Photo: Andriy Popov/ 123RF
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 broader context of how the brain works.
The reactive mode is not inherently wrong
Reactivity has tremendous survival value. It is what happens in fight-or-flight, i.e., when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This automatic reaction 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 advantageous for it to have instant access to flight. For a human being, it is beneficial to reflexively remember “I’ve been burnt” to avoid touching fire. And it’s also essential to have access to our anger when we need to fight. The brain functions that are involved in this reactive mode are evolutionarily much older.
Much more recent evolutionarily are the functions 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 will enable us to determine that, even though something feels like a significant threat, it is not actually that threatening. This process allows us to downgrade the alert from DEFCON 1 to something more appropriate.
The proactive mindset is the human ability to engage the more evolved neural circuits. This process is a sort of due diligence to improve the quality of the information that we get through our reactive brain circuits. I am not talking about ignoring our more primitive reactions, far from that. I am talking about building upon these primitive reactions. Instead of reacting impulsively, we use this reactive impulse as a starting point for a more sophisticated process that helps us respond more effectively to a given situation.
The proactive mindset can also be called mindfulness
Given how some people think of mindfulness as an esoteric practice, it is essential 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. We are talking about overriding a potent 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 significant threat. The bigger the perceived risk, the more overwhelming 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.
Reactivity means fear
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. So let’s not call that fear. Let’s 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 in which managing the “threat” is relatively easy. Let’s talk about what happens when you start wearing contact lenses, and 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.
What do you notice?
You automatically close your eyelids as the finger is approaching. You are doing this even though you’re moving your index slowly. And, of course, you know that this is not an attack on your eye.
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.
You notice that the eye tends to close despite the fingers holding the eyelids open. This reaction is happening even though the movement of your finger toward your eye is slow and controlled.
Fortunately, over time, this operation becomes more natural, as your mind learns from experience that there is no risk.
Learning to overcome reactivity
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 that you can modulate the movement. In other words, there is less of a threat because you have control over the action. As you feel safer, there is less of a need for a protective reaction.
Conversely, you wouldn’t be able to relax enough to keep your eye open if somebody else’s finger was coming at you fast. It would be impossible to override the perception that this is an attack.
To override reactivity, you need to feel safer
But you can’t feel safer 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 are more primitive than our cortical circuits. They are not good at the subtleties of complex thought. To overcome reactivity, you need to experience a visceral sense of safety. Why? The function of reactivity is to protect you. It becomes unnecessary if you have another way to feel safe and protected.
What we are talking about here is a visceral sense of safety and an intuitive understanding of the intense emotions that have a grip on you. We cannot achieve this kind of intuitive understanding when we try to get at it by only using words and logical discourse. The brain circuits involved in these emotions do not have the sophistication to process complex concepts or logic. 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.
Focus on bodily experience
There is a transformative effect in paying attention to bodily experience in the context of developing our ability to self-regulate. You need to pay attention to what is happening in your body, instead of using standard words, even emotional words. This helps you shift focus to what is here and now. It enables you to be in the moment in a way that you cannot be if you try to “be in the moment.”
Focusing on bodily experience redirects your attention from abstract concepts to the present moment. 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.