Earlier this year I was involved in a community discussion on non-violence. We touched on the idea that external non-violence can only arise out of internal non-violence. Someone mentioned that we are wired for fight-or-flight via the limbic system and then someone else commented that we actually have three options: fight, flight or non-violent response.
The human brain is made up of three evolutionary layers: the brain stem, the limbic system and the cortex. The brain stem, found in most animals handles coordination of basic body functions and reflexes. The limbic system, found in many animals, largely handles our fight-or-flight response system for survival. The cortex, found in most mammals and which is extremely developed in humans, handles more advanced functioning such as social negotiation, advanced problem solving, emotional regulation and language.
In the presence of immediate physical danger, say a tiger is lunging at you, blood supply from the cortex moves into the limbic system making the limbic system the dominant functioning part of the brain, because in the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” of life, better to stay alive than to negotiate things socially. The limbic system tells the adrenal gland to dump adrenaline into the system so that the heart will pound, sending blood and oxygen to the arms and legs so we can run or fight. And this is a wonderful system…if a tiger is lunging at you.
However, in our society, we don’t deal with many lunging tigers. Most of us deal with more daily, non-immediate, non-physical stressors. The brain, unfortunately, often interprets these stressors as our modern day tigers and engages the wrong part of the brain. Things we need most to confront with the cortex, we face only with the overwhelming flood of cortisol and adrenaline called for by the limbic system. So, while I agree that non-violence is certainly another option, it is one that can only be made by the cortex, not the limbic system, which is the system that is engaged when we have the urge to run or fight.
Mindfulness brings us into direct contact with our bodies. We can become mindfully aware of, rather than mindlessly reactive to, the surge of chemicals urging us to shut down or to become combative. Once we are aware we can then use techniques to disengage the limbic system and return the blood flow and functioning to the cortex. We do this by using our breath. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body. Focusing on the breath stops the thoughts that fuel the limbic system. Once we have returned our functioning to the cortex then, and only then, we can choose something else.
This month become aware of your limbic activation. Maybe you’re stuck in traffic, or running late, maybe you feel powerless or embarrassed. What activates your limbic system? What calms it? How hard or easy is it to work with this process? What choices arise when you move back to the cortex?
We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments about how you are working with this. Please join our community discussions on The Center For Mindful Exploration Facebook page.