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Self-regulation as a constant task: embracing life’s imperfect flow

By Rev. Jim Innes

Are we ever quiet? I mean truly still?

As living organisms, we throb with life continually and never do our minds or bodies turn off. Meditation promises the most peace and is of great benefit. I also believe we can shift into neutral (a trance-like noiselessness).

However, we don’t ever roll to a complete stop. We are continually regulating, internally and externally, some manner of biological or social stimulation. Since childhood, we have been learning (or not learning) how to set limits and manage emotions, attention, and behavior. Such adaptation is arguably our most active human task.

We are continually managing responses governed by our nervous system, or adjusting to our emotional reactions, or modifying our thinking and trying to retain information, or sifting through our memories, or assessing social cues, or experiencing feelings of empathy, or on and on…. perhaps many all at the same time. Moreover, given that eternal stimulation effects internal stimulation, we are bound to a continual cycle of adjustment. The green light is always blinking.

We are always in some manner of disruption, and we can typically manage it without a second thought. Nonetheless, we will not always make the best choices. We live in a learning curve. Moreover, if our behavior is not too far off the acceptable mark, we move on while being kind to ourselves (usually by trying to forget our moment of ‘craziness’).

As an everyday example, think of the last time you were cut off in traffic, or someone butt into line in front of you. Even for those of you who can ‘pull it back’ quickly, there is a lingering shame that, if you’re like me, you try to suppress.

However, in saying this, we must be mindful that when we may make the same (less than perfect) choice, over and again, there are adverse effects. These effects can be both internal (in our body) and external (in our relationships): meaning, physical and emotional illness or social conflict, or both.

The truth is, despite our intentions, we will react ‘badly’ in certain situations. Most times, we forgive ourselves and move forward. However, there are situations of unexpected disruption that trigger panicked emotions (fear or pain or anger). And when we find ourselves in such emotional distress, our choices become limited, and regrettably, we create more problems than when it all began.

So, getting back to the beginning of this article, self-regulation is a constant task. As I see it, in managing this task, what becomes essential is reasonable diligence. We consider not only our critics but to our bodies and our conscience. We monitor external conflict and ask questions about our responsibility (even more than looking into the responsibility others ought to take).

A few months back I quoted Timber Hawkeye, a Buddhist writer, “You can’t calm the storm, so stop trying. What you can do is calm yourself and the storm will pass.” Calming yourself is a fundamental truth in self-regulation. It places the process of managing life’s bumps squarely in our own hands.

Too often, we seek ‘asylum’ from disruptions by running or blaming; everything but looking at ourselves.  We might find the culprit, and we might be offered compensation, but not often.

In my experience, our energy is more wisely spent managing our reactions and developing resilience through practical cognitive reasoning and a compassionate embrace of life’s confusing and imperfect flow.

Rev. Jim Innes is the rector of the Regional Ministry of South Huron.
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