Bypassing the Automatic Bypass: How Mindfulness Practice can Improve our Relationships

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It’s happened to everyone at some point or another. Someone says something that triggers your sense that you’re being:

a) attacked

b) disrespected

c) ignored

d) misunderstood

e) blamed

f) made to feel lesser than

g) some or all of the above.

What do we do? Well, it’s complicated, because everyone reacts differently, but in many people, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC)–that executive “Central Processing Unit” and keeper of higher functioning emotions and empathy–can be bypassed. This happens naturally enough during periods of extreme duress or surprise–when you react to avoid another car that suddenly appears in front of yours, or if you were to walk into a room and see a dead body; your PFC would be bypassed and your survival instincts (the more “ancient” part of the brain) would take over immediately: no time to think, ponder, or consider, just immediate reaction. This is a vestige of the ancient survival instinct and it’s one that has helped our species survive. But today, in the modern world, this “automatic bypass” function is often not necessary–especially in common, everyday human discourse. In fact, it can be downright deleterious to how two people interact, care for one another, and resolve conflict.

Okay, but how does mindfulness come into play, exactly? Well, let’s say someone says something that makes you feel belittled or attacked in some way. You don’t do this or that correctly, or that person says something critical about you or something or someone you care about. Doesn’t really matter what the scenario is, it’s just conflict and the storm clouds between you and another are growing darker. If you are resilient, and have a strong left PFC, you can hear what the person is saying and “detach” yourself from the words that are hurtful. You could stop, pause mindfully, and acknowledge what they’re saying, and then engage in a mature discourse about why they feel that way. Perhaps you both take the time to listen to one another’s concerns or pain, and together, come up with a path forward that helps resolve the conflict. That would be a good thing. And we do it often. But sometimes, it’s not so simple; not so easy to resolve conflict. And this is where the automatic bypass can and should be bypassed itself through mindful pausing disrupting “downward spiral” toward conflict, and re-engaging the PFC to help us regain “evolved, emotionally intelligent” control over our emotions and how we act on them.

I’m sorry, could you go over that again? It’s become clear that our ancient brain’s response mechanisms can become engaged at any time very clearly without our being aware that it’s happening. When you’re in the middle of an argument, you may ball up your fists, your heart pounds, your blood pressure goes up, your muscles tense–all due to the innate fight/flight response. Or, your own particular tendency may be to “shut down,” in the face of  conflict. For many people, rather than prepare to prepare to fight or flee, they tend to disengage entirely and emotionally “escape” when confronted with an unpleasant trigger or the prospect of conflict. Regardless of how you respond to emotional triggers or attacks, we all have the capability to react with our more primal “animal brains,” which I’ve written about here in the past. Tara Brach put it best, in a short video (click here) on the importance of mindfulness in relationships. Dr. Brach explained that being connected with someone and being empathetic during conflict (“dance of attunement”)…

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Tara Brach –

“is only possible if we’re not caught up in feeling like the threatened victim or the aggressor. If our identity has narrowed and we’re caught up in fight/flight, that takes predominance. and it’s almost as if those parts of our front cortex necessary. for empathy and attunement are deactivated.

So, relationships take practice. It takes a conscious practice of paying attention, and mindfulness is the key skill  that actually activates the left frontal lobes and the compassion circuitry…mindfulness is the precursor to compassion. You have to present and in touch with what’s going on inside you or another person for…openness to occur.

So, in relationships, because we have so much conditioning to be afraid of each other; so much conditioning to feel separate; so much conditioning in that fight/flight to think that the other is going to reject us or not approve of us…that it takes practice.

The practices that I think are most valuable are mindful presence, coming back to noticing moment to moment what’s happening and also a intentional looking at the other and seeing the vulnerability. So that there’s something in us that knows that we share…we all have the same shared sense of being uncertain in an uncontrollable world that we’re going to lose everything that we love…and the fears that we all share. If we can see in each other ‘Just like me, you too feel that insecurity, that fear of loss, that refuse, that sense of safety. That connects us; that wakes up the parts of the brain that bring up a sense of unity and a sense of compassion and a sense of togetherness.” Tara Brach

The Buddhists have been practicing their own “brand of applied neuroscience” for thousands of years. They determined long ago that, yes, mindfulness is powerful stuff. But they also knew that requires dedication and practice, practice, practice. Your neural pathways weren’t built in a day–and in fact, they were built over many thousands of years–so building up resilience to inner conflict and animal tendencies ain’t easy. But it can be done. I’ve posted the following diagram a few times in the past, but it’s worth re-posting here–it highlights for me the ‘mindful pause’ that we can invoke in so many situations. We just have to remember (have a strengthened enough PFC) to invoke it! 😉

Decision Tree6

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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