Entraining 101: Who’s pulling in whom

When two people meet, one often emotionally entrains the other.

You have likely been in a room where everyone gets unsettled by one person’s anxiousness. And you’ve also seen one person’s kindness — even a private, not-outwardly-cheery joy — uplift a crowd. What was the difference between those two scenarios?

What’s the secret to staying peaceful inside rather than getting pulled in by  unpleasantness? How can we spread that peace to those around us?

Science is beginning to find the physical phenomena associated with empathy, second-hand stress, second-hand joy, and other forms of what can be called emotional entrainment. We suspect it’s caused by mirror neurons, pheromones, and/or — my personal favorite — entangled particles. But the vital (at least to me!) question remains: which emotional state exerts the stronger influence? 

Theories that do NOT resonate with my experience:

    • Positive outweighs negative. That would be nice, but the opposite often seems more true: one bad apple spoils the bunch. Why? Maybe because…
    • Intensity of emotion dominates. I don’t think so, having seen one mildly grumpy person bring down a whole room full of non-grumps. Perhaps…
    • Focused intention is the key. Then why does dogged optimism — determined to spread love — sometimes get run over by an off-hand pessimism?

My favorite theory (that felt to me like a bolt of insight yesterday but likely is something I have heard hundreds of times from all my favorite people and texts and just now registered!):

The most authentic person controls the mood.

This explains so much of what we’ve all seen:

    • Anger, sadness, and fear — the so-called “negative” emotions — often dominate NOT because they are more powerful than joy but because people usually leak them out only when the emotions are extremely real and genuine.
    • Determined cheeriness rarely works because it often comes from our social self trying to over-ride one of our “unacceptable” non-joyful emotions — which means it’s not our essential self’s authentic emotional state.
    • Sometimes we feel inexplicably emotionally changed around someone who isn’t acting out their emotion strongly — just barely emoting. Because if someone feels something truly to the center of their bones, then their emotion affects us even if it’s weak or they are trying to mute it.

Here’s one way that I think we can test whether or not this theory does indeed allow us to find, maintain, and even spread peace:

    • Clean up inside. But not by criticizing or denying anything inside us (since that doesn’t usually work — otherwise I’d be all for it!). Rather we can: feel what we feel, follow the “clean” pain all the way through, notice what we think, and dive in there and question even the most basic stories/assumptions/dogma/thoughts when they’re associated with the “dirty” pain.
    • Notice what’s left inside: a naturally occurring, fresh, uncluttered spaciousness.
    • Air out that space. Breathing outside air is almost unbelievably effective. So is movement, meditation/prayer practice, laughing (the best thing about being alive?!), and, almost subtly but most definitely, letting our senses move through us — looking at and really seeing, listening and actually hearing, inhaling and truly smelling, touching and taking in the feeling, tasting and deeply savoring what’s out there. In this way places, stuff, people, actions and moments in time can be part of our freshness.

And then I think that we are likely to feel more genuine peace of mind and heart and body — from the inside out. We may be less disrupted by non-peaceful states that we encounter outside of us because our own state — whatever it is — is genuine.  We are more likely to allow ourselves to outwardly show our authentic selves. I think this feels very pleasant. Let me know what you experience.



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