Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Mood or You?

The proposition I’d like to develop is that the body’s condition can cause mental states—and vice versa. If we are foiled in some endeavor or we get bad news, our body will obediently mirror our state of depression or anxiety—although it’s in perfectly good shape. But similarly a physically low period, low for whatever reasons, will also affect our attitudes—and what we viewed yesterday with perfect equanimity will today strike us as troubling or ominous. Unless we watch ourselves, bodies and minds can act as amplifiers.

So what comes first? The mood or you?

The body has its cycles. Biorhythms are not considered to be scientifically established, but they are matters of experience. Some people are very sensitive and feel these waves of up and down quite sharply. Some are so insensitive they’re able to sail along in a more or less permanent state of equilibrium. Such people tend also to be insensitive to their own inner states—which actually helps in mood control. If you tend to be moody, you’ll know that perfectly well. It is moody people who benefit from pondering this subject at all. Only they consider the perpetually cheery as sometimes a royal pain in the ass. They sometimes want to dive into the depth and be bloody well left alone.

My own belief, based on self-observation, is that moods are caused by the body—and this in two ways. First, bodies have their lows and highs, and these recur at regular intervals. When they are low they affect the mind—but they affect it only if the mind is closely identified with the body—and the person, the real us, doesn’t do anything about it. The mind thus amplifies the body’s state. Second, bodies are obedient servants. If we are distraught and frustrated, they will obediently produce the necessary chemical states to mirror at the physical level what we feel mentally. Now, of course, being physically listless and moping does not help us solve our problems. Those bodily routines tend to minimize activity, not least clear thought. There the body, mirroring the mind, isn’t actually helping—but then it doesn’t have a mind of its own.

The conclusion here is that—despite whatever we might think about it—we are masters of our mood provided that we make the effort. But that effort requires, as the very first step, a realization of this truth. Once it’s there, the resulting change in our mental states is often quite rapid. The realization is an act of detachment. Another way to put this is to say that we can stop identifying with the feeling of depression or anxiety—figuratively step aside from ourselves, look at ourselves as “the other.” The body will also—and immediately—begin to mirror this new state of the mind. It will stop pumping chemicals. I sometimes feel an immediate lift in my energies.

Now, of course, there is a paradox here. The mood clouds our thought so that the realization does not arise. For this reason, preparation—call it “setting traps”—must take place when we are feeling normal. We must cultivate the habit of detachment—and engage in a kind of “remembering” of ourselves at frequent intervals. Taking just a moment, half of a minute, just to look around and become aware, can become a habit of mind. And we must also in anticipation of the onset of moods decide to come awake when we feel ourselves slipping into darker states.

With practice, then, later on, the mere thought will often work immediately. In the early stages of this kind of exercise, ritual acts are often very helpful. They serve to get the mule’s attention. It’s best to do something dramatically different, to break our routine. In my case cleaning the bathroom or getting out the vacuum will usually serve. Some people put on running shoes. Taking out a fresh sheet and beginning a diary entry—a very good method that. Those who keep diaries are working on themselves. The point is to stop the flow of gloom, to divert the self, to refocus its attention.

The mood is a product of nature, you might say. We must include the social under this heading too—the strictly human—not least the mood in the office, the workplace, the mood on the news, the weather, or our own physical state, not least fatigue. You—namely the person, the agent, the soul—you are sovereign and above it all. You are indestructible. If you refuse the grace of your attention to something, it is amazing how rapidly that thing or phenomenon will shrink into the nothingness it actually is compared to the sovereign you.

* * *

Here by way of additional notes, a few more points. Brigitte (the better half) points out that biofeedback is a relevant example. We can do amazing things when we are wired up, not least influence a single neuron’s action in our brain. Brigitte points out that the feedback mechanism enables our sovereign self to act on the body because it has a precise target for its powerful tool—the attention.

In all of the above, of course, I refer to moods arising in a normal, healthy body. Such bodies will do our will—and continue to do so while undamaged. But there is such a thing as clinical depression; in that case medical assistance is also required. Pain is another difficult area. We cannot stop the body doing its job—of which the signaling of pain is a perfectly normal task. What we can do by such practices is to minimize pain and to stop it possessing us against our will.

Finally, the self’s superiority to the body is exemplified, occasionally, by wondrous stories such as of a woman lifting a car just long enough to free a child—that sort of thing is viewed as miraculous until we realize that such an act mobilizes energies in that body it didn’t think it had—or that the fierce will found forces that, while they invisibly surround us, might be in certain circumstances channeled into the organism to help it do impossible things.

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