Since the beginning of time this question has been posed by several characters of history, philosophers, inventors, scientists, etc..and of course it is an individual question although sometimes people would like a general answer.
Every time we are exposed to an external stimulus we are triggered to feel something, we get an emotion, that emotion pretty much will dictate my action towards the stimulus. Inside this “simple” chain reaction there are ..millions of processes activated covering all of our neuronal network, the production of a protein triggered at the DNA level which in turn will help the activation of a cascade of chemicals being produced that will “turn on” more genes and will generate a cocktail of substances called neurotransmitters and hormones which will produce the feeling.
This is the overall super simplified process that every stimulus generates inside of us, biochemically speaking.
However there’s another realm of possibilities on the spiritual side which in ancient cultures was practiced not with the fancy words used today but it was a more common practice than we thought, and it is the reflection time. Is the time people used to spend really knowing the reactions that external stimulus or existencial questions woke up in them.
We all heard and learnt in high school about the greeks, the romans, the native cultures of every country where there where some outstanding human beings which were the highlight of every “era” and were followed, worshiped, awarded and marked as a landmark sometimes of the city, of the country, of the epoch.
What was so special about these well renowned characters? Is it probably that they really used to have an intention on going deeper with every stimulus they felt, with every question they posed, they kept their “childish nature” of being a seeker in the world? I would venture to say ..that reflecting on every major and possibly every tickling stimulus that you have is the answer to knowing your “True Self”more accurately. It is the path to follow when you want to go to that rabbit hole where many of your answers are kept, though it may seem dark, rocky, scary, and even threatening to go, but where you were supposed to go according to every “spiritual god” without biasing towards any of the multiple religions that we have but pointing out the messages given by all of them…There is a higher consciousness, a higher self, a higher light, a higher energy that we all have inside and we all possess within our inner core.
Nonetheless we resist to give ourselves the time, the importance, the meaning of going deeper, reflecting, questioning, redirecting our attention towards our own self-knowledge and the more we resist that, the more we are exposed to the primitive reactions of our brain and emotions justifying us and blaming everyone except ourselves.
“To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one's self and others.” (1)
— Dogen, 2002
If we dissect and analyze this quote we can clearly see that the path has been marked since we are born, however it has also been tainted by all the shades that we have been exposed to, our culture, our society, our parents, our relatives and friends in general for all the environment that has made a dent in that pure, virgin and original nature that we all possess.
That’s why the quote also states that we need to forget “a self”, we also need to reclaim our awe for all things, and remove the “barriers” which I believe are the programs installed in us due to the influence of all the above external environment cues that have been leading us to the self that we are today. As we have heard before we are not our past, if we don’t let our past define us. We must be willing to clean all the insights, all the beliefs, all the traditions that have been passed on to us with the best intention to guide us, but that today we no longer think are useful and have given us a true freedom to decide who we are and to acquire an identity that make us feel the highest values which we were created for ..love, compassion, freedom, altruism, brotherhood, peace, empathy, etc.
In the Buddhist context, suffering (Pali: dukkha) is related to a lack of awareness for the following fundamental characteristics of experience: 1. Habitual craving or attachment (to sensory/mental objects we like) and/or aversion (to sensory/mental objects we don't like); 2. All phenomena (including the concept of self) are impermanent (they arise and pass away). The characteristics are thought to be based on an inflated sense of self-importance or self-loathing (1).
If we get the idea of the above paragraph we can see that these kind of stream of thought will lead us to two consequences which reinforce a negative feedback loop which is the one that make us feel trapped into our own sketch of the story that happens to us.
Le t’s see it clearer ..If we get attracted/craving to something we want and —> We’re not able to obtain it in the exact moment —> We feel bad.
If we feel aversion/fear towards something —> We feel bad.
Both ends of equation will lead us to feeling miserable about something external that is either at reach but not in the moment we need it or out of reach.
This depicts the feeling that we have towards almost every single event, person or encounter we can have in our lives which is the root of suffering “due to something” which even when reading it or hearing it sounds ironical. In fact, here is the interesting part of all.
