This weekend we saw “Inside Out,” the new Pixar movie that’s kind of about a child who has to move across the country with her family, but really about emotions, memories, and personality. Most of the film is spent in the “headquarters” of the mind, where personified emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust work (and fight) together to run the show. While it is a children’s film that makes heavy use of personification and metaphor, much of the film’s presentation of the workings of the mind is based in actual research. There are so many interesting topics that are touched on in this film, and I imagine that I’ll be watching it again in the near future to glean more meaning. But my favorite concept of the film is the main one: that each actual event and happening in life is processed through a certain lens or perspective, and that there is no “true” perspective-- there is simply the perspective that is selected at that time.
When I talk about mindfulness, especially as a short introduction, I often mention ‘reaction versus response.’ Our habitual way of acting (especially under stress) is in quick reactions. For example, in daily life, if someone tells me what to do, I often quickly snap back that I’ll do what I want, thanks. This is one of my default reactions-- when I perceive that someone is trying to control me, Anger takes over and I try to assert my own control.
If I have been practicing mindfulness, however, I may (not always, but sometimes!) get a moment’s pause to select a response instead of reacting. In this moment of pause and awareness, I may realize that the person “trying to control me” is actually trying to give me a helpful suggestion. I may realize that they have a point. While Anger might be my default reaction in this situation, it is not always the most helpful. This is something that I have known, thought about, and tried to practice for years now, but “Inside Out” gave me a dynamic visual picture of it, of hot-headed little Anger leaping up and saying, “I’ve got this one, I know just what to do! We yell now!”
Yesterday I sat on the patio in the evening. It was a relatively neutral moment with nothing much happening externally. But in my head, Sadness was looking around for something to do. “Shall we think about how the weekend has begun, which sort of means it’s nearly over and you haven’t used it well? Shall we think about being 35 and having no children? Shall we think about the fact that we spent a lot of time working on this patio space and will have to move and leave it behind at some point?” Sadness is just full of great ideas for rumination!
At that moment, Mindfulness woke up in me-- that thing outside of Sadness. Mindfulness said, “Weird! This feels kind of extreme-- why is there so much sadness right now? Does Sadness have to be in control of this moment? What if Joy were in charge? What would she say?” Well, Joy was just glad to be sitting on the patio of an evening. Joy enjoyed the evening light and the fact that it was, after all, the weekend. Just by taking a moment to examine my perspective, I had the space to see that there were any number of possible responses to that moment, and Joy was just as valid (and much more pleasant!) than Sadness.
This is not at all to say that Joy should always be in control and that Sadness should never be in control. Sadness is at times an appropriate and helpful emotion, and this is my other favorite concept in the film. When we push down Sadness and try to block her out of the control room, things do not go well for long. In the months after my dad’s death, I have learned that if I don’t go through periods of sadness, if I run and hide from it or create distractions when I begin to feel it, it goes deep inside me and takes up residence in my neck and shoulders. There it festers and creates actual physical pain.
I suppose that sometimes in my grief, I get too comfortable with Sadness at the helm. She stays in control until times like that on the patio when I suddenly realize that Sadness might not be the best driver in this particular situation. We all have our default reactions, and what I am discovering is that for me, Sadness, Anger, and Fear tend to get a lot more driving time than Joy. At this point, Joy is the runt of the litter, and she needs to be fed and encouraged to get in there and take the helm. For me, mindfulness is a gift that’s helping me to notice times to make a choice and let Joy win.