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How to Lose Your Mind Responsibly

movie cinema

It took me years to discover this, but I become really uptight in movie theaters. Usually I’m pretty easygoing, but whenever I enter a room with rows of seats and a large screen, I have an incredibly difficult time relaxing.

It’s as though I develop certain mild mental illnesses as soon as I walk in. Suddenly I have misophonia—I can’t bear the sound of people eating anything, or crinkling packages, even though everyone is eating something, and has every right to. I feel paranoid and persecuted, as though my precious public movie experience will inevitably be ruined one or more persistently clumsy, noisy, or smelly moviegoers.

Even when nobody is doing anything annoying yet, my mind is poised for judgment, almost waiting for a reason to get mad. Undoubtedly, someone is going to talk through the whole thing, explaining to their partner all the references they catch, or asking plot questions the movie itself hasn’t answered yet. Every movie experience begins with a sense of impending loss.

I may be overstating this effect a little—describing the private emotional convulsions of your mind always makes you sound crazy, because we so seldom do it—but there’s no question that my capacity for judgment and indignation mushrooms at the cinema, regardless of what’s actually happening around me on any particular visit. 

I think this location-dependent uptightness happens to everyone, in some form. For each of us there are a few semi-regular situations that make us a little (or a lot) more reactive than usual. Maybe for you it’s driving on freeways, standing in queues, or visiting malls. What actually happens there has less of an effect on you than your expectation that it will be (or could be) an unpleasant or infuriating experience.

A common “agitation zone” seems to be the inside of airplanes, especially if that plane is not moving. People seem to be generally less patient, less charitable and more prone to blame others during airline experiences. My friend who is a flight attendant has confirmed my suspicions that many otherwise laid back people go at least slightly mad on planes.

Human beings are certainly capable of being rational and equanimous, but maybe only in the same way that the Pacific Northwest is capable of being sunny. For the most part we are emotional creatures, prone to frequent and dramatic losses of perspective.

I don’t think we quite appreciate how normal it is to be nuts much of the time. In his speech about modern love and dating, Alain de Botton suggests that when we meet a prospective partner, one of the first things we should find a way to ask is, “So, how are you crazy?”

Presumably we should have already asked ourselves this question in private. And if we don’t fully grasp how we are crazy, simply knowing where and when we tend to lose our grip on patience and rationality can be tremendously helpful.

While you’re under its spell, it’s hard to detect your own mounting unreasonableness. Indignation always feels justified to the person feeling it. Simply knowing when it tends to happen to you allows you to game-plan for it.

My cinema craziness began to fade the moment I recognized I had cinema craziness. I learned, for example, to consciously allow the odd handbag thump the back of my head as people fill in the row behind me. After all, the bag itself doesn’t actually harm me; the pain of it is all in the reaction. Even the odd mid-film cell-phone ring isn’t nearly as disruptive as the internal sermon we unleash in the minutes following.

The effect of this basic awareness is profound. What a gift it is to simply recognize our favorite kinds of indignation, even if that doesn’t give us the power to stop them from welling up. Our reactivity can only reach mood-ruining levels when we’re unaware we’re being reactive.

That simple knowing—I tend to get uptight right about here—shifts the focus to your own contribution to the problem, allowing you to recognize that the outside world might not be entirely responsible for the dark turn in your current experience, removing the sense of powerlessness from it.

For years my commute included a merge onto a busy boulevard. For those of you who don’t know (and I gather there are many who don’t) in order to merge cleanly with a busy street you need to match your vehicle’s speed to that of the busy street’s traffic. Out of survival instinct I suppose, many drivers slow down to a near-stop in the merge lane, which means they have to wait for a relatively huge gap in the traffic before they, or anyone else, can go. If you keep up your speed, you only need a few car lengths.

Most mornings, when I came up to this particular intersection, somebody was in the middle of botching the merge in this way. And off my mind would go, ranting to itself about proper merging procedures, and maybe morphing into a related tirade on city planning, continuing until I got to the office and some other crisis took over.

