to this. But there seems something logical in the question. We may think we have some control over the brain – but are we actually messing around with it? You also threw in ‘karma’ as if it were just as plainly evident as genetics and what happens in the womb…. Is there any evidence for inherited ‘karma’ being any different to genetic inheritance? And the question of physical body and energetic body… I don’t know for sure about this. All that seems to be clear is that everything physical is energy or the product of energy. Why differentiate between physical body and energetic body? I don’t want to get away from the discussion about the brain. Are you saying that if we can ‘toughen up’ the brain, then we can be emotionally stronger?

RJR: Once a homeopath, always a homeopath Nigel 🙂  From what I understand, the brain does not have natural inclinations and tendencies. Look to the field of epigenetics and you will see that our DNA is malleable and therefore affected by our environment, which is actually a really good thing and integral to our evolution. So if we take care of ourselves as much as we can in this lifetime, this can and will affect our DNA and consequently how we think and feel and how healthy we are. If we programme our brains to think in a more positive way, we create those connections through our receptors on our nerve cells, which in turn influence our brain chemistry, which makes us feel good. The more we programme our brain to positive thoughts, the easier it becomes because our brain remembers and makes those connections unconsciously. There is a great deal written on this subject now.

NS: From what I understand, the brain DOES have natural inclinations and tendencies. Take a look at sex and violence for starters. Of course, the brain is affected by its environment – which can be for good or ill. The problem that we come back to is: who is this ‘we’ that is taking care of the brain and who is this ‘we’ that is ‘programming’ the brain? Is the ‘we’ separate from the brain? There is a great deal written on this subject, perhaps, but that is also written by the ‘we’, isn’t it? Is it possible to disentangle the ‘we’ and the brain? Talk of programming the brain makes me feel slightly queazy and uneasy. Could it not be that the less we think – and the less we think that we can programme the brain – that the more likely the brain is to operate in its natural state and to find some natural equilibrium – and ultimately to evolve from its primitive state (eg the sex and violence stuff that I mentioned earlier). The brain has not evolved in any way for millennia – and I wonder if it may never do, if humans insist on thinking – and thinking that they can control the brain.

RJR: Not only has our brain continued to develop through the millennia, it develops throughout our lifetime. I am wondering what has made you think that it has stopped developing? And reproduction and survival are not the same as sex and violence Nigel, as you well know. Thinking in terms of ‘we’ and ‘I’ could be considered to be empowering. It is not like we are saying ‘they’. Surely it is a good thing to think that we can influence the health of our brain and therefore our mental and emotional wellbeing? Would you rather feel someone else has the answers, ‘they’ for example, have the answers for you?

NS: I think it has not developed for 5,000 years and maybe longer. (We have kicked this beer can around the yard before.) The evidence? How about the Islamic State beheading videos? How about Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria? How about the everyday gang rapes in India? How about the school massacre in Pakistan? How about the arms trade? Humans have made huge technological advances in the past few millennia, but we are as self-centred, short-sighted and appallingly violent as we always were. We have influenced our brains, but through our misuse of them. I feel that if we could ‘step aside’, maybe our brains would function more healthily. I know you mean something positive about ‘we’ and about ’empowering ourselves’ – but I’m not convinced about the pursuit of ‘power’, even over ourselves. Back to the original question of what it means to be strong emotionally… can we only be strong emotionally if we truly embrace the hopelessness of the state of humanity. Like someone facing death with acceptance and courage, can we face life knowing that the odds are almost completely against humans ever really changing?

RJR: Our collective knowledge is increasing and our brains are indeed changing and developing. This does not mean that our brains do not contain the original reptilian part that is responsible for survival and our impulse to fight or take flight. And yes of course we can be self-centered, short-sighted and violent, but that does not mean our brains have not evolved. Can we only be strong emotionally if we truly embrace the hopelessness of the state of humanity? No. I don’t think so. I feel that humans are changing but that we will always have a shadow. We will always be capable of 360 degrees’ worth of emotions and behaviours. But can we influence how we feel and personally evolve? I believe we can. And I would be interested to hear our readers opinions on this subject…..