Friday, February 5, 2010

Taming Our Lizard Brains

It seems like most of what I have been doing the last several years has been devoted, in one way or another, to the lizard brain. And I have only come to realize this in the last month or two.

The lizard brain, or in more technical terms, the amygdala, is part of the brain that we share with lower species. It is fight or flight, about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. It is about eating the chocolate cake--not about consider the consequences. And most interestingly, it creates very strong emotional associations, often based on fear.

Behavioral economics, which has been a work "hobby" of mine for the last year and a half, is about how the decisions that are made by the lizard brain are very different from the decisions made by the rational brain. And it is also about how our emotions, primarily fear, trigger or lizard brain so that it takes control. The lizard brain is older and faster than our rational brain. And it often makes decisions for us, before we even realize it.

When we talk about doing something unconventional, or even just a little bit different, there is a fear of standing out. There are very strong social norms that prevent us from straying too far from the pack. Those norms protected the lizards, I suppose. But do they protect us now? Or do they kept us from doing something remarkable?

I have seen a lot written about working with this fear. Getting used to the fear. Working through the fear. But I believe there is a way to substantially lessen the fear, and I say this based on my own experience.

With meditation, I find that I have come to understand my lizard brain. To see when it awakens. To feel the pangs of fear. And I believe that in the process of repeatedly oberving my emotions, their intensity has become much less. Does the fear ever go away? Not in my experience (nor would I want it to--there are still some good reasons for fear!). But I now see it as a natural reaction, a process that comes and goes, and something that is different from whatever the "me" is, where the creative, extraordinary energy seems to reside.

To me, that is the missing piece. It is one thing to say "work through your discomfort." It is another thing entirely to see that your discomfort could be much less that it is now. I don't want anyone to think of this as a quick fix--it is neither. But it is a different way to be in the world, and a pretty powerful one.

Just for today, sit quietly for a few minutes and see what happens.


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