The succession of steps that form the double helix of our DNA is formed from four molecular components repeated over and over again in ways that drape chains of meaning that scientists are seeking to interpret.  Complete genomes are being uncovered this decade, but mysteries persist.  Evolutionary developmental biologists offer an insight that many genes are devoted to constructing a highly sophisticated feedback system that only decides what features to assign to their growing charge after information from the environment has been noted and interpreted.

Four emotions, like a four-chord folk song, sing their way across the arc of my 55 years.  They often pair up, forming temporary alliances and compelling me to dance through life to different ditties.  Fear, anger, grief and joy form the DNA of my emotions.  How they match up informs the dynamic of my day.

Last night, I woke up screaming.  It was the first time in several years.  Earlier, it was not infrequent that when fear had been stalking me during daylight, terror leapt up once I had lost consciousness.

It’s the same thing every time.  Having fallen asleep, a part of me wakes and is aware of the deep divide between consciousness and unconsciousness.  I feel very close to death.  I count how old I am in years.  I determine death is close.  Terror washes through my body like a tidal wave of razor blades.  I awake fully and scream.

When I was a child, I’d awake but squelch the screaming.  I was feeling death nearby.  Pounding my fist into the bed board, I would convert the terror first into rage, and then into pain.  Mastering the unmagic of emotion transformation, I grew adept at shifting away from emotions I was determined not to feel.  On rare occasions, I’d wake the next morning noting bloody knuckles where this dark alchemy had taken a longer time to work.

I remember that on one of those nights, I vowed to become a scientist and invent immortality so that I wouldn’t have to die.  Maybe I was seven or eight.  Consoled by that commitment, I could fall asleep.

Older, I began to explore the metaphysics of consciousness, looking for ways to feel frightened less, and maybe even feel joy.  I was encouraged to make anxiety my teacher.  I gave fear attention instead of driving it away.  Bridging terror to attention, I began to be able to embrace people and to relax with lovers.  The bed board and my fist met less and less.

Emotions pair up in a myriad of ways.  In my personal DNA, terror, fear and anxiety have been a link to joy.  The path between the two sides has not been particularly direct, but the bond is nonetheless powerful and long standing.  Having spent so much of my life feeling frightened, I have been deeply motivated to feel another way.

Accompanying myself with attention allows natural transitions in emotion.  A past master in deliberate emotion shift, this natural path leaves me far more open to what is occurring in my environment.  Offering myself attention paradoxically makes it more possible for me to be influenced by what is happening around me.  Facing fear engenders trust.  In this new world, anxiety can lead to joy.  I’m just not in control of where or when.

In just the way that evolutionary developmental biologists are discovering that the environment exerts enormous influence upon the unique unfolding of every being, the more we provide ourselves attention, the easier it is for us to navigate from emotion to emotion in response to a world that can bring us joy.


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