All of this reacting was useless—regardless of how other drivers acted, I’d get to go when my chance came up, and my scowls and mutterings didn’t influence anything outside of my own car. But there’s something gratifying, even addictive, about slipping into a favorite rant, at least until we start to see how tired and predictable a pattern it is.

One day, I felt that familiar indignation right when I turned onto the quiet feeder street, still five blocks away from the merge at the boulevard. My face was beginning to harden, my lungs preparing to let out an impatient sigh, when it occurred to me I was nowhere near the intersection, or even any other drivers.

It was like my brain was saying clearly, “Okay David, here’s the part where you very predictably lose your mind.” And for the first time, I didn’t.


Photo by Fabrice Florin


David October 5, 2016 at 2:52 am

What you’re talking about here seems to be situations when you get frustrated, but I’ve got something similar that just makes me feel awkward.

When getting change in back from a shop assistant there’s that moment when they’ve finished their job, the person behind you in the queue wants to be served and the only thing stopping them is you figuring out how to put your change in your wallet ( which needs two hands ) and pick up what you just bought ( needs one hand or more ). It’s such a silly small thing but it’s amazing how often it leaves me feeling awkward or embarrassed, even for a few minutes after leaving the shop. Thinking about it logically I’m sure 99.999% of people havent noticed a thing!

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Christy October 5, 2016 at 5:30 am

I often experience the same thing, and after nearly losing my credit card and/or wallet because I was feeling “rushed”, I decided that I just have to take my time and those precious few seconds…people in line will just have to wait! Have you ever counted how many seconds it takes? I have, and really, you are not making people wait that long, helped to make me feel it was OK to take my time! This article really “spoke” to me.

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Heather October 5, 2016 at 1:21 pm

YES. This. God forbid I should have both dollars and coins to put away, as those go in 2 different spots in my wallet and one has an extra zipper to zip and unzip. Oh the awkwardness.

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David Cain October 5, 2016 at 8:44 am

Yes this is a great example. I did focus on irritability in this article but it works the same for awkwardness, impatience, prudishness, or any other uptight quality.

In this situation I’ve learned to calmly step aside if possible, and if not, to just let the other person get impatient instead of me. It’s a few seconds, really. But it took a lot of repetitions to become comfortable with it.

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Dollar Flipper October 5, 2016 at 9:27 am

Is it bad that I get a bit of guilty pleasure seeing others becoming uncomfortable in a situation that I used to get uncomfortable in? Similar to seeing a random parent trying to deal with a crazy child. I’m happy that it’s not my kid, I’m empathetic with the parent since it’s so hard to be in that situation, but deep down inside I’m also eating popcorn and enjoying the show.

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Heather October 5, 2016 at 1:24 pm

I’ve had the urge to collect the many statements of David’s that have stood out to me over time and put them all somewhere easy to access, ya know, in case of emergency.
If I ever get around to that, this gem is surely going at the top:
“just let the other person get impatient instead of me.”
This sounds like heaven.

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Kate Z. October 5, 2016 at 4:48 pm

The worst is when I take my time in a situation like that but my boyfriend starts feeling one of those “uptight qualities” FOR me in front of all those strangers… I’ve tried explaining to him that “I” should be more important than these strangers that we would never see again. I’ll forward this article and also try “just let the other person get impatient instead of me” on him.

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Suzanne October 15, 2016 at 9:20 pm

Funny enough my “Thought to Reflect Upon” post for this month on my own blog dealt with this very same issue.

However, Katie, I know exactly what you are describing. My husband is very self-conscious and I am the opposite, so I can handle the impatience of others (especially strangers) quite well.

His impatience hits a little too close to home, though. I think it’s a combination of feeling like I should not have to protect myself from him, since he’s very (intimately) close to me, and because his behavior reflects upon me, which is something I do find embarrassing.

