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My six-year-old is in that phase where he loves magic tricks. He learned one of his favorites from a Netflix show called Brainchild. It’s purportedly a physics lesson, but I think it’s also a fantastic psychology lesson in disguise.
The trick goes like this. My son has me stack my fists, one on top of the other. Then he tells me to try to stop him from pulling them apart. So I press tight. If my son tries to pull my fists up and down, using vertical force, I press harder. My vertical force is too much for him to overcome, so he can’t do it. But if he pushes my fists sideways, using horizontal force, he easily succeeds, and my hands come apart in a flash.
This, of course, is a neat way to demonstrate the power of leverage. It’s also a handy metaphor for how to skillfully respond to feelings characterized by tension, such as irritability.
Irritability is like those fists. You may even experience it as clenching in your jaw, throat, and chest. This feels awful, and it’s only natural to want it to go away.
Your first move might be to force it. You might criticize yourself. Why can’t I stop acting this way? Why am I like this? What’s wrong with me? It’s an instinctive response, but it’s not particularly effective. You’ll end up feeling more closed-off and constricted.
The problem is you’re trying to get rid of tension by applying more of the same kind of tension. If you take some of that impulse but approach from an alternative angle, you’ll have a much easier time gaining traction.
You can ask yourself a different set of questions, ones grounded in curiosity, like What do I feel? What is it like in my body right now? and What sensations do I notice? With curiosity, you’ll find your tension starting to dissolve. You may even feel a warm, open sensation spreading from your core.
This isn’t magic; it’s science. Curiosity has this capacity because it’s an intrinsically rewarding state for humans. One research group out of the University of California at Davis used fMRI to show that the brain’s reward pathways light up during states of curiosity. Activating these reward pathways feels profoundly pleasurable – the opposite of irritability and tension. Curiosity is so potent that in his book Unwinding Anxiety, Brown University neuroscientist and psychiatrist Judson Brewer says that he uses curiosity as a key intervention for his patients battling anxiety and addiction. When you feel irritable, you can leverage curiosity’s effect on the brain to feel good instead.
High tech brain scans and Ivy League endorsements are exciting, but ultimately curiosity is an ancient and humble technology. After all, curiosity is just another word for mindfulness – it’s noticing what is without adding any story on top. Curiosity doesn’t require any special tools or anything other than yourself, exactly as you are. Curiosity is always with you, like your two hands, ready to offer a light touch capable of some heavy lifting.
A version of this story appeared on Medium
New From Me This Month
My story last month connected with so many of you that I decided to share it on Medium as well, where it was quickly picked up by the editors at Elemental. It’s nice to see The Cocktail Party In Your Head getting some love with 8.6k views and counting.
Your Curated Reading List
My favorite genre is books-that-translate-a-career’s-worth-of-academic-knowledge-into-actionable-recommendations or BTTACWOAKIAR. Ok, that’s not a thing, but it should be. Peak Mind: Find Your Focus Own Your Attention Invest 12 Minutes A Day by Amishi P. Jha is a great example of BTTACWOAKIAR. Dr. Jha is a neuroscientist who studies attention. I’m a mind nerd and hold a master’s degree in psychology, and I learned new things and better ways to communicate about what I know from this book (I’m totally going to borrow her “white board” metaphor for working memory). She also makes a great case for how and why mindfulness practice can help us work with our attention more skillfully so we can do the things that are important to us.
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan was a hard read, and I cried at the end. Ever since I made my bookclub read A Little Life (I’m still *so* sorry!), I’m hesitant to recommend books that effect me in that way. But, if you’re in the right place to process a little hard, this haunting dystopian novel about motherhood is worth it. And if you do read it, let me know because I want to talk about it with you!
I love thinking about philosophy, but have you ever tried to read about it? The original texts are almost always a slog. I used to feel bad for finding them so obtuse, but lately I’ve decided to get over myself and just focus more on books that synthesize those classic beasts into something I can actually read for more than three minutes without feeling sleepy (True confession: If you look on my bedside table right now, you will spy a copy of Kierkagaard’s Works of Love, which I crack open to help me fall asleep when a bout of insomnia strikes). Michael Schur’s book How To Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question is written exactly for this use case. Sometimes, it’s too clever by half, but mostly it’s readable and interesting and did *not* put me to sleep.
Check out my Bookshop for more excellent reads.
When I was a kid, I remember that Augusts were for cutting up paper bags from the Jewel-Osco in town, creasing them around the covers of my school books, and securing them with Scotch Tape like a present. I don’t remember if this was a thing we all did the way we tended to our Tamagotchi or whether it was something we were made to do the way we used No. 2 pencils to bubble the best answer.
I do remember loving the invitation of those blank brown covers. I loved the smell of rubber cement, the sound of scissors sliding on magazine pages, and the collages that came together through me and also not through me.
I still love collage. Collage combines the pleasure of a puzzle with the creativity of craft. With collage, you can make something new and discover something already there. For me, it’s also a kind of mindfulness practice. When I collage, I notice what I am drawn to and recognize I can choose what to amplify with additional attention.
Even though we’re a half year away from August and I now live 324 miles from the nearest Jewel-Osco, this month I took time to collage. It was delightful.
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