If we invest time into questioning why do we need/want or avert/fear the “thing/event/person” and we construct a not so complex line of thought that will help us seek the root of that “external need” then we’ll probably get to a point where we conclude that we really don’t need the “reward” or we don’t have a reason to be fearful of it.
We constantly experience a stream of external and internal emotionally meaningful signals and events. Awareness of, and the self-regulation in context with these experiences are fundamental for coping with the resulting emotional consequences and for managing associated behavioral impulses. Main theories concerning the neural underpinnings of emotion regulation promote a neural system comprising medial and ventrolateral prefrontal cortical activations that exert control over basal emotion processing and emotion generating areas such as within the amygdala (3).
This is well supported by neuroanatomical evidence and by functional neuroimaging. This system is also considered to form a basis for functional models of emotional disturbances in affective disorders such as depression and anxiety (3).
In the context of emotion regulation, the amygdala was found to be a major recipient of activation associated with intended cognitive control of emotions mediated by medial prefrontal cortex areas leading to attenuation of amygdala activity.
This is thought to result in reduced amygdala output towards midbrain and brainstem areas and accordingly in less physiological, for instance sympathetic activation. Taken together, the amygdala can be regarded as a central processor of emotional arousal and intensity and as the target for emotion regulation by cognitive control due to for instance mid- prefrontal activation. Thus, it is well supported to consider occurring amygdala modulation as a neurobiological indicator for emotion regulation. Given these considerations for the amygdala function, our finding implicates the ability to attenuate emotional arousal related brain activation through the mental process of directing attention and awareness to actual emotions and bodily feelings, notably without the conscious intention to regulate emotions (3).
Given the information of the neural elements that play an important role in controlling our emotions and transmitting them to activate an emotional response such as fight or flight (sympathetic activation) then we can infer that acquiring the ability to detach ourselves from the need to physiologically feel the consequence of the emotion, become an observer of the impulse that is being produced will allow the potential to disrupt the cascade of negative feedback, then being able to add one last element os seeking the root of the emotion which will give us a more accurate clue of how we feel like that and if it’s real or programmed.
Sounds easier than doing it, as usual but the paramount tool to use to train ourselves to detach again is Meditation. Which has a particular kind of type called mindfulness which allows you to focus your attention on an external neutral or sometimes positive “distractor” which will allow you to ease yourself into the process of becoming a master observer of your reactions. Prefrontal midline structures represent key regions for self- referential activity and emotion regulation.
Self-regulation is an essential feature of each living organism. It takes place on several levels, with higher levels controlling lower ones, and with an evolutionary development towards more conscious higher level processes. Introspection with awareness for inner feelings and emotions represents a key function within this self-regulating cascade. It supports gaining control over lower level circuits and restraining reflexive fear driven behavior. Making oneself aware of interoceptive or external signals is also the first step for their reappraisal and for psychotherapeutic interventions as directing the awareness away from for instance painful feelings towards pleasant aspects (3).
If we understand the neurobiological components and we now that will be also be a cascade of chemical substances (neurotransmitters and hormones) released which will alter our emotional and probably psychological well being but we start owning our true power to control these internal processes by directing out attention first to recognize the emotion, detect where is “bothering” me in my body and finally detaching from the feeling by giving my attention to a more positive feeling and goal then I’ll be able to get attracted towards more meaningful objectives. I will be able to gain strength into my self-created destiny, my true divine inner values and in consequence will be able to approach each day to my TRUE SELF !!
As mentioned earlier there are tools to do it and Mindfulness has been used to cope with this training process.
This Ancient yet remodeled technique is defined as a receptive attention to and awareness of present experience. A related description of mindfulness components comprised intention, attention and a non-judgmental attitude with an awareness for the present moment. Mindfulness can be directed to external or to interoceptive experiences. For therapeutic purposes, mindfulness is predominantly applied with a focus on interoception (internal awareness of your body reactions) (3).
