One of my granddaughters momentarily gagged on a sticky piece of Mozzarella on her pizza when she was eight years old and even now as a young adult does not eat cheese of any kind. I have also heard people say, “When I was in the second grade the music teacher said I should just mouth the words of the songs we sang because I could not carry a tune and even now I do not join a sing-along.” I recently overheard a luncheon table-mate at a conference I attended explaining her passing up all the vegetables: “When I was a child, my mother forced me to eat vegetables.” The person who had noticed replied, “That was a long time ago.” The fact that emotionally charged situations leave powerful signs in the mind, “Never eat cheese!”, “Do not sing out loud!”, “Defend your right to refuse vegetables!” whether or not the situations were actually life threatening (like chocking) or now relevant (like singing in key) seem beside the point. They endure in our instinctive memory as protections against feeling threatened. Our nervous systems, for complex reasons that certainly include genetics as well as life experiences, mark certain situations as dangerous and we respond as automatically as the foot goes onto the brake when the light turns red up ahead.
I’ve also recognized other patterns in my mind that the Buddha would have named as the affliction of Nervous Worrying and Fretting. I imagine signs in my mind that say,“When in doubt, worry. This might be a catastrophe.” I am glad to have the opportunity to teach about my experience because it reassures people that whatever afflictive habit they struggle with—lusting, raging, doubting, or surrendering too easily to despair—is workable. Recognizing an afflictive mind habit as just a habit—an annoying and painful one, certainly—but fundamentally just a habit is what makes it workable. I tell people that I am a Recovering Fretter. I am still easily startled: “Why doesn’t she call me back?”, “Why is he so late?”, “What if [anything] happens?” Alarmed responses still arise in my mind in situations of ambiguity. What is different now is that I recognize the signs of alarm. I can say, “There goes my fretting response again, just ready to take over my mind. I do not have to do that. I can wait and see what happens next.” The more I practice that, the better I get at it.
It often happens when I teach about afflictive habits of the mind that someone suggests, “Of course you have fretful genes. You have Jewish genes, inherited from generations of people whose lives were imperiled because of their identity.” I don’t know. My parents were not nervous people. And, when I poll any large group of people I’m teaching about their most afflictive mind habit, about half raise their hands and they aren’t Jews. It’s mysterious.
In situations of terrible trauma, like battlefields, some people come away with long-enduring signs in their minds, “Fall to the ground when you hear a loud noise!” That life-saving injunction in battle becomes a painful life-limiting reminder in peace circumstances that often requires trauma psychotherapy and loving communal support as well as compassionate mindful awareness. The awareness, “This is a habit and so it can change,” is a crucial step in recovery.
Sometimes the source of a sign in the mind is obvious. Knowing it is there is important. Compassionate mindful awareness begins the de-activation of limiting signs in the mind, regardless of their origin. Erasing signs entirely might not be possible. I am hoping to accustom my mind to noticing when a painful response is about to fill my mind so that I can say to myself, “Relax! No need to feel frightened [greedy, angry, exhausted, or insecure]. You can choose otherwise. Take a breath. Now is now.”