I've mentioned that I've noticed that I become much more self-conscious in the afternoon, that I'm able to work on "squishy" things early in the morning, less likely to get in my own way.

Another way of looking at that is that I become more self-judgmental (Emphasis on the mental?) as the day wears on. And that kind of revealed that what I'm really doing is being more judgmental overall.

So that was the topic my interior monologue on this morning's walk, minus a short break to photograph an osprey. (Unremarkable photo, but it was there, so...)

Some (Many? All?) spiritual traditions or religions emphasize something along the lines of "letting go" of judgment. "Judge not, lest ye be judged..." But what does that mean?

We're embodied beings, so we have visceral reactions to things before we've even formed a cognitive reaction to them. In fact, I believe that we often tend to reason backward from our feelings, if for no other reason than to rationalize or explain our feelings to ourselves.

So, short of uploading our minds into a disembodied machine, we're stuck with feelings that tend to precede our thoughts, so there's no "letting go" of that. And it does have value, your "gut" often knows things sooner than your mind.

I recalled a few things that help with that. The first relates to paying attention to what you're feeling. This particular intervention relates more to rumination, when you're feeling bad and stuck in some negative self-talk, "stinkin' thinkin'."

The idea there is that you identify the feeling. Embarrassment, shame, guilt, anger, loneliness, sadness, etc.

Then you figure out what you're believing that's helping to engender that feeling. Because the system is bi-directional. Feelings lead to thoughts, and the same thing works in the opposite direction. Certain cognitive efforts can lead to the expression of neuropeptides that result in a feeling within the body. Tight chest, flushing, anticipation, excitement etc.

So you examine the belief behind the feeling. "Nobody likes me." "I'm a loser, I screw everything up." "I'm fat, nobody will ever want me." Whatever it is. (Parenthetically, it's probably also wise to examine positive feelings, though they're generally not as immediately problematic.)

It's tough to look at those those thoughts, and maybe even tougher to really interrogate them. "Is this true?" And here you would examine those all-encompassing, extreme beliefs that contain words like "nobody," "everybody," "always," "never," because those are usually pretty easy to disprove.

If the belief is not true, the idea is "let it go," which is kind of hard to explain. What has happened is that you've interrupted the self-reinforcing negative feedback, "processed" the feeling with thought, and so the attendant feeling fades. Your brain isn't causing the same expression of certain kinds of neuropeptides that bind to certain receptors in the body that induce the feeling.

If the idea is true, then you consider what action you can take to do something about it. Again, this cognitive effort interrupts the negative feedback, and the feeling diminishes. The action itself isn't as immediately important as the idea of action. You "feel" better.

So that's kind of a self-care intervention when you're being judgmental about yourself.

What about when you're being judgmental about others?

This is trickier, because we reward being judgmental about others. And we can't escape forming judgments, and many judgments are valid and useful. If that guy seems sketchy, yeah, you probably shouldn't get in his car alone with him. Your body knows things before your mind does.

Put us on something like social media, and it's game on! Your judgments, that is to say, opinions, are validated by likes and shares. Positive attention. Yeah! Let's get some more of that!

And so you're at risk of getting stuck in this mode, judging others, which isn't necessarily helpful to anyone, others or yourself.

I think this is the thing that was really kind of eating away at me on Twitter. I could see what I was doing, and I wasn't happy about it. Now, somewhat by way of being kind to myself, I did try to be somewhat mindful about it. I sometimes thought twice about a quote-tweet that I could have posted that included a "sick burn," a hot take that I was pretty sure would get me a few likes and re-tweets. And I often didn't "like" or re-tweet a tweet that I thought was just too reflexively negative.

But overall, it was too easy. And like the article the other day about dopamine mediating desire more than pleasure or reward, I wasn't necessarily experiencing pleasure as I went about it. Especially because it didn't make any difference with regard to the issue I was opining about. It was feckless. But I sure wanted to do it.

There's another part of that social media aspect, but it also relates to our overall interaction with information, or "news," even outside of social networks, and that is the matter of arousal. We see something we're outraged about, we share it. Others see what we share, experience outrage and like it or share it. That's probably more than half of what I was seeing. Stuff people were outraged about, or thought were urgent and need to be shared.

That interior experience of outrage and urgency comes to feel normal, becomes the state we try to maintain, homeostasis.

All of which seems to contribute to something of a reactive amygdala. Now, the usual disclaimers apply. I'm an authority on nothing, I make all this shit up. Do your own thinking.

But it seems we become kind of hyper-vigilant, primed to look for "bad" behavior, in anyone not in our "in-group." Then you get the "ratio" effect, the mob-like reactions that pile on to certain people or tweets. Which doesn't help anything, but we approve of it anyway. We call attention to the "ratio" as validation of our feelings or opinions, and the unworthiness of the person being "ratio'ed."

Not helpful. To anyone. But we are addicted to it. Same stuff happens in Mastodon as on Twitter, although Mastodon has some features intended to minimize that. "Ratio" isn't rewarded on Mastodon, but can be the emphasis on outrage.

"No matter where you go, there you are." B. Banzai

So, how to heal the reactive amygdala?

I think there are two things, which are quite related under the heading of "mindfulness."

I recall when I had a regular meditation practice that I was much less reactive overall. I experienced more what I believe is called "equanimity." I think that sleep has an effect similar to meditation, although we all know people who are irritable in the morning. And I kind of am, actually. Especially if I don't sleep well. But it seems more sensitive to external stimuli, I'm not really beating myself up in the morning. That usually comes later in the day.

So there's the old joke about the master telling the pupil to meditate an hour every morning, and the pupil says, "I don't have time to meditate an hour every morning!"

The master says, "In that case, you must meditate for two hours every morning!"

And I have been beating myself up every day about not meditating in the morning. So I really need to figure out what's going on there.

Anyway, sleep and meditation seem to have some effect at dialing down the sensitivity of the amygdala, making it less reactive.

The other part is more directly related to mindfulness, and that is just paying attention to what you're feeling. In meditation, thoughts arise because that's what brains do, you observe them and don't engage, either with judgment or following them.

During the day, feelings arise, you notice them and don't engage. Because they pass.

Feelings pass. You're seldom wrong for having feelings, it's acting on them that can get you in trouble. This is the road rage rule. "Let it go."

The other key part is not to place yourself in an environment where those feelings are easily aroused. Like social media. Or watching the news, regardless of what flavor you prefer.

Okay, we're way, way past the tl;dr limit, and I need to get going. This is just me, figuring my shit out. Maybe it gives you an idea or something to think about. (Who am I kidding? Nobody reads this far.) Just remember, I make all this shit up. You have to do your own thinking. And work. Because none of this happens without effort of some kind.

Originally posted at Nice Marmot 07:35 Monday, 19 June 2023