In order to reduce suffering, the path of mindful- ness is described to specifically place great emphasis on four particular tightly coupled qualities or skills which are developed through the prescribed meditative techniques, including:
A balanced intensity of effort and diligence (Pali:a ̄ta ̄pi),
Wisdom of clear discernment or phenomenal clarity (Pali: sampajanˇa),
Mindful awareness, and
Freedom from desire and discontent (Pali: vineyya loke abhijjha ̄-domanassa.m), a form of equanimity. Equanimity (Pali, upekkha ̄) is translated as “on- looking” or “watching things as they arise” and is described to involve a balance of arousal without hyperexcitability or fatigue.
The application of equanimity involves impartiality without bias or discrimination arising from a sense of detachment from the attraction or aversion to ongoing experience.
Phenomenal clarity refers to the intensity (or perceptual acuity) in which each moment is experienced. Qualities like equanimity and clarity develop over time along with mindful awareness, while one learns to neither suppress nor fixate on what is arising in sensory experience moment to moment. In concert with the other three qualities, mindful awareness is thought to be critical for improving access and insight toward subject-object relations, such that the most fundamental nature of objects (including the self) is perceived “as they truly are,” without distortions or biases inherent in cognition (1).
This tools and techniques pose the biggest challenge that we encounter when we want to discover our True Self, when we want to stop falling into the same toxic emotions and circles of suffering and discover a new path of introspection that will lead us to healthier thoughts, emotions and in turn actions.
We are being introduced to a step by step, day by day practice that doesn’t require you to be eager to win, or eager to crush, or beat anyone, it is simply a technique that will allow you to recover your divine power and set of tools that you possess and that you forgot, or got distracted by the shiny distractions, detour programs, biased “traditions” that made you step away for your right path.
We have all experienced toxic emotions, we’ve all experienced pain and hardship and many of us in those moments have been able to manage ourselves the best result from them..Why? Because is in those moments when you truly surrender to the external sea of distraction and you go inward and you are forced to have time for yourself to reflect, to question, to look for answers, to become resourceful and gladly reconcile your “created self” your “disguise self” and realize that it was just created to be protected of all the triggers, conditional programs, and directed media efforts to control you. It is then when you start acting from your inner source, from your virtue values, from your highest potential and you by some guidance from someone or some set of tools …but it is YOU that find the way back to YOUR OWN TRUE SELF !!.
When that goal is reached or at least you’re in the path to get it, it is then when everything outside from you starts aligning with your True Self and it is then when synchronicity and destiny fusion to create the most Wonderfull of all consequences your ABUNDANT LIFE !! Which then feels as an oasis in the dessert but it was always there ..waiting for you to reach out, waiting for you to be discovered, waiting for you to be LIVED & ENJOYED !!
That is the most gratifying, joyful experiences that we can have and yet we are prepared to let it go because we know that it is composed of moments, that it has a beginning and an end but what makes it more lasting is the knowledge and wisdom that it is within you, that it is at your fingertips, that is created and discovered by you and is unique, is tailor made for you. And each of us has to embark in the same joinery to find it, no one else can do it for you, no one else knows or can walk your unique path.
To culminate this amazing self-reflection, self-directed, science and spiritual experience I just would love to be able to inspire you to go deep into knowing yourself, into questioning your thoughts, questioning the internal response that you’re feeling, detecting where does it go primarily (your throat, your stomach, your peace of mind, etc), to be able to direct your attention towards a more meaningful and enlightened phrase, object, place, person to become an observer of that thought becoming an emotion but being able to be intercepted by your wisdom and scalable knowledge of yourself !!! Dare to dive within YOURSELF !! and you’ll find the Oasis that is tailor made for YOU.
Vago, D. R., & Silbersweig, D. A. (2012). Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6.
Thera, N. (1962). The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook of Mental Training Based on the Buddha's Way of Mindfulness. London: Rider and Company.
Herwig, U., Kaffenberger, T., Jäncke, L., & Brühl, A. B. (2010). Self-related awareness and emotion regulation. NeuroImage, 50(2), 734–741.