Vulcan Meditation School: Tuvok teaches you to control fear (VOY 2×22)

In series 2, episode 22 of Voyager, Tuvok find himself trapped on a moon with a group of alien children, and playing detective as said kids start disappearing one by one.

The children believe that a monster called the Murrok, who lives in a cave some 20 metres from Tuvok’s crashed shuttle, is responsible.

Tuvok isn’t convinced.

He thinks the Murrok is all in their heads, and tries teaching a meditation to help them control their fear:

TUVOK: Children, you are allowing your fears to guide you. You must learn to exercise control over your own imagination.
CORIN: But the Morrok!
TUVOK: Yes, the existence of such a creature is one possibility. However, your emotional reactions are preventing you from accurately judging how unlikely that is to be true.
CORIN: I can’t help it. I’m scared.
TUVOK: I believe you can help it. Vulcan children learn to detach themselves from their emotions at an early age.
TUVOK: First, you must focus on the object of your fear. Picture the Morrok clearly in your minds. That image is accompanied by an emotional response. Describe for me what that feeling is like.
TRESSA: It makes my stomach all tight.
ELANI: I feel like I want to run, but my legs won’t work.
TUVOK: Now, if you could see this emotion in physical form, what would it look like?
CORIN: It’s like this big, black cloud with lots of thunder and lightning all around us.
TUVOK: Then imagine a strong wind is pushing that cloud away. Watch as your fear grows more distant. It is no longer a part of you. Once you begin to detach yourselves from your emotional responses, you come closer to controlling them. Eventually, they will be eliminated altogether.

Vulcan Meditation School – lessons in fear control

The children practice meditation.

Is this just Vulcan mumbo-jumbo, with no relevance to more round-eared folk? Maybe not.

If we break this down step-by-step, and compare the steps to similar practices in modern psychology and ancient contemplative traditions, we see it makes perfect sense as a means of controlling fear.

It’s a three step training exercise:

  1. Trigger the fear
  2. Observe the fear
  3. Control the fear

This applies to any unpleasant emotion – anger, anxiety, shame, sadness… whatever. But let’s stick with Tuvok’s example.

Step 1: Trigger the fear while in a safe setting

This is a tried and tested technique used by psychologists when treating phobias. You trigger the fear in a safe, training environment, so that you can learn to deal with it.

Then, if that fear crops up in your normal life, you’ve good some tools at the ready to help you deal with it.

As well giving you practice at dealing with fear, the mere effect of exposure to a fear over time tends to reduce its intensity. It’s like how on your first day of a job you’re super nervous, but within a week or two the nerves have usually calmed greatly – perhaps disappeared completely.

With this method, it’s also common to gradually increase strength of the trigger – like weight lifting, where you increase the weights as you get stronger. This is often called “progressive exposure” or “flooding”. It works like this.

Say if you’re scared of spiders. First you might picture one in your mind which triggers a fear response, just as Tuvok intends. So you use your technique to deal with it (we’ll discuss the techniques you can use shortly).

When you’re able to picture a spider without being overwhelmed by fear (which might take days, weeks – however long it takes.), you might look at a picture of one. Again, you use your technique to deal with any emotions that arise.

Next, you might watch a video of a moving spider. Then maybe look at a live Spider in a cage. Then perhaps live one outside of a cage, but not near you. Then you’d get closer… eventually hold one in your hand.

At each step, you’d learn to control the fear before moving on.

Step 2: Observe the physical sensations that the fear creates

This is actually a technique taught in Buddhism and other Eastern religious traditions. As