Growing up, my parents told me a lot of stories from ancient Indian epics. There was one piece that always stuck in my mind. It was a repeated phrase which roughly translates, “In a moment of fury (or any other emotion), he/she lost all knowledge.” As a child I always wondered what this meant – I don’t know why I never asked! As I began exploring the mind-body connection, observed myself, and my students, I realized that the phrase captured a brilliant idea. Fury is an intense emotion. And when the character was full of this intense emotion, he or she was unable to access rational thought. Everything he or she knew was true seemed to disappear into thin air. In the midst of fury or any other emotion the strong and highly intelligent character would act in regrettable or inexplicable ways.
Have you ever experienced this loss of of balance in moments of nervousness, anger, or excitement? In my classrooms and in classrooms and schools around the world, students (and educators) experience the consequences of intense emotions. Consider the following:
- A student is so nervous during a test that she blanks out and forgets everything. The well-learned material only comes back to her later. But it was always there. There was just a temporary block of access.
- A student is trying to follow a math problem at the board and begins to think, “everyone around understands a problem except for me.” Feeling embarrassed and frustrated, he is no longer able to focus and follow the teacher.
- Under time pressure (see Harnessing the Breath), a student feels overwhelmed and all the material the student studied leading up to an exam seems to mysteriously disappear.
- During a speech, which ad been practiced many many times, the speaker looks at the big crowd and gets so anxious that she forgets the next line.
This list could go on…
To prevent ourselves from being pulled into the waves of emotions when we need to retrieve information, focus on a task, or control our reactions, we must also practice watching our emotions and thoughts as if we are outside of our body and mind. In Indian philosophy, this is called sakshi-bhava and, in Buddhist philosophy, it is called vipassana (mindfulness meditation). We are impartial observers of our minds – we watch our own thoughts, emotions, and sensations. In practicing how to be a witness of our own internal world, we begin to also learn how to handle emotions that throw us off in times of need. Join me in watching the rising and falling “Waves of the Mind” in the video below (background “Piano Meditation” music by Chris Collins). Find a comfortable seated position – it is important to be comfortable and sitting upright during this exercise, as it allows for greater focus.