As I was driving down 23rd avenue on a Tuesday morning, yelling at the car in front of me for driving just under the speed limit, I realized that I’m not just a person who struggles with anger, I usually have an angst-charged thought traipsing around somewhere in my brain.
I finally admitted to my almost fifty year old self that there are few moments during the day when I’m at peace. I think about someone who’s wronged me. I think about how to gain the upper hand in a confrontation, sometimes rehearsing what I’ll say in the moment of truth. I think about how things aren’t going my way or the mountain of tasks that life before me, the outcomes of which, most of the time, lie outside of my control. It’s no wonder that the only thing that sounds good at the end of the day is a drink and a couple hours of TV.
I spend the majority of my day pounding my brain with thoughts, ideas, fantasies, make-believe scenarios, and stress. Lots of stress.
And so my mind has been living in a war zone for years. It knows that when I wake up in the morning the sirens will wail and the bullets will fly – bad attitudes, screaming kids, coffee, to do list, etc.
So it’s wired itself for survival. The more crap I throw at it, the more it adjusts itself. The more non-peaceful things I feed my brain, the more non-peaceful my brain thinks it’s world is, the more non-peaceful it becomes.
I know others who choose not to live this way. Their minds have an entirely different experience, and have wired themselves accordingly. Their minds are at peace. They might run into the occasional hardship, but “hard” is not how they see their world. Their minds don’t start the day at DEFCON 1 like mine does.
The Science of a Stressed Out Brain
If you could dumb down our understanding of the brain a bit, you might divide it into two sections. One section, the “fight or flight” (FoF) part of the brain, and the other, the “rational” part. If a brain finds itself under constant duress, with FoF constantly firing, that part of the brain becomes the strongest and will begin calling the shots, seeing every. single. thing. as a threat.
If, on the other hand, the brain experiences significant moments of peace, FoF gets a chance to rest while the rational part is allowed to take over, which is what it’s supposed to be doing anyway. It’s impossible to be at peace when FoF is locked and loaded, and the rational part, asleep.
People who have experienced some form of consistent abuse, folks with PTSD, and/or those who live in constant fear of the future, what others think of them, etc., tend to view their world as an inherently unsafe place – that’s the world that their brains have wired themselves for. These people will have an extremely difficult time soaking in the life, beauty, and relationships that surround them. They’ll have a hard time getting along with others. They can’t sleep. The part of their mind that’s built for a good life has been told to stand down while the part that’s built for war has hunkered the entire being deep in the trenches – completely on the defensive.
We can tell these people to “get over it,” or “think differently,” or “go to church,” but as long as their minds are on red alert, nothing will change. What they’re in dire need of is peace. Tons of it.
I’m surprised how easy it’s been to stop bombarding my brain with war, to be the gatekeeper for the kinds of thoughts I let through the “door.” The peaceful/good/hopeful/pretty things of my life are just as much of a reality as the hard stuff, so why not spend more time ruminating on the things that will ultimately cause my brain to think it’s living in a different place – not a war zone, but a place of peace?
When I meet someone who can’t relax, who’s usually angry, who has a hard time getting along with others, or who doesn’t seem to care about anything, I’m no longer asking questions about their character, or going through my usual list of things I think they should be doing to become the person I think they should be. Instead, I find myself moving towards compassion, asking what’s going on in their mind – what’s so taken over their reason and rationality that they can’t live the kind of life I know they’d rather be living?
Peace is our job, not only in our lives, but in the lives of others. Ironically, the more I invite peaceful thoughts into my own life, the easier it is to bring peace into the lives of others, and vice versa.