Suffering Comes From Reaction
I finished up an interesting book yesterday called Buddha’s Brain – the practical neuroscience of happiness love and wisdom written by Dr. Rick Hansen – a neuropsychologist and meditation teacher and Dr. Richard Mendius – a neurologist.
The book explores the physical impacts that activities like mindfulness and meditation have on the brain. It also looks at the impacts of suffering, a topic that I’ve certainly not been a stranger to.
As long as we live and love, inescapable physical and/or mental discomforts will come our way and cause suffering. But more importantly, our reaction to the pain point triggers further suffering. In fact, most suffering comes from how we react to things.
Suffering is literally embodied in our cells. It cascades through via your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) of your endocrine (hormonal) system.
When you react to things and cascade suffering in your body, then an alarm goes off in your brain. Your SNS/HPAA sends signals to your major organs and muscle groups – readying them for fight or flight.
When this stimulation is constant then these systems cut off resources away from your body’s abilities to build a strong immune system, or preserve a positive good, in favor of a short term crisis (with lasting results).
Negative Reactions & Your Brain
Psychological pain draws many of the same neural networks as physical pain. This is why mental suffering can feel as bad as physical pain. Sometimes the two react into each other.
Consistent negative reactions to pain points leads to anxiety. This is seen readily in the brain as SNS/HPAA activity makes the amygdala in the brain more reactive to apparent threats, which increases SNS/HPAA activity and sensitizes the amygdala further.
Why should we care about the amygdala? It helps form implicit memories (traces of past experiences that exist beneath conscious awareness). As the amygdala becomes more sensitive this awareness becomes tainted with fear, which only adds to feelings of anxiety.
Frequent SNS/HPAA activation also wears down the hippocampus in your brain, which is vital for forming explicit memories (clear records of what actually happened).
It is bad combination for your amygdala to be oversensitive while your hippocampus is compromised. This results in painful experiences being recorded in implicit memory.
This can lead to feeling like: something happened, I’m not sure what, but I’m really upset.
Consistent SNS/HPAA activation can also lead to depressed moods, as over time, dopamine levels are reduced – leading to a loss of enjoyment of activities once found pleasurable.
Additionally, stress reduces serotonin, which is the most important neurotransmitter for maintaining a good mood. When we have less serotonin then we are more vulnerable to dark moods with lacking interest in too much of anything.
Changing Our Reactions
Long story short, suffering has clear effects in your brain and body. If you can learn to change the cause of your suffering, then you will suffer a lot less.
Pain is inevitable – but suffering is optional.
This becomes reality when we simply stay present with whatever arises with awareness. The pain point could be a true source of suffering and it may be instinctual to react in a certain way.
By observing your reaction and working towards stopping further reactions, then you can break the chain of suffering.
As outlined in the book the three processes to this practice include:
- Being with whatever arises
- Working with the tendencies of the mind to transform them
- Take refuge in the ground of being
This process can be assisted with deep breathing and an awareness of your breath, which kicks in your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), whose job is to relax your body and counteract the negative reactions from your SNS.
According to the writers of Buddha’s Brain, even anticipation of a challenging event can have as much impact on your body as living it for real. This is due to changes that happen in your brain. All the more reason why staying in the present alleviates stressful reactions.
On the Positive Side?
By training and shaping your brain to react differently we can eventually change what arises and increase what’s positive and decrease what’s negative.
I see it as a clear mental observance of what is happening with awareness in choosing how I am going to let the stimulus react further in my body. Is it really worth stressing over?
I’ve learned to let a lot of things go. And I don’t get as worked up about things as I used to as I realize that it is not worth it to put my body under stress for circumstances many times out of my control.
This state encourages a sense of peace and clarity for my true nature. It definitely takes some practice 🙂
I’d love to hear if you’ve made conscious effort to change your reaction to pain points. What works for you?