Light the blue touch paper and retire.
Instruction on a firework box.
The human mind has only a very limited bandwidth available for the conscious processing of incoming information.
This means that much of our response to events is unconscious.
Because of this, we have developed highly effective systems for processing most of the data that reaches our brain without bringing it to full awareness.
These systems are organised to deal with as much information as possible and to do so automatically. This is one of the ways that we have evolved, in order to keep us safe by using fast, unconscious processes rather than much slower conscious ones.
To some extent, we set up neurological sub routines during our development that enable us to respond quickly, and automatically, to situaions that do not require conscious awareness.
This is particularly important where danger threatens and our continued survival requires a very prompt response.
Difficulties arise when these systems have developed in such a way that they misinterpret what are benign, incoming signals as dangerous, and then produce a survival response out of all proportion for such an innocuous trigger.
Many of these responses are automatic
This is what we are describing when we say that something has pushed our buttons. We find ourselves re-experiencing some event from long ago, usually one that involves strong, negative, emotional responses, to an almost unnoticed trigger in the here and now.
This process involves several steps, each one a vital link in the chain of cause and effect. If we can alter any one of these links we can gain greater control over our responses.
The first thing that happens, is that a simple sensation reaches sufficient intensity to fire off a neuron. As the intensity of a stimulus increases, more neurons are recruited, and so generate a signal that is sufficient to send a message to the brain.
This message is then processed in the sensory cortex; often without it becoming truly conscious. The brain uses these inputs to monitor our position in space, our surrounding environment, etc. and creates an appropriate physiological or behavioural reaction.
Many of these responses are automatic and involve both routine information about our current state, and inputs that help in assessing threat. Our fight or flight response may be called upon if needed, and its various components are designed to keep us safe.
Given the success of humanity as a species, it is clearly highly effective.
We are consciously aware of only a small part of the information that reaches the brain. Depending on past experience we categorise these incoming, sensations in one of three ways.
We can see them as neutral sensations – something that does not hold our interest; these are often stimuli that the brain only brings to awareness when they change.
It is a much pleasanter experience when it is our positive emotions that are triggered in this way.
So we have usually already become unaware of our clothes by the time we get out of the bedroom, it is only when our trousers get wet, that we again become aware of them, and then only long enough to decide that it is not a significant change.
We can experience sensations as pleasant, something that creates positive emotions, things that we enjoy and would like to experience more. This can be problematic when it generates a sense of clinging, creating a quest for even more of these experiences.
In one experiment, rats with electrodes in the pleasure centres of their brains, would constantly press the button that stimulated this area until they died from exhaustion.
The third option is to experience the stimulus as unpleasant, something that we want to happen less. It is this third group that often triggers our fight or flight response, and underlies many of our fears and phobias.
When we experience something that is particularly unpleasant, it generates a very strong sense of aversion. This contributes to what is know as “catastrophic learning”, where a very persistent learnt response can be triggered by as little as one exposure to a stimulus.
Strong emotions of this type show themselves in situations which we sometimes describe as having our “buttons pushed”. It is a much pleasanter experience when our positive emotions are triggered in this way!
These, almost automatic, responses arise when our past experiences, accumulated throughout our lives, but especially during our early development, become entangled with our current experiences and vice versa.
We then find ourselves making dramatic responses to minor triggers in the here and now, ones that generate very strong reactions based on a past event.
When we react based on these strong emotions it usually brings about regrettable consequences. It can be a major contributor to relationship difficulties, employment problems and personal distress.
The hardest thing about being mindful is to remember to be mindful.
Mindfulness can be of great benefit in reducing, or even preventing such episodes. When we become more aware of both our current state of mind, and the quirks in our personal development, we are in a better position to control this kind of damaging outburst.
If we can remain mindful in the moment, we can sense when we are starting to react in an inappropriate fashion. We can detect when our thoughts and emotions are out of proportion to the current situation.
This makes it easier to choose to respond differently and so regain some control.
Regular mindfulness practice enables us to reflect on our past experiences, and so gain greater understanding of our thoughts and emotions. This then allows us the opportunity to exercise a greater degree of choice in how we react.
If we succeed in acting differently, the more control we will gain over our responses in the future. The greater our sense of self knowledge, the easier it will be to spot our individual trigger situations and so be better prepared for potential problems.
Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis allows us to take the helpful mindset that it creates, off our meditation cushions and out into the real world. Once there, our regular practice means we will remember to be mindful more often.
Being present, and mindfully aware, gives us greater choice in our responses.
Having choice leaves us free to live creatively according to our present needs, and not reactively from some unbidden, and unconscious historical necessity.