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  • Lenore Lambert

The negative eddy

Do you ever find that there’s a long emotional tail to an unpleasant event? Someone says something unkind and three hours later you find all manner of dramas have taken up residence in your mental cinema? A film festival of sorts.


If so, you may have been in what I call a negative eddy. An unpleasant event can have an inertia, some kind of centrifugal force that lures you into a rumination loop. It perpetuates and even magnifies unpleasant feelings, keeping them going way past their use-by moment.

Being able to spot a negative eddy is super helpful. It loosens its grip on you immediately and gives you the space to respond skilfully.


I run a Whatsapp chat for frequent users of my local athletics track. It’s mostly a good little group – people share information, pick up each other’s stuff if we forget it, and work together when we need to extract help from the not-terribly-effective staff who run the facility.


A side effect of this is that a greater sense of community has emerged in our sport which, being an individual sport, can sometimes be lacking.


On the downside, we have one group member who’s prone to unnecessary negativity. I’ve been really clear with everyone as they joined that there are two groundrules for our group:


1) Participate (no lurkers); and

2) No unnecessary negativity – sharing disappointments or frustration is ok, disagreeing respectfully is ok, but unnecessary negativity is not.


A few weeks ago this group member crossed the line….again. I messaged her directly and asked very nicely if she could try and be more constructive.


In response I received a broad verbal spray. I say broad because it ranged over a bunch of topics that had nothing to do with the issue at hand, including her view that her greater age meant that she knew more than me about coaching and that because she used to work in the construction industry, she knows more about real life than someone like me who is a life coach. (I’m not a life coach, but anyhooo….) You get the idea….she went off at me in some unexpected ways.


This was a little bit of a shock to me. Not a complete shock – I knew she was prone to being a bit negative in written word, but she’s always been friendly to me in person. And her spray revealed to me that she was feeling competitive with me as a coach which I hadn’t known.


The only explanation I could find when I racked my brain for one, was that one of her Long Jump athletes had signed up to do a sprinting technique assessment with me. Technically, she can do sprints coaching, but I offer a specific assessment session which no-one else does, and this athlete (whom I referred to her for Long Jump training in the first place) signed up for it.


After I’d received this unpleasant reaction, I noticed that for a few days, the mind was showing a variety of movies at my mental cinema, with the theme of: Who do you think you are to…….


There was one from early in my athletics days, starring a woman on the squad I’d just joined who was in love with our coach, and felt threatened by my presence. She spent two years trying to undermine me and to convince said coach to throw me out. He wouldn’t. That made things worse and in the end I left the squad because it was so stressful and I didn’t believe it was going to change.


Part of her MO was to look for ways to show that she knew more than I did. It was actually true at the time, and I never pretended otherwise, but it was always delivered as a put down which wasn’t much fun.


Another mental movie starred me as a Secular Buddhist teacher. I began offering occasional teachings about 10 years ago. I'm now the regular teacher at a local group, and have recently co-led a retreat with the world’s most prominent Secular Buddhist teacher, Stephen Batchelor.


The thing is, I’m not a normal teacher. I’m especially not a normal female teacher. Buddhist teachers are not usually elite athletes or entrepreneurs. Female Buddhist teachers are usually gently spoken and ooze warmth and softness. They use words like energy and heart and spirit and soul a lot.


I’m not like that and so the whole time I’ve been teaching, I’ve been shadowed by self-doubt. There have been people over time (mostly women interestingly) who have self-selected out of my teachings for these reasons.


For example, I question things quite rigorously, regardless of who utters them. I own up to mind activity that’s not compassionate (usually in the context of working it through, but nevertheless I share that it came up), or I give voice to unhelpful or contradictory teachings from nice Buddhist monks.


Who am I to be doing this? was the exact phrase that used to come to me in those moments. What makes me think I should be a Buddhist teacher?


These movies played for a little while before I realised what was going on. I’d been sucked into a negative eddy. 


What tipped me off was the antiquity of the movies, and their well-worn character. These were old movies that I’d seen a million times before. Why were they all cuing up to play now?

Because I’d had an unpleasant experience with the same theme (who do you think you are to…..) that my mind has associated with pain.


As I wrote in my last post, our minds are well intended but only semi-skilled friends. They try to protect us, so if they get wind of danger nearby, they sound the alarm and put us on high alert.


This is what my mind was doing. The athletics movie was extremely painful. For almost two years, I experienced rejection and fear of further rejection, should this woman-on-a-mission succeed in poisoning my reputation.


As I’ve said before, us humans feel rejection very strongly – as physical pain in fact. We need to belong. And a big part of that painful episode was having someone frequently assert that they knew more than I did.


Can you see the parallels between the two situations? And why my mind hit the high alert button and ensured I was paying attention to the dangerous issue it detected in the vicinity? Its way of keeping me focused on it was to keep playing Who do you think you are movies. My well intended but only semi-skilled friend was being over-cautious to danger.


Simply seeing this began to disempower it.  So my practical tip for this post is to notice when you've been sucked in - when the mind flies into rumination mode, especially if the mental movies being replayed are old ones that have had a good airing before. Ask yourself what triggered it, and what is the theme of the rumination? Is there a common theme among the mental movies that have been curated for this film festival?

Next week I’ll offer some more practical suggestions for how to extract ourselves from negative eddies once we’ve noticed we're in their grip.

In the meantime, your practical challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to simply notice when you've been sucked into a negative eddy, and then notice what happens once you've recognised it.

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