Author: Jonathan Haidt
Choosing Curiosity, Taking Control
Emotions are flares to guide your path. They will help direct your journey, but be careful to not let the heat consume you.
I learned anger after my first deployment. Anyone who sat through a command&staff with me, or was there when the local police called – again – about one of my soldiers, certainly saw my anger. My husband saw my anger. My friends saw it. In the military we hide anger with jokes, and cynicism, and booze – but it sits there – seething under the surface.
I learned isolation from traumatic family events. For all the calls I didn’t return, the help I refused to take, and the nights I did not sleep worrying about everything that I didn’t know how to handle – I still refused to let any of it go. I put everyone else before me, isolating myself in the name of protecting and caring for my wounded family.
Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Happiness Hypothesis” was my first exposure to thinking about the source of my emotions. Haidt uses a powerful metaphor to describe the relationship between our “conscious mind” and our “emotional response”. He describes the relationship as a rider (conscious mind) trying to steer an elephant (emotional response). The rider thinks he has control but really – come on – at the end of the day, the elephant will do what it wants!
“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is a creation of our mind” – Buddha (taken from Haidt’s book, Ch 2)
Haidt describes 10 Great Ideas drawn from his studies of the world’s major religions. He talks about how even across oceans, humans approach concepts like reciprocity, seeking happiness, love, the power of adversity, and many more Great Ideas in very similar ways. He explores how our rituals, our art, and our social customs shape our perceptions of the world around us. Using the metaphor of the rider and elephant – it is pretty clear how a lifetime of experiences ultimately train our elephants.
As I walked with Haidt on his Great Ideas adventure, I began to see how my life experiences – from my education, to my family traumas, to the experience of war – had shaped the way I interact with the world fundamentally. I began to see that my world shaped my thoughts yet my world was also created by my mind.
Finally, with this kinda confusing, “chicken and egg” realization – the words of a good friend finally started to make sense. “The Trauma happened only once. We then experience that Trauma a thousand times over as our minds struggle to process it. That is the cycle of PTSD.”
About the same time I was reading the “The Happiness Hypothesis,” I was also exposed to the concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) at a Veteran retreat. CBT is a tool used to help people learn methods for interrupting negative feedback loops to help control responses that are physically or emotionally harmful.
Situation – Thought – Emotion – Physical Response – New Situation
There it was again. My thoughts. Armed with the confidence that I could deliberately shape my thoughts, I realized I might be able to re-learn how to responded to the world. I did not have to be angry. Or feel isolated. I became curious about my thoughts – without judgement. I learned to pause in the emotion and wonder why it was there. What experience from my past had trained my mind to respond in such a way?
“The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it.” – Marcus Aurelius (Haidt, Ch 2)
Learning to be curious about my emotions – to catch them and investigate them – was the first step in taking control of my subconscious. I was riding an elephant yes – but I was training him along the way. My emotions were my guides – now telling me to pause for exploration and giving me control over how I responded.
Little by little, I chose to stop being angry. I decided to stop feeling isolated. And so – I wasn’t. My world is my thoughts. My world is created by my mind. I chose my world.
I am the elephant.
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