Round and Round – A Dance of Emotion and Memory

I come from a long line of ruminators, ponderers, brooders. (Or maybe I’m just this way, and I like to blame my family and ancestors.) In any case, I have a gift for excising an emotion from a memory, and then reliving and re-feeling that emotion over and again.

I’m not sure why I do this—I’m not even sure that I knew that I was doing this until recently—but there must be something in revisiting an emotion that helps me understand myself. That helps me remember. That helps me place myself in that scene, in that context, so that I won’t forget.

Part of this is no doubt my biological makeup, part of it is my writer self. Unfortunately, I often go well beyond simply revisiting an emotion.    

I’m reading Pema Chodron’s Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change as a means to tune up my mindfulness exercises. There is an excerpt here.

In this segment, Chodron cites Jill Bolte Taylor, who describes the physiological mechanism behind a given emotion as lasting a mere 90 seconds. If an emotion lasts longer than that minute and a half, it is not the emotion itself that is resonating within us, it is us giving that emotion energy that perpetuates it.

I had, well, an emotional response to that section of the book. Perhaps even a defensive reaction. Clearly there are some memory/emotion combinations that we revisit in order to re-stoke those emotional fires, to help us keep those memories alive. Easy one: the birth of each of my children. I don’t ever want to forget the emotions of those moments.

But, when I set aside my defensive posture and read Chodron’s statement as factual; that is, without assigning a value judgment on it, I can take the comment as more instructional. Perhaps the lesson is best phrased as a question:

Why am I giving this emotion my energy?

Sometimes we choose to keep emotions alive within us. Recognizing that this is an act of choice, of will, is both insightful and empowering, because that means there are some emotions I can choose to stop ruminating upon, emotions I can stop giving power to.

The thornier part of this lesson, though, lies in the emotions we can’t help but feel, the emotions that likely stem from the tragedies, the traumas, in our lives. No one who has ever been abused or violated or victimized is going to simply forget the emotions bundled in those memories. Nor should he or she.

Chodron is a savvy enough thinker and teacher to know not to simplify the importance or resonance of some of our emotions, and returning to the initial, factual message is helpful here, too. The brain exhibits an emotional reaction for a mere 90 seconds, beyond that, it is up to us what we do with the echoes of that emotion. Do we simply replay? Do we interpret? Do we act? Do we avoid?

Chodron’s overarching lesson is to sit with the discomfort, to not run away or stifle. If I don’t want to feel a specific emotion again, I’m adept at either pushing it aside or distracting myself. Often the pushing away or distracting compounds the emotion—gives it more strength—than if I had just taken the moment and allowed the emotion to well up and be.

Why am I giving this emotion my energy?

Asking this question of myself may well be enough to shake me out of my habit to ruminate, brood and ponder.