It has taken many, many years for me to create a little space between what he’s doing and how I feel about it so that I can find my patience with him at that moment. I hope you can also find that same peace of mind in your own world!

David Cain October 6, 2016 at 8:23 am

The worst is when I take my time in a situation like that but my boyfriend starts feeling one of those “uptight qualities” FOR me in front of all those strangers… I’ve tried explaining to him that “I” should be more important than these strangers that we would never see again. I’ll forward this article and also try “just let the other person get impatient instead of me” on him.

Heh… but clearly you are impatient with him for being impatient. That’s what’s so fascinating about this — the opportunity to be with the current is experience is always available to us, on our own end, without changing anyone else’s behavior.

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Katia October 5, 2016 at 3:18 pm

Good to know I’m not the only one who feels anxious about this from time to time. I always rush to put the change back in my wallet.

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Michael Peep October 5, 2016 at 3:37 am

Another great post David.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing a lot recently after reading a ton of posts and articles on psychology, hypnosis, etc… Your blog is definitely one of the best sources of insight on the inner workings of the mind, you have a great way of noticing things and explaining them in a way that resonates deeply.

I actually deal with the issue in a different way than you, though. I don’t try to always stay in control as the original me, I create different personas which fit in different situations.

A typical example is when I’m crossing a busy road with my kids. I live in Cambodia and generally people are not very respectful of the traffic law or of pedestrians, who are a rare breed. A traffic accident for my kids is pretty much the biggest risk to my happiness, and therefore protecting them is the priority. As soon as we set foot on the road, I’m not me anymore. I’m usually really laid back and easy going, but when my kids are crossing the street, I’m basically in Rambo mode: WAR IN MY BLOOD.

As soon as the crossing’s over I start feeling my parasympathetic nervous system reactivating, my blood starts flowing normally again, I start to relax… The change takes place in a few seconds. It’s impossible not to notice it, it’s a really intense change that completely transforms my fight or flight response, but I also don’t really want to stop it from happening, because it keeps the most important people in my life safe.

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David Cain October 5, 2016 at 8:47 am

In situations where there is actual danger, Rambo mode is definitely appropriate.

I think noticing the rising symptoms is more important than whether you actually are able to control yourself though. Self-aware Rambo mode is much better than not realizing you’ve gone Rambo

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John Norris October 5, 2016 at 3:42 am

>> Indignation always feels justified <<

Yes. We even label it "righteous anger". What helped me was to see it as "self-righteous" anger – my moral view of the universe has been violated! We are such primadonna's :)

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David Cain October 5, 2016 at 8:49 am

I know! Self-righteousness is a fascinating quality because it always comes with this sense that you’re on the right side, even if you’re contradicting another equally self-righteous person.

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Dollar Flipper October 5, 2016 at 9:22 am

The traffic one is always tough for me. I don’t enjoy when I’m letting it get to me, but even worse than being the driver in that situation is when you’re stuck as the passenger with a crazy driver.

And the stopping while merging terrifies me because it’s dangerous. I don’t get angry anymore when someone’s just trying to weave back and forth in slower traffic. Definitely not worth it there!

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David Cain October 5, 2016 at 12:25 pm

Right, as a driver at least you have something to control!

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Heather October 5, 2016 at 1:31 pm

Indeed! When I moved to Washington DC for grad school, I left my car behind and took the bus everywhere. I spent the first year sitting in the very front and watching the traffic and mentally willing the bus to maneuver as I wanted it to, and losing my mind when it didn’t, which was always.
I tell people now that it took me at least a year to finally accept that I couldn’t drive the bus with my brain. And once I got that, my rides changed completely. I came to love the “free time.”

