Cowboys, Coconuts and Kangaroos: On Being Unprepared for Adult Emotional Life

retro-students-teacher-thumbOften, the struggle that brings someone to therapy is finding themselves overwhelmed by their inner experience- waves of emotion, sensations in the body, or churning thoughts. I sometimes reflect on how challenging it is to live in a human body that reacts and resonates so powerfully as we move through the world. We often can’t make sense of what we feel. We can’t control what we think. Our rational self throws up its hands in bewilderment at the inner turmoil.

For many of us, the inner world is opaque, mercurial and intimidating. We often find ourselves unprepared for meeting its challenges.

Why is this?

I wonder if one part of this phenomenon is how our culture tends to educate children. Consider what we generally teach in Kindergarten, for example. Along with instruction about basic rules of behavior among their peers, children learn almost exclusively about the external world. They learn to identify things: Cats and caterpillars, cowboys, coconuts and kangaroos. That’s good, but what’s missing is the realm inside the child: Emotions, thoughts, memories, sensations and urges.

It’s not easy to teach about the inner realm. For one thing, it’s invisible. Second, it isn’t exactly made of things. The inner world is a place of process, and as a rule our culture is more comfortable with things. Things are rational. Process is often an unpredictable flow, and something that’s moving and changing is hard to put in a conceptual box.

Perhaps we also don’t teach kids more about the inner realm because we underestimate its value. In a materialistic culture, we are oriented toward things. But there’s a problem in this orientation. It’s easy to overlook the fact that wherever we go, whatever we do, and no matter what thing we interact with, our actual experience is inside ourselves. We touch, taste, hear, smell and feel- whether we’re at the Grand Canyon or the grocery store. We have an internal experience of these places and things through the senses, and then we have thoughts and feelings about it. When you stand at the edge of the Canyon, you will see and smell and hear it. But you are actually separated from the thing and have your experience of it in your nervous system.

The nervous system is the interpreter of the external world that we can’t actually reach. This is why two people can go to a movie or museum and have very different experiences and opinions about it. One says it’s great, the other thinks it’s awful. Who’s right? Neither, and both. They are experiencing their sensory resonance with the art, and this will be different to one degree or another. And they may argue about it- forgetting that they each are actually experiencing not the art exactly- but their reactions to it.

The importance of this is in understanding how our inner world dominates our lives, and how we confuse it with the outer world. Someone says something that upsets us- and we think they ’caused’ us to be upset. The cause of the upset, in reality, is inside ourselves, in our nervous system’s reaction to their words. We are not well-prepared to interpret or respond to this inner experience. We often respond in ways that actually increase our unhappiness. We tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel what we feel. We end up at war with our own inner reality.

The same is true of the firehose of thoughts our minds produce- roughly 50 to 70,000 per day. Like we do with our sense impressions, we mistakenly take our thoughts about the world to be the real thing. Many of us don’t realize, or easily forget, that many of our thoughts are distorted or flatly untrue. Believing these mind-created narratives, we innocently suffer.

But imagine a Kindergarten where children are taught what emotions, sensations and thoughts are, and how to think about them- and how to prepare for the unpleasant ones. Imagine how we might be benefited if we gave ourselves a basic orientation to the nervous system. We could teach children that emotions can be unpleasant and painful but that they are not in any way dangerous or harmful. Or that many thoughts are unhelpful, distorted and untrue; or that unexplained sensations will happen, and that many don’t necessarily mean anything important or useful. How many adults would be just a little better prepared to soothe themselves when they experience feelings of panic caused by stress if they had some basic coaching of this nature? It’s well known in hospital ERs that people routinely turn up worrying that they are having a heart attack when in fact they are experiencing strong anxiety. It’s not their fault- they just haven’t been educated about how their system works and how to make sense of it.

Certain meditation and yoga-based practices address this very problem. These traditions teach how to observe and discern the moving parts, and separate our sensory experience from unhelpful thoughts about it. Students learn how to use breath and muscle tension release to guide the nervous system in the direction of stability. They get a basic working plan of the human mind and senses, in a very direct, applicable way.

For many of us, attending a yoga or meditation-based therapy session is like a chance to re-do Kindergarten, just without the nap, milk and cookies.

It’s helpful to use what the Buddhists call Beginner’s Mind in this process of re-education. Beginner’s Mind says that I can let myself be a beginner, open to the possibility that much of what I thought I knew might not be true. We can let ourselves learn without shame, without telling ourselves we should have already known about this. We can remember- they didn’t teach this in Kindergarten.