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Lions Roar : July 2010
Trying to push away our ell1otional distress can throw us into "cognitive shock" that turns our ll1ind into a ll1uddle. EZRA BAYDA shares five sill1ple questions to help us cut through confusion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . O n a recent trip to Alcatraz prison I had the fascinating experience of walking through the halls, standing in the cells, and imagining what it would be like to be confined there. Before Alcatraz was closed as a functioning prison, it was unique in that it kept all of its prisoners isolated in solitary cells. I heard the story of one prisoner, who when put into a pitch-black solitary cell as punishment, ripped a button off his shirt and threw it in the air. He would then get on his knees and look for it, then throw it again- just to avoid going crazy in the dark. This example may sound like it has nothing to do with us, but the fact is we all have our own ways of avoiding the dark, and our own strategies for throwing buttons. They may look more sane and more productive, but they're still attempts to push away our difficulties. Trying to avoid what's unpleasant seems to be deeply ingrained in the human psyche. After all, when life feels out of sync we naturally seek . . . . . . . . comfort and relief. But the feeling that life is out of sync is hardly new. As Buddha pointed out more than 2,500 years ago, we'll always have to deal with the fact that life entails discomfort and disappointment. We will always have our many problems-concerns about financial se- curity, relationship difficulties, fears about our health, anxious striving toward success and ac- ceptance, and so on. Yet, perhaps the most basic problem is that we don't really want to have any problems; perhaps that's what, in part, makes our current time seem so full of distress. Many people come to meditation practice with the expectation that it will calm them and relieve the feelings of distress. Certainly medi- tation can do this to some extent; however, when we're knee-deep in emotional distress, we're fortunate if we can remember these tools. Even if we could remember to meditate, simply sitting down to follow the breath, with- out directly addressing our difficulties, is un- likely to bring a deep or lasting peace of mind. The difficulties remain. Sometimes, when emotions are particularly intense, when we feel the very uncomfortable feelings of groundlessness and helplessness, it is especially difficult to remember what we know. And there's a good reason for this. Wh ' d . d h " " en we re Istre sse , t e new or concep- tual brain tends to stop working. This is called "cognitive shock;' which turns off the cogni- tive mind's basic ability to function. When the thinking brain is on sabbatical, we simply can't think clearly. During cognitive shock, the "old" brain, which is based on survival and defense, SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2010 51