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Lorrie Beauchamp October 5, 2016 at 9:29 am

David, I love your fresh and refreshing look at life…. thanks so much for pointing to those irrational moments of inexplicable rage that most of us choose to ignore or overlook. I live in a highrise building amid construction sites, and the sound of trucks BEEPING and leaf blowers BLASTING and lawnmowers GRINDING has become a huge source of instant rage. I sit there during meditation and try to tune it out, knowing how ridiculous and pointless the rage is. I trust in the power of awareness, and am trying to conquer this… instead of moving to a cave in the mountains or volunteering for a solo mission to Mars.

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kim domingue October 5, 2016 at 10:41 am

Might I suggest foam ear plugs? I live in a neighborhood where a lot of people throw parties on the weekends. The BOOM ba ba BOOM BOOM, BOOM ba ba BOOM BOOM until the wee hours of the morning was enough to make me feel homicidal! I found that foam ear plugs with a 32 decibel rating muffled the noise to a level that I could tolerate. Perhaps the ear plugs would help with your meditation.

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David Cain October 5, 2016 at 12:29 pm

I have been working a lot with that particular kind of annoyance in meditation. My upstairs neighbor makes an incredible amount of noise just walking around (I swear he sprints everywhere in his apartment.

What I’ve been doing is noticing not just the sound, but the effect it has on my body. I can’t stop the response from happening, but if I can be aware of both the sound and my body’s response at the same time, often the annoyance disappears. And really, it is an interconnected phenomenon happening. It’s as though his big clumsy feet are connected to my body and heart — in a sense, they really are — and if I can be aware of the whole thing as a single phenomena, it’s much easier to accept without getting uppity.

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Heather October 5, 2016 at 1:39 pm

Hi Lorrie,
Until you are called up for you mission, I would also offer something I read years ago from Eckhart Tolle that always stuck with me.
When a noise is making you crazy, visualize the noise itself as a force you can see and imagine that it’s sort of barreling into you from wherever it came. Then imagine that you become sort of transparent, and when the noise comes at you again, it can flow right through you and out the other side.
Not saying I can always do this, but when I can, it’s like one minute I’m “resisting” the noise and then when I become transparent, I’m literally and in my imagination, no longer “resisting” the noise.
I also love David’s suggestion. Definitely going to try that, too.

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David Cain October 6, 2016 at 8:35 am

I have done this too, and strangely, it works most of the time. If we picture it going through us, it sometimes short-circuits that “indignation loop” that starts up when people are behaving in ways we don’t approve of. It becomes more about the fact that it is just sound waves, and isn’t necessarily about ourselves.

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Kate Z October 5, 2016 at 9:59 pm


I second the suggestion about earplugs (I use 33 dB rating) or noise canceling headphones, with some nature sounds recording. Sometimes it’s harder to use David’s suggestion, and if it’s human voices or songs it’s pretty much impossible; I read that our minds respond differently when we hear people speaking, so meditation becomes so much harder.
And to Heather’s suggestion: I am one of those people for whom visualisation is very hard or not possible at all and it’s not helping… Now the condition even has a name – aphantasia: up to 1 in 50 people has it (one of the articles that came up in 2015 when it was “discovered”: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/23/science/aphantasia-minds-eye-blind.html )

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Kaelan strouse October 5, 2016 at 10:09 am

Thank you, David!

As always, your posts are thoroughly engaging and delightful insightful. You’re the only blog where I try to read every posting. Please keep up the great work!

Peace and wellbeing, Kaelan :)

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David Cain October 5, 2016 at 12:29 pm

Thanks so much, Kaelan.

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Marcin October 5, 2016 at 10:14 am

I think it is perfectly understandable that you get distracted during a film screening by the sound of people stuffing their faces with popcorn and slurping fizzy drinks. I wonder, don’t you have any cinemas in Canada where eating in the auditorium is forbidden? In my country (Poland) there are some cinemas (even multi-screen venues) where the audience is reminded to switch off their mobiles and refrain from eating. Because of this policy, these are also my favourite places to enjoy the cinema.

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David Cain October 5, 2016 at 12:32 pm

It is understandable yes, but the greater part of the annoyance is coming from my end, my own internal reaction to it. So if I can manage that part better it’s really not much of a problem.

I would love no-food cinemas, but I’m pretty sure we don’t have them here. Mobiles are definitely not allowed, but occasionally someone forgets to turn theirs off.

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kim domingue October 5, 2016 at 10:45 am

Did anyone see the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” with Cathy Bates? The scene in the parking lot where she goes all “Towanda!” on the teenage girls car? Yep. That’s me in any random parking lot on any given day.

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David Cain October 5, 2016 at 12:32 pm

You know I have never seen that. It’s good?

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Cara October 22, 2016 at 6:53 am

David, you absolutely need to at least Google that particular clip from the movie :)

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Paul Anthony October 5, 2016 at 10:46 am

I remember writing, “The only sane people are those who are half nuts, otherwise they’d be crazy.

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David Cain October 5, 2016 at 12:38 pm

“The mark of sanity is recognizing one’s own lunacy”

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Paul Anthony October 5, 2016 at 2:09 pm

I like that–loftier put.

In a more quotidian, common way:

The only way to be totally sane is to be half nuts.

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Martin October 5, 2016 at 12:14 pm

I think that this sense of righteous indignation is significantly fueled by the way in which we are brought up and the way in which our parents have conditioned our standards of what an ideal form of behavior is in a perfect world. If you are brought up by someone who has a very strong sense of fairness, justice and self-control (emotional sublimation), you are likely to be constantly measuring the behavior of others against that high ideal. It is interesting to me that people who grow up in non-anglo-saxon cultures are far less self conscious about the impact that their behavior has on others then people who are brought up in a “northern”/calvinistic/emotion-hyper-regulating civilization. This is why it is immensely frustrating for an Englishman to stand in line at an Italian post office. The internal dialogue in the Anglo-saxon person’s head that is sparked by the constant need among Italians to fill an empty space can be debilitating. The same kind of experience can be had by a Canadian tourist driving in Istanbul or Mexico City. We need to remind ourselves daily that the popcorn eaters and slow lane mergers simply didn’t have parents who gave a shit, and stop judging their offspring by our mom’s marshmallow-resisting standards.

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David Cain October 5, 2016 at 12:37 pm

That is definitely a huge factor. I know that my heightened irritability in vehicles was at least partly learned from my dad’s heightened irritability in vehicles. We internalize certain things as greater and lesser injustices, and even when they don’t make logical sense, those reactions happen much more easily.

Standards for all kinds of behavior really vary from country to country. How close to stand in line, how quickly to go to the counter when it’s your turn, or whether to line up at all or just elbow your way to the front. It’s really kind of fascinating.

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Nicole October 5, 2016 at 5:22 pm

I think you hit the nail on the head. I was raised to be mindful of other people and have manners and I get very indignant when I don’t get the same consideration in return. Ironically it’s often from the people who raised me and/or my siblings, so you’d think they would know better!

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Renato October 5, 2016 at 2:49 pm

I love you!

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David Cain October 6, 2016 at 8:23 am
Paige October 5, 2016 at 3:21 pm

This really resonated with me today. It reminds me of something my grandfather used to say: “Turn your brain off.” There’s just some things in life that don’t deserve your mental energy and turning my brain off is very satisfying, like I’m in on this secret that makes me calmer and happier than the people around me. Thanks, David, for reminding me of my grandfather. I’ll be more deliberate about “turning my brain off” this week!

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David Cain October 6, 2016 at 8:27 am

I know that “in on this secret” feeling. The author Richard Carlson talked about being the “eye of the storm” — the calm, windless center around which everyone else and their craziness are whirling. It is an amazing feeling to be calm in an uptight or excited crowd.

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Katia October 5, 2016 at 3:29 pm

I’m currently reading de Botton’s The Course of Love and am enjoying his insights into the human relationship narrative as we have come to know it in popular culture and its expectations. As I read this edition of your blog, I drew a blank when I asked myself about my personal craziness. Then I read David’s comment, above, about rushing to put change back into one’s wallet at the checkout counter and realized that although this isn’t something that I analyze or even so much as keep in mind, the anxiety is there from time to time. My crazy changes constantly and depends on the state of my mind. We are oh-so-good at keeping ourselves on our toes.

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David Cain October 6, 2016 at 8:25 am

That’s the thing about craziness: our own craziness is invisible to us until we see it reflected in some way. For me and the movie theater it was when I noticed that I was getting mad at people for the “inconsiderate” behavior of eating popcorn in a movie theater, of all places. Suddenly it was clear that the dysfunction was on my end.

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Paula October 5, 2016 at 3:49 pm

Well David, it’s clear we live in the same city as I start feeling that irritation merging from northbound Route 90 onto Portage Ave, especially as the merging lane is the same lane that takes the Portage travelers onto southbound Route 90. I, too, have recognized that FURY welling up at seemingly inept drivers, but since I have to take that route daily, I consciously try to shut off the ranting in my brain, including against the city planners…
I’ve been reading your blog for a long time (years!) and your posts always resonate with me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about life; it will never be “perfect” (whatever that is), but it’s rewarding to keep trying.

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David Cain October 6, 2016 at 8:29 am

Oh that one from eastbound portage to southbound Route 90 is the worst. It’s almost blind coming off that ramp, and if you have to get all the way over to the Academy turnoff it’s just horrible. I do anything to avoid it.

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Barbara October 5, 2016 at 8:34 pm

I have the opposite reaction, David. Inside a movie theatre, I feel fully alive, and feel interested now in discovering what this context means for me. Strangely, I have avoided them for a long time Crazy good writer you are… picking out activities of daily living, and imbuing them with new meanings.

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David Cain October 6, 2016 at 8:31 am

Our reaction spots are definitely different for everyone. I feel extremely at ease in concerts and sports events, but movies are something different to my brain.

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Rob Cornelius October 6, 2016 at 7:01 am

This is essentially Stoicism for the modern world.

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David Cain October 6, 2016 at 8:33 am

Yes. Or Buddhism. Or Daoism. This really powerful concept of allowing your experience to be what it already is has been known for a long time but it is still so uncommon to actually practice it.

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Sally October 7, 2016 at 8:44 pm

Another gem thank you David. Isn’t it great when you feel you are making progress with something that used to irritate you (or bother you in another way), but doesn’t any more. I feel in the last few years, and partly from what I have learned right here, I am making progress. More equanimity.

Thanks also for the Alain de Botton link, I watched and enjoyed the whole thing and will need to read some of his work now.

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Marco Thomazini October 10, 2016 at 4:48 pm

Nice article. Learning self-control is something that always worked for me, the way you described. Good news is, once you learn it for a situation, you can start applying for other situations, Bad news, it’s always easier to find another thing to get annoyed. :-)


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Migatita October 12, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Omg! Libraries, book stores, record stores! Like I’m being judged by those watching, will she be able to find what she’s looking for, or wonder like an idiot aimlessly.

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wrkrb October 12, 2016 at 6:17 pm

Songbirds and humans regulate their heartbeats unconsciously in response to sounds. Some tones can also impact our brain wave state. Not to say that mindfulness can’t neutralize these phenomenon but to put the sound irritations into a broader context – we are evolved to receive and respond to sounds to orient us. Visualizing the sound waves probably works because it’s an oppprtunity to consciously program audio receptors to deprioritize that stimulus as it relates to security. “The health of any self organizing system depends upon its ability to transfer energy through it.”

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Fun ForEver82 October 15, 2016 at 12:37 pm

Thanks , I watched and enjoyed the whole thing and will need to read some of his work now.

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