In this article, I am talking about the process of shifting from a reactive mode to a proactive one. Before describing this process, I will be putting the topic within the larger context of how the brain works.
The reactive mode is not inherently bad. In fact, it is a very powerful feature that has tremendous survival value. It is what happens in fight-or-flight, i.e. when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is a knee-jerk reaction that has developed in all animals to help us survive in case of clear and present danger.
For instance, when an antelope encounters a lion, it is very useful for it to have instant access to flight. For a human being, it is very useful to reflexively remember “I’ve been burnt” in order to avoid touching fire. And it’s also essential to have access to our anger when we need to fight. The parts of our brain that are involved in this reactive mode, such as the amygdala, are evolutionarily very old.
Much more recent evolutionarily are the parts of the human brain that allow for a broader assessment of the situation, beyond the knee-jerk reaction to danger. Neural circuits in the frontal cortex allow us to determine that, even though a given situation feels like a major threat, it is not actually that threatening. This allows us to downgrade the alert from DEFCON 1 to something more appropriate.
What I call the proactive mindset is the human ability to engage the more evolved neural circuits, and perform a sort of due diligence to improve the quality of the information that we get through the reactive mindset. I am not talking about ignoring our more primitive reactions, far from that. I am talking about building up on these primitive reactions. Instead of reacting impulsively, we use the reactive impulse as a starting point for a more sophisticated process that helps us respond more effectively to a given situation.
The proactive mindset I describe can also be seen as mindfulness. Given how some people think of mindfulness as an esoteric practice, it is important to state that what I am describing here is a natural human ability: The ability to function more effectively, by discriminating more clearly what is a manageable threat from what is not, and adopting more appropriate responses.
Now, how do we do this? Of course, it helps to have an awareness of this process, and the intention to shift from a reactive mode. It helps, but it isn’t nearly enough. Because we are talking about overriding a very powerful mechanism, one that has been reinforced by millions of years of evolution. This mechanism enables us to mobilize enormous amounts of energy in the service of survival when we face what we perceive as a major threat. The bigger the perceived threat, the more impossibly difficult the task will feel. Pushing against the fear will only increase the sense of pressure and danger, and make it even more difficult to override the reactive impulses.
When you’re reactive, you may not perceive your reactivity as fear. For instance, you may feel confused. Or feel stuck. Or you may be very angry, even angry to the point of being scary to other people… so that doesn’t sound like you’re afraid, does it? So let’s not call that fear. Let’s just call it “intense emotion, related to a sense of threat”. The point is, it is the very intensity of the emotion that makes it hard to override.
How does one deal with this? I’m going to take a simple example, one where the “threat” can be managed relatively easily. I’m going to talk about what happens when you start wearing contact lenses, how you get accustomed to inserting them into your eyes.
You put the lens on the tip of a finger, and you start moving the index finger toward your eye. You notice that, even though you’re moving your index slowly, and even though you know that this is not an attack on your eye, you automatically close your eyelids as the finger is approaching. So you need to pull down the lower eyelid with one finger of the hand that has the lens, and pull up the upper eyelid with the other hand, to keep the eye open.
Even as you do this, and even though the movement of your finger toward your eye is slow and controlled, you notice that the eye has a tendency to close despite the fingers holding the eyelids open. Fortunately, over time, this operation becomes easier and easier, as your mind learns from experience that there is no risk.
This learning is possible because a lot of conditions are gathered to override the reactive impulse to the perceived attack. For one thing, there is the reassuring knowledge that this procedure is one that has been done by millions of other people, and that the medical profession is behind it. But also, the finger that moves toward your eye is your own, so you can modulate the movement; in other words, there is less of a threat because you have control over the movement. The need for a protective reaction is lessened as you feel safer.
Conversely, you wouldn’t be able to relax enough to keep your eye open if somebody else’s finger was coming at you really fast. It would be impossible to override the perception that this is an attack.
So, in order to override reactivity, you need to feel safer. This doesn’t happen through logic alone. Logic helps, of course, as it does in the case of contact lenses: It helps to know that eye doctors think of this as a safe procedure. But it is not enough. What is necessary is the experience of actually feeling safe, so that the powerful protection circuits of the brain can relax their grip, and make change possible. Remember that these protective circuits are those we share with other animals, they’re more primitive than our cortical circuits, they’re not good at the subtleties of complex thought. To overcome reactivity, you need to experience a visceral sense of safety, because the function of reactivity is to protect you.
This visceral sense of safety, and a visceral understanding of the intense emotions that have a grip on you, cannot be fully accessed when we try to get at them by only using words, logical discourse. This is because the brain circuits involved in these emotions are more primitive. So we need to pay attention to moment-by-moment physical experience. We need to keep coming back to that, as opposed to staying solely at the level of “talking about” what might be happening.
There is a transformative effect in paying attention to somatic experience in the context of developing our ability to self-regulate. Paying attention to what is actually happening in your body, instead of using standard words, even emotional words, helps you shift attention to what is here and now. It helps you be in the moment in a way that you cannot be if you just try to “be in the moment”, because it very specifically directs your attention to concrete present experience, and away from spouting words divorced from experience. This is why I see this work as a form of mindfulness practice, a skillful means to enhance our natural ability for mindfulness and proactivity. Over time, there is a progressive training effect, building up your resilience, similar to the way you develop your body’s strength and resistance through physical training.