Years ago, I heard about a study measuring the sensory responses of Zen monks compared to the responses of everyday people. The results of this study were incredibly interesting and have far-reaching lessons for the rest of us. Here’s the study, in a nutshell (as my mother would say):
Researchers gathered a group of Zen monks in a room with a television monitor. After giving each monk a biomed sensor to monitor their reactions, they began showing random images on the screen. These images were, for the most part, violent images, shocking images, or very sexual images. In other words, they were the kind of images designed to excite. The hypothesis going into the study was that the spike in biological activity (heart rate, adrenaline, brain-wave activity, etc.) would be much lower than the spike for everyday people off the street. It wasn’t.
You see, here’s where it gets really interesting. The spike was almost identical for the monks and for the control group. The difference was in how quickly that spike came back down. For people in the control group, an image of a naked man or woman would cause a spike, and the activity would then REMAIN heightened for an extended period of time. It was generally measured in minutes. When the monks were shown the same image, the spike lasted mere seconds before returning to its baseline.
What this means for us
One of the themes that first occurred to me when I heard about this was the idea of forgiveness. Working as a therapist, forgiveness is a concept that I have spent a great deal of time exploring with clients. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the most fundamental aspect of forgiveness is the ability to let go. Not to forget, or to condone, or to “make what happened OK,” but simply the ability to “drop it,” exactly the way those monks did. There is no forgiveness without letting go. And there is no animosity without HOLDING ON.
Forgiveness is something we need to be good at if we’re living with diabetes. We need to be able to forgive ourselves when we “mess up,” whether the error is a lapse in willpower and a bad food choice, or a simple miscalculation of insulin or calories before a meal. We need to be able to forgive diabetes, too. And again, I don’t mean we need to let diabetes be a good thing, or a friend, or even OK. I mean we need to be able to unhook ourselves from it and not let it mandate our thoughts, our feelings, or our actions in the world.
Diabetes is a trauma we have all experienced, and continue to experience. Recovering from that trauma depends on OUR ability to let go. As long as we can’t let it go, it will keep us stuck in one place, like someone strapped to a mountain trying to pull it forward. Turning around and yelling at the mountain doesn’t help. Putting more effort into pulling it doesn’t help. But if we simply remove the shoulder straps, we can move forward.
In our day-to-day management of diabetes, this ability to let go might be called resilience. In baseball, it’s called “a short memory.” Pitchers need to have short memories. I’ve heard that metaphor a thousand times from play-by-play announcers and in interviews with pitchers. “You’ve gotta be able to forget what happened last inning, or even what happened last pitch, and focus on THIS pitch.” In other words, the spike in anxiety caused by one mistake pitch, or by one mistake-filled inning, needs to come back down quickly. It needs to come down just like it came down for those monks. Otherwise, that one spike will continue to reverberate into the next pitch, and the next, and the next. Before you know it, all focus is lost, all muscle memory is lost, and the game is over.
We need a short memory when it comes to our blood glucose. I know that sounds strange, but I’m not trying to suggest we don’t need to track our numbers, or remember the numbers themselves. What we need to forget is the stress. When we have a high number, we need to recognize it, get upset, and then let go. We need to forget — not the information, but the panic and the anxiety that came WITH it. Once we do that, we can think about the number clearly. We can think about how it fits with our food, our insulin, our activity that day. And we can move forward.
The moral of the story for me was this: Things happen, and when they do, it’s natural to react. Even people much further down the path toward enlightenment react. We all spike. We all get mad, we all get upset, we all feel anxiety, we all feel loss, pain, anger, and the whole spectrum of human feeling. What we need to practice is our ability to experience that emotion, and then move on.
You see, if no spike had occurred for those monks, it would have suggested repression, desensitization, and almost sociopathic lack of empathy and engagement with the world. No, what those monks knew how to do was live in the moment. They responded, and moved forward. They didn’t get stuck, they didn’t wallow, they didn’t strap themselves to a mountain and try to pull forward. They let go.