In his book, Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hansen says what we give our attention to literally changes our brains. It’s called neuroplasticity. I like the metaphor he uses: our “attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.”
This week, like many people, I’ve been giving my attention to fear because of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the barrage of news and social media posts about “smaller” recent attacks in Beirut and elsewhere. If that weren’t enough to kick my occasional vertigo into high gear, there is that particular American terror of a deranged gunman who can walk into a school or movie theater on any given day. And so I search for the reasons why, and how “we” can prevent these acts and protect ourselves and those we love.
On one level, it makes perfect sense. According to Hansen, in order to survive, our ancestors evolved to constantly scan their surroundings for threats. But are we really so unsafe? I won’t quote the statistics here about the likelihood of a gunman or a terrorist in your city or town or neighborhood. Statistics are floating all over the internet this week, and you can find what you need to prove any point. Instead, think about this: What if focusing our attention on danger is exactly what we don’t need?
Fear of terrorists and gunmen leads to fear of “the other,” i.e., anyone not like ourselves, our friends, our families. We start scrutinizing our neighbors. And fear makes our evolved brains scramble for all sorts of creative ways to protect us. Like keeping “the others” out of our country, city, neighborhood. Passing laws, writing angry letters, passing judgment on people because they resemble the latest evildoers.
The world has always been a dangerous place. The Middle Ages, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust… as Gilda Radner used to say as her comic character Emily Litella on Saturday Night Live, “It’s always something.” Sadly, this twenty-first century horror is our “something.”
Yet for most of us, the world is safe. We don’t like to think about that, because we’re afraid of “letting down our guard.” But for most of us, most of the time, we are essentially okay.
After a treatment for my vertigo, I was surprised at the change in my mental state. From sadness at the killing of innocents and the demonizing of strangers, not to mention the gloomy rainy day and my creaky aging body, I drove away feeling light, safe and cared about. I saw that something could be done to help my dizziness. And I took that in, because Hansen says it activates the left frontal region of the brain which lifts my mood and grows neural pathways of inner contentment.
Yes, we should care about the suffering of others and do what we can to help. So I’ve decided to devote one hour a day to news and social media posts about the state of the world. Surely I can learn what I need to know in one hour a day and support my causes. Surely the dead are not served by my fear.
I plan to savor the lightness of feeling cared for, the smiling faces of people I meet, and the good all around me if only I pay attention long enough to see it, take it in and make it part of me.
What about you? How are you coping today?