Last week we started a discussion on viewing the brain as a receiver and transmitter of suffering rather than the source of it. Much like a radio tunes in and out of radio waves when we change radio stations, can we tune in and out of suffering? While pain is an unavoidable reality in life, do we have to have to suffer to endure this pain?
There are essentially two basic aspects to the experience of pain: one is the actual pain itself, and the other is the attention that we pay to that pain. The first question that arises is: if we stop paying attention to pain, does this reduce the pain? Before we take a look at this more closely, think of what it is like when a two-year old who is playing somewhat over-zealously hits her hand on something (e.g. the metal leg of a table) and starts to cry.
There are several ways that one can try to stop the child from crying. If you've ever hit the table leg with your own hand and said, "Naughty table leg!" you might have noticed that even though the child was bawling, the child might stop crying instantly and look at you hitting the table leg. Another response that may stop the crying is to rub the affected spot on the hand or to make funny faces that make the child laugh. Why do each of these responses stop the crying?
When you hit the table leg and reprimand it or when you rub the hand or make faces, you are effectively distracting the child from the pain. While the child was initially experiencing the pain and the child's brain was tuned into it, your actions essentially asked the child's brain to tune into something else. You changed what the child's brain was tuning into and in so doing, stopped the crying.
But does this work in adults? Absolutely. Distraction as a form of pain reduction is commonly seen in adult situations. It is always a wonder to watch people run marathons, motivated by reaching the finish line, and then collapse directly after reaching it. They have distracted themselves from the pain they were experiencing by focusing on the goal and reaching the finish line. If they focused on the pain, they might never have made it. But all of these examples are of physical pain. Can the same be said of mental pain or anguish?
Martin Seligman, a scholar on positive psychology, did a study on severely depressed individuals. He asked them to write down three blessings every day. Also, he encouraged them to talk to others about their blessings. This form of "positive distraction" led to a significant improvement in depression by tuning out of the depression station and tuning into the blessing station.
But what is the evidence, if any, that the brain can actually do this? Well, there is increasing evidence from multiple research studies. The basic idea is that if you take two groups of people and administer the same amount of pain to both, the group that focuses on the pain experiences the pain as greater than the group that focuses on something else. Also, the more the brain's attentional center is activated when focusing on the pain, the greater the pain. By changing what we attend to, we can change what the brain is tuning into and what our own experience is. By opening ourselves to that vast source of consciousness energy that is out there, and by focusing on the thought-waves that contain healing and positive energy, we can focus the brain's attentional center on something other than suffering and reduce the pain we are experiencing.
Here are some practical suggestions on tuning out suffering:
1. If your suffering is not based on anything specific but on the drudgery of getting up and going to work every day, ask yourself: what three things will I do for myself today that are going to make my day great. Then go ahead and do them.
2. If your suffering is based on something specific like not having enough money, rather than focusing on how you do not have enough money, focus on methods that you can use to attract more to your life. There is a lot of money out there in the world. But tuning into the "money station" can be tricky. "Tuning in" does not simply mean moving from left to right like the red marker that moves with a radio dial. That red marker is actually marking a different frequency. "Tuning in" means changing your frequency to a state of consciousness located deeply within yourself. Some reach this by prayer, others by meditation, and still others by hard work and service. Whatever your method, if you can tune into the frequency where giving and receiving act in concert, you will attract money. And to attract more money, your giving has to be from the most valuable part of you in the most valuable way that you can give. When you reach this value and share it, the value will come back to you.
3. Reduce your exposure to negative events in a day. Often, we listen to the news and disaster stories all day. The sensation of negative news can be distracting and therefore helpful, but after the sensation is gone, your brain is left with having to process and store this negative information that just adds to your own plight. It makes it more difficult to focus your attention on your own blessings or on positive ideas.
4. When I talk about tuning into the vast consciousness out there, what I am saying is that you should expect the best. Studies have shown that people in pain who expect pain relief experience significant pain relief compared to those who don't. Research has also been done in people with low back pain showing that those people who expect to recover do so. The theory behind this is that expecting relief activates the relief pathways in the brain.
5. Don't focus on past failures. Instead, focus on how you have reached this point in your life and on your strengths. The brain needs to be trained to focus on positive things for it to start to do this automatically. Excessive doubt is the static that makes it difficult to tune into a brighter station.
So, here we see that even after experiencing pain, if we tune into something other than the pain, we have a greater chance of experiencing less pain. Depending on the type and amount of pain, this is, of course, not always immediately possible. But we can train our brains to focus on goals, expect the best and examine positive things in our lives in a way that can change how we handle the downs in life.
Next week we will take a look at the brain's "image channel" to look in more detail at how tuning into this channel can help us meet our goals.