I learned so many incredible things during Apotheosis, that I’ll keep unpacking them for a few more days at least. Yesterday I wrote about how feeling sorry for people deprives them of agency. My next favorite one is that an emotion–a physical sensation in the body–lasts normally for just 15-30 seconds. I can already see the disbelief in your eye, and it doesn’t surprise me at all. If you’re anything like me, your experience has probably been very different so far.

I know it firsthand that the feeling of anger, sadness or despair doesn’t go away after a minute or two. I don’t get angry a lot these days, but I remember how the increased heart rate and tension could sometimes last for hours, and even intensify with time. There were entire months in my life where I was too weak to do just about anything because I felt so worthless, guilty, and overwhelmed. These experiences were all very real. I certainly didn’t make any of this up.

Emotion itself is fleeting and short. But here is the key:

The thoughts we have about this fleeting sensation can reinforce and intensify it

Everything you’ve ever experienced in a similar situation will come right to the surface to built a coherent narrative about what is happening and what it means to you. Over decades, these patterns become so ingrained in your brain that it takes hours of deliberate practice to notice them, let alone change them.

Chances are, the thought patterns carved out in your mind are not serving you well. With their roots reaching deep into your childhood, they can easily tap into the primal fear of being abandoned, and turn into a fully-blown drama something that would be basically a non-event. If I feel hurt because of something my partner said, my mind will swiftly go back in time to serve me multiple examples of how he’s wronged me in the past. There were a hundred times more things that he did right, but at the moment it doesn’t matter. Once I am stuck in a pattern, my mind will seek all evidence it can find to confirm it, and discern everything else.

The first instinct is to fight this thought process, which actually gives the opposite effect. Mark Manson calls this the feedback loop from hell. If you find yourself getting angry with someone, and this is an emotion you’d rather not cultivate, you may soon become angry with yourself for feeling angry, get upset over feeling upset, and start judging yourself because of judging yourself.

You can’t use your mind to stop a runaway mind trip

It would be like pulling yourself out of a swamp by your own bootstraps. The best known way to get out of your head is to come back to the body. Running, lifting, and aerial yoga all helped me a lot in this regard. But I know it well that a few hours of exercise per week can’t fully undo all the decades of repeated programming. A few hours later, it doesn’t take much to trigger something in me and send me on the vicious loop of self-hatred again.

Here is the trick I learned on Apotheosis: using my own breath to disconnect from the crazy thought train. It takes just a minute or two, and I can do it whenever challenging thoughts or emotions are getting the better of me. Taking just a few long and deep breaths, in and out through my mouth, is enough to take a step back from whatever narrative is unfolding in my head, observe it from a distance, and ask “What’s the lesson in it?”.

This doesn’t really sound like rocket science at all. Focusing on breath and observing thoughts is the core of most meditation practices. I’ve been doing this for years already, but never quite developed a habit of getting into the same breathing pattern and headspace outside of meditation. This time, perhaps because of how intense the experience was, it finally clicked.

This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a game changer. There were multiple chances to practice this during and after the retreat, and it already saved me hours that I’d previously spend wallowing in self-judgement and misery. The longer I stay focused on my breath, the faster I can recover from feeling upset or overwhelmed and get back right on track.

Even if challenging emotions don’t go away too fast, my breath can serve as an anchor while I let them unfold over time, without running away or getting caught in a loop. The less I resist any given feeling, the faster I can learn the lesson it brings, get over it, and move on to the next thing. I’m far from the best version of myself today, and there are many things the perfect me would have done differently. Yet following my breath I am finally able to navigate this space with self-compassion and calm.

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