Janet L. Factor was born in the soot-showered industrial city of Barberton, Ohio, where as a girl she kept her head down and counted toads, turtles and snakes in the grass. She graduated magna cum laude from Hiram College, Phi Beta Kappa, having devoured a degree in biology, imbibed a minor in history, and nibbled on delectable side dishes of art and literature.
Janet has expanded on that liberal arts tradition by studying and teaching dance, martial arts, and yoga. A devotee of Jacob Bronowski, Janet was convinced by him of the deep connection between art and science. At home she pursues the art of garden design while creating backyard wildlife habitat, and has recently acquired the courage to play at painting.
After nineteen years in the Finger Lakes paradise of upstate New York, Janet now resides in the prairie home of Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, where in 2006 her first act was to found Springfield Area Freethinkers as a haven from the heavy red fog of faith that permeates the region. Here she began writing, first for Free Inquiry and then Secular Humanist Bulletin, where she is a contributing editor and for five years has authored the column “Heart & Mind,” which seeks to reconcile the demands of reason and emotion to construct a wise approach to life.
This is a four part series by Janet L. Factor that was originally published via the Secular Humanist Bulletin.
We must no more ask whether the soul and body are one than ask whether the wax and the figure impressed on it are one.
Our bodies are our gardens to which our wills are gardeners.
– William Shakespeare
We all realize we can’t choose our feelings, but we seldom think about what that means. Emotions arise outside the conscious mind. They inhabit pathways that evolution shaped from the ancient parts of the brain to rule the body before thought was an option. Conscious processing is too slow to ensure survival in a perilous world. Instinctive responses keep us alive.
The classic example is a person who recoils on unexpectedly encountering a bit of dropped rope. It is only a moment later, after higher-brain analysis of the image has occurred, that they realize it is not, after all, a snake. Too late, if it had How did that man now shakily laughing at himself become aware of his fear? Likely he saw a vivid vision of a snake, jaws agape, flashing into his mind as he leapt back. Emotion, predating language, resorts to imagery when it must needs claim our attention. But even more, his body’s reaction told him. He did not think fear; he felt it, quite literally. Emotions are not just called feelings, they are feelings: sensations, not thoughts.
Find this hard to believe? Basic emotions have unique physical patterns that are universal. These include facial expression, posture, certain gestures or behaviors, muscle tension, sweating, and changes in those baseline markers of physiology, breathing, pulse, and blood pressure. The ease of perceiving heartbeat changes is probably the reason that the heart is traditionally seen as the seat of emotion—thus the name of this column.
Meticulously instruct another person, muscle by muscle, to put a particular look on their face, and they will experience its associated emotion, right down to the physiological markers, even though they don’t know what the expression is. Getting strangers in a lab to gaze into one another’s eyes for two minutes induces romantic feelings between them. (Unscrupulous characters like Rasputin and Joseph Smith exploit this by purposely prolonging eye contact.)
We can even be mistaken about what we feel. Scientists have found that others seem more attractive when we encounter them in a situation that quickens our pulse for other reasons: crossing a frightening suspension bridge, or—the practical application of this knowledge—attending a scary movie.
To have an emotion, then, is to be in a bodily state. It follows that if we can alter our bodily state, we can alter our feelings. The anxious are tense, not just metaphorically but literally. Induce a deep state of physical relaxation, and their anxiety vanishes. It doesn’t just retreat to the brain; it no longer exists.
But we can do much more than banish feelings; we can deliberately evoke an emotion, bring it to our aid when needed, by using our knowledge and directing our body into the appropriate pose, facial expression, and physiological condition.The more closely we mimic the natural consequences of a spontaneous feeling, the more successfully we will create its equivalent. Hence the tendency of actors to fall into affairs with their opposite romantic lead.
Full emotional mastery thus depends on much more than reason’s iron will. It requires skill as well. We need not only understanding but practice—bodily practice. It’s not by chance that spiritual traditions renowned for producing serene teachers are often closely associated with physical disciplines. Certainly it’s no coincidence that I began writing this column after studying and teaching martial arts, dance, and yoga. All such practices focus first on creating bodily awareness, aka “mindfulness,” then control. By mastering the body, the student begins to master the feelings it generates. Any physical discipline pursued with dedication ultimately matures to a mental one.
Practitioners know this. The word “yoga” comes from a Sanskrit root meaning to yoke or unite: mind with body or both with the universe. To a secular humanist, there is no difference between those two goals. Without the supernatural, there is no denying these essential unities, is there? Rather, they are inescapable truths. Might as well work with them, then.
Not to worry: there’s no need to become a guru. Once the principle is understood, there are many ways to apply it. Try this one: avoid caffeine before any task where you need to remain calm. Otherwise the increased heart rate, blood pressure, and muscular tension it produces may make you think you are nervous, and then you will be. Here’s another: if you’re a woman who needs to project authority, don high heels. The super-erect, open-front posture they force you to assume is that of a dominant primate, and will make you feel like one.
When working directly with the body, the easiest approach is regulating the breath. We all know the common advice “Take a deep breath” given to those who need to calm down. Why does this work? Because breathing pattern drives the other components of the basic physiological triad. Heart rate and blood pressure follow it through a series of reflexes. Slowing and deepening the breath, especially extending the exhalation, actually slows the pulse and lowers blood pressure. The opposite is also true. When you change these things, you change your emotional state. The next time you watch a film, notice how much of good acting consists of breathing appropriately. This is why.
That actress whose character we long to be uses mind to guide body in creating feeling, and by exercising her skill publicly, she chooses to grant us a shared experience. Just so, in individuals, body is where reason and emotion combine, while for society, it is art that marries intellect to instinct. But that’s another column.