Recently I’ve noticed that much of many days I spend making not-always-predictable decisions about what I’m going to pay attention to – what I’m going to turn toward and what I’m going to turn away from. Mostly this process occurs unconsciously and without dire consequence – I turn toward the dog and away from the cat, toward my wife and away from my computer, toward the firewood that needs splitting and away from the truck that needs washing.
There are any number of reasons why I turn toward some things and away from others. Many, however, boil down to one: the valence a person, place or event triggers in my body and brain. In this context, valence simply means whether I experience something as pleasant or unpleasant in any moment.
I tend to be most suspicious, and consequently often drawn toward things that show up in my world carrying a negative valence – people, places and events that trigger fear or anxiety in my body and brain have a great draw for me. That’s probably not a good or bad thing when balanced, and it definitely tends to make life interesting. In Enneagram-speak, I’m a “Counterphobic Six!”
Plastic Fantastic Valence
The good news though, is that valence is plastic. Things that might initially show up as unpleasant or anxiety-producing – say, for example the number one fear in America, public speaking - can lose that negative valence and become pro-positive. Hard to believe, but I can testify to the truth of valence plasticity: I got fired from my first public speaking job because I was so nervous and disorganized.
I didn’t quit however, I simply regrouped and started slower and smaller. I have subsequently received standing ovations after presentations I’ve given. And the fear that I used to feel with respect to speaking publicly has now been mostly transformed into excitement. Through repeated practice, my brain changed in its ability to easily regulate the anxiety that public speaking initially produced. In the process, a cognitive shift took place almost as if by magic: the people I speak to morphed in my neurophysiology from once being strangers who might threaten and embarrass me, into friends who almost always really love hearing from me.
Neuroplasticity can be held responsible for this sea change. Where once fear circuitry predominated, through practice kindness and self-compassion brain circuitry now dominates. And this is important for those of us committed to changing the world, because it’s most likely going to require many more of us to stop turning away from things that carry a negative valence for us – things that frighten us or make us feel anxious – and move gently in their direction, with arms open and internal fires ablaze.
Nothing Human Disgusts Me
Years ago I knew a woman avidly studying Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy spiritual philosophy. Out of her studies Sinead developed a life philosophy expressed simply as: “Nothing human disgusts me.” Needless to say, I admired her a lot (in spite of the fact that she borrowed that line without attribution from Tennessee Williams’s play, The Night of the Iguana). What I most admired about Sinead was her compassionate fearlessness: she had well-developed Turn-Toward Muscles. When she would encounter homeless men and women on the street, she had no reservations about looking them in the eye and greeting them as if they were long lost sisters and brothers. “I think of them as Jesus in one of his most distressing disguises,” Sinead would tell me. She would also regularly express anti-partyline opinions to her bosses at work, and had no reservations about advocating for children whenever she encountered parents verbally or physically abusing them in public.
But she hadn’t always been that way. She told me she had to deliberately practice turning towards each of those things in her life. And she had to do it over and over, again and again. Gradually, over a period of years, she discovered it really made her feel good to behave in this way. “I feel like I’m honoring some disenfranchised part of myself” is the way she explained it to me. “I’ve become a staunch advocate for my Authentic Heart.”
Rewiring the Turn-Toward Muscle
The neurological truism that if we don’t use it we lose it is probably no place truer than with the limbic structures in the brain – the seedbed of the Turn-Toward Muscles. The more frequently we confront and approach the things we fear,the stronger the internal connections become and the less fear-generating responses formerly fearsome things are able to trigger. And the great news is: we don’t have to do it alone. We can put The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience to work and obtain help and guidance from others much the same way we might work with a sports trainer or a life coach. What that may very likely accomplish is the full unfolding of the Turn-Toward Muscles so that they ultimately come to flower in those magnificent collections of myocytes and cardio-neurons beating in the center of our chest.
What in your life might be gently or insistently inviting you to turn toward it, rather than away?