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Thursday, March 5, 2015

The negative eddy

Ever had an unpleasant incident and then realised it set the tone for the rest of your day? All of a sudden you're expecting the worst, suspecting others of ill-intent, digging up old memories of difficult experiences, or even imagining new ones that haven't even happened. I call this a negative eddy. Want to know how to stop it? I've found two effective answers.

First, let's look at how the eddy works. Think of the eddy of water in your toilet. You press the flush button and a stream of water comes in, disturbs the pool and sets off a circular motion which then pulls everything it touches into the swirl. In the toilet, this is a good thing for the state of our bathroom. Thank you Sir Thomas Crapper (seriously, that's who invented the flush toilet!).

However in our body-mind, it's not so helpful. The mind swirls towards fear and stress and everything within reach is pulled into its momentum. I noticed this starkly one day at work when we'd lost a long term client for no other reason than a new executive who'd decided the way forward was cost cutting. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to find new clients for our business so losing one is extremely disappointing. 

I went to the bathroom. As I opened the door to the cubicle my mind played a mental movie that had me finding a dead person in there slumped on the toilet. Really?! No connection with reality at all. Just a fast moving negative eddy in my mind.

What's happening here is that my experience of the disappointing fact released cortisol and other stress hormones into my body. I'm now on high alert for danger. The mind goes into self protection mode - it wants to find the source of the threat, ultimately to protect me from it. But because there's nothing to run from or fight, it keeps looking. The mind has been hijacked into threat finding. If there's nothing it can respond to in the present, it will either dig up something from the past or create some kind of fiction for the future (even the next few seconds as per my entry through the cubicle door).

Cortisol takes quite a long time to dissipate from the body. So how do we release ourselves from the momentum of a negative eddy? Standing firmly on the shoulder of giants, I can offer two effective solutions:

  1. Exercise - I recently asked neuropsychologist Rick Hanson this exact question and he pointed to a solution that I've been using without realising it. He told me that exercise is possibly the most effective way to help the body rid itself of cortisol. I'm a Masters athlete and I train six times a week. When I reflected on it, I knew it to be true immediately. When I walk through the turnstyle as I leave the athletics track I know that any stress I brought in with me is always much less palpable by the time I'm walking out.
  2. Awareness - simply recognising a negative eddy as a negative eddy and watching it closely loosens its grip on you. When you can see what's happening, you can then make choices not to add to the momentum. I've found I don't take my own negativity so seriously and I'm more able to let it pass, to let the momentum just peter out of its own accord by not feeding it. I've also found telling my husband that this is what's happening is very helpful. He then knows not to take any grumpiness too seriously and he also knows I'm onto it....I'm not going to let it into the driver's seat.

One of the definitions of an eddy is a current that swirls against the stream. This is actually true of our body-mind too. Our normal resting state is not on high alert. Our normal resting state is 'rest and digest' mode. It's only when there is a disturbance of some kind that we find ourselves being buffeted around by reactive, often unconscious forces. This points to the productive capacity of negative eddies. We can actually use them for insight. Try these questions when you become aware of one:

  • What is my underlying fear here? Is it the basic need of safety, of satisfaction, or of connection? In my work scenario it was actually the satisfaction need. Losing a client meant more work to find new ones which meant less time available for my fulfilling pursuits (such as writing this blog and the Secular Buddhism Facebook Page). There was also a little touch of the safety need in there - the need to earn enough money to be ok.
  • How realistic is the fear? 
  • What can I do to self-soothe around these needs?

Gotama's teachings are all about seeing reality clearly - the causes and conditions that give rise to experience. I think this one's a powerful one to know well, to see clearly, and to manage intelligently.


  1. I've been informed by a reliable source (a local Buddhist teacher, Winton Higgins, who seems to know everything!) that Sir Thomas Crapper was responsible for the mass production of the flush toilet. He tells me however that similar contraptions have been around since ancient times and that: the flush toilet with a cistern (tank) was the 1596 brainchild of Sir John Harrington, and the addition of the S trap (to stop sewer odours) came in 1775 from Alexander Cummings.

    Facts officially corrected. :)

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