I recently learned that the lifespan of an emotion is approximately 90 seconds (see Jill Bolte Taylor's "A Stroke of Insight). In other words, it takes an emotion about one and a half minutes to run throughout the nervous system. After this time, it is only the mind and its emotional thoughts that continue the emotional response. Sometimes we even resurrect emotions long after they've disappeared, giving them renewed life and energy. Often emotions are experienced and acted upon habitually and without consideration. We spend time merely reacting to our emotional thoughts; living within these emotions without recognizing that they "died" long ago. We treat them as if they are a reality in and of themselves - and a factual reality, at that! Many times we even become our emotions; embodying them. It only takes a brief analysis of our language to realize how much life - our life - we give to emotional thought.
How many times have the words "I am happy" or "I am mad" parted from the lips? This type of language identifies the whole person with and as an emotion. In a sense, as the emotion travels throughout the body our language depicts us as that emotion. Think about it:
Sitting at the department of motor vehicles to renew my drivers license. I take a number, take a seat and wait...and wait...and wait for my number to be called. As I sit, I watch the clock, minutes ticking by. I have things to do. I have places to go. Why does this process always take so long? Who is holding up the line? Or perhaps the people working don't realize that I have a schedule to keep today. I become annoyed. Irritated. Then my number is called and I march up to the desk, frown on my face, license in hand.
"Name?" asks the depleted employee from behind thick glasses without looking up.
"Angry," comes my reply. After all, I am now angry.
Does this scenario seem unlikely? Although we may not outwardly identify ourselves with the name "angry" we may, in fact, be inwardly telling ourselves "I am angry". We effectively become our emotions through our thoughts; thoughts that our language then reinforces.
Now, here is some good news. There is some space between what Tara Brach calls impulse and action. Discussing the research of Benjamin Libet, Brach notes there is about a quarter of a second between the unconscious neurological activation of an action and the conscious realization that we are going to act. Prior to outwardly acting on an emotion the body is inwardly responding to it. There is another quarter of a second between the conscious realization and the outward action. This means that the body unconsciously prepares to act 1/2 a second before the action AND there is 1/4 of a second during which we are conscious of our intent to act before acting. A quarter of a second seems like a minuscule amount of time to realize the external trajectory of our thoughts and decide to proceed or not. In such a short time the opportunity for change seems bleak. The opportunity presents itself and passes, quite literally, in the blink of an eye. But in this 1/4 second there is the potential for magical transformation.
I'll use photography as an analogy. We can think about this 1/4 second opportunity for choice and change similarly to taking and viewing a picture. Consider the shutter speed of a camera (the length of time the camera's shutter is open to light when taking a picture). The standard shutter speed for a 35mm camera on auto focus will create a still picture of a moving subject without blur. Even though the subject is in motion at the time the camera is clicked, in the subsequent photo the subject will appear still - frozen in time (provided the camera is held still). Take the picture of the pinwheels on this post. The image furthest to the left shows a pinwheel frozen in time. There is no motion associated with it. However, if the shutter speed is adjusted to remain open for 1/4 of a second the picture may appear blurred as it reflects the motion of the moment, shown in the other two images. Now consider a nighttime picture of a freeway - you will see the car lights trailing in the direction of movement when the shutter speed is slower. You can see the movement. And when we are able to consciously see our movements - when we begin understanding what is actually happening - we can choose to change. This is the 1/4 second opportunity. The choice is to be on auto-focus or to adjust the shutter speed to see our thoughts as objects in motion.
Why does the faster shutter speed produce a picture frozen in time versus the motion shown in the slower speed? Light. When the shutter is open for less time, less light enters the lens, solidifying that moment in time without movement, without motion. It is a version of an event, a fraction of a second, an emotional thought. A longer shutter speed means more light and more movement in the resulting picture - a version of the event as is happening. Granted, the slower shutter speed may produce a blurry picture...at first. But proficient photographers learn how to use this light to more clearly show the motion of the subject. We can then use these images to understand the transition of our thoughts into action and, ultimately, begin recognizing the connection between thought and action. We can then use that 1/4 second to change the emotional trajectory.
So there you have it. Let the light in. Take this 1/4 of a second to shine a light onto the motion of your mind. With this picture in your minds eye, choose to maintain the trajectory of your thought or emotion into physical action or choose to change. The body's emotional response will last up to 90 seconds. The opportunity to change the physical reaction lasts about 1/4 second. And the repercussions of this action? The emotional thoughts prolonging this response? Their lifespan is a choice. Your choice.