We live in an age of unparalleled scientific advancement. We've discovered the particles that make up the universe. We've mapped the human genome. We live longer and healthier lives thanks to improvements in surgical procedures and pharmaceuticals. Yet, for all of our scientific knowledge, there is one area where we have made little progress: the ability of human beings to manage their emotions.
Yes, we understand the brain a bit more, but we don't really understand the mind. Consciousness eludes scientific analysis. Psychologists and psychiatrists certainly know something about this area--I don't mean to suggest they don't. But for all of our psychological theories, we are not a happier and more emotionally stable society. The numbers of people who take mind-altering pharmaceuticals is a testament to how little we know about managing our minds. Even if you're not dealing with an acute psychological disorder, how many daily ups and downs associated with the most basic of human interactions do you endure? Most people are on emotional rollercoasters, feeling happy one minute, sad the next, angry the next, and so on and so forth.
As people go throughout their day, they are busy trying to "manage" their emotions, which are in a constant state of ebb and flow. Sometimes people cope with distraction, like watching t.v. or surfing the internet. Others manage emotions with acceptable substances like food and alcohol. One of the most popular ways of "managing" emotions is for people to "talk" about their problems. Have you ever noticed how much people talk about other people? 99% of human conversation is someone telling someone else what so-and-so said to him or her, and how it made that person feel. If these mundane methods are not enough, drugs (prescribed or otherwise) become the means to cope with our emotions.
The fundamental problem is that the vast majority of people are basically very young children who learned behaviors and how to navigate the world when they were 3 or 5 or maybe 10 years old. While our bodies and mental faculties have matured, our emotional maturity remains stuck; we relate to our thoughts and emotions much as we did as children. All of us inherited certain beliefs and behaviors from parents who were also the emotional equivalents of 5 year olds. This is why children come to resemble their parents. Nothing in our educational system or society does anything to promote a keener knowledge of the mind and how to navigate our thoughts and feelings.
So, the next time you begin to feel emotionally bent out of shape, acknowledge that you're really just a child, reacting to something or someone from your distant past, and breathe deeply, and count your breaths, 1-on the in-breath, 2 on the out-breath, and let the emotions subside. Similarly, when someone you're dealing with acts poorly, remember that they are basically just a 5 year old as well, and approach them with compassion, not judgment.
How do we change this on a social level? A more fulsome answer goes beyond the length of a blog post, so I'll just begin by saying that our society needs a much deeper appreciation for what it means to be human and how emotions play a part of our lives. Our social structures need to provide tools to help people mature beyond the defense mechanisms and patterns of behavior learned as a child. One idea is that meditation instruction ought be a part of school curriculum from a very early age, just like P.E. and math, to teach kids how to handle emotions and speak from a place of peace, not reactivity. But truthfully, it is never too late to start managing emotions and learning to rid yourself of limiting beliefs.