Everybody has sacred texts, and I don’t just mean the Bible or the Constitution. Once when I was a young teen and bullying my younger brother Earl, he cleverly grabbed my copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and threatened to rip it in half if I didn’t stop. This immediately froze me in my tracks and made me cut my nasty behavior right out.
When I turned thirty, my most sacred text was Miyamoto Musashi’s A Book of Five Rings. In it, Musashi, the preeminent samurai warrior of seventeenth-century Japan, shares his philosophy and training techniques for the Way of the Warrior. As arguably the best martial artist in the world at that time, his practices and beliefs seemed particularly credible to me, as I was trying to be a twentieth century warrior/healer, striving to integrate psychotherapy and martial arts into new, dynamic healing systems.
I found one of Musashi’s most powerful statements to be: “A warrior should not let his spirit get too high or too low.” Like many of his sayings, this notion has been supported by modern neuroscience, which has evidence to support such moderation as crucial in helping us adjust our moods as well as have successful relationships.
When we find our spirits getting “too high” (enraged, hyper-excited, or super-anxious), or “too low (despairing, overwhelmed by shame, or frozen by regret), it’s way too easy to disconnect from our wise, balanced self and instead click into more primitive defensive states. If your partner misunderstands something you said or did and lashes out at you, you’ll feel hurt and threatened. Your panicking brain will tell you that he’s not seeing you, but rather somebody else—somebody he wants to lash out at. And you’d be right. In his angry state he’s identifying you as someone uncaring and mean, not deserving of respect or kindness, which leads you to want to do the same with him.
The part of the brain that can modulate these responses is called the pre-frontal cortex. Located directly behind our eyes, the pre-frontal cortex is central to self-aware consciousness, empathy, self-reflection, morality, and emotional self-regulation. When we feel safe and engaged with ourselves and our loved ones—in a normal state of mild to moderate arousal—the pre-frontal cortex tends to harmonize the rest of our nervous system for optimal learning and relating. On the other hand, too much arousal (hyper-arousal), such as rage, terror, shame, mania, or obsessive anxiety, or too little arousal (hypo-arousal), such as numbness, dissociation, profound shame, deep depression, or extreme weariness, weakens pre-frontal connections with the rest of the brain. When this happens, it’s much harder to learn, be self-aware, be empathic, or regulate feelings and thoughts.
Of course it is not always easy to stay in the balanced, socially engaged emotional state that maximizes our pre-frontal cortex’s response. Life, relationships, and our own wildly shifting mind can jack us up or drive us down in about a tenth of a second.
Try this tactic next time you find yourself in a conflict with someone else. Usually, in arguments, people look for what’s wrong about what the other person is saying and attack that, while amplifying what they’re convinced is right about their point of view. This often leads to a lot of talking, not much listening, and increasing hyper-arousal as each person—frustrated at not being heard and feeling attacked—seethes with hurt, anger, indignation, and/or outrage and keeps saying the same things louder and more urgently.
When helping people with this, I’ll say, “Picture yourself on an airplane when the flight attendant is doing the drill about putting on your own oxygen mask before you help with your child’s mask. These instructions are a perfect example of what you need to do in an argument. Get a hold of yourself first. Calm to mild-to-moderate arousal first. See what’s valid about the other’s position first. Then you can more productively relate to whoever is pissing you off or hurting you. You don’t let your spirit get too high or too low.”
Famed mathematician and systems theorist Anatol Rapoport developed principles in the 1960s that he applied to international negotiations. I’ve found that they’re also dynamite techniques for keeping your arousal levels at that mild-to-moderate target range, and helpful for resolving personal conflicts and lowering tension when you’re embroiled in an argument.
First, never try to persuade a person about anything until you’re certain they feel understood by you.
Second, if you see something you dislike in someone else, look for some of that in yourself; and if you see something you like in yourself, look for some of that in the other person. Say a husband and wife are arguing about their daughter Jenny, and he is disgusted with how his wife caves in to Jenny’s whining demands. He might tell himself, “Just last week, Jenny dinged her car and gave me all kinds of excuses, and I caved in and said we’d pay for it. I shouldn’t be so superior, I do the same thing.” He’s seeing the same problem in himself that he’s angry about in his wife. On the other hand, he might tell himself, “My wife is worried and concerned about Jenny, just like I am. I should give her a break.” He’s seeing the same virtues in his wife that he feels in himself.
Like most communication systems, this one sounds a lot easier that it actually is, because it’s very difficult to stay calm when you feel attacked. But if you can remember simple directions like “Never let your spirit get too high or too low” when you’re upset, you can guide yourself to a stronger and more productive state of mind.
Thank you very much, Miyamoto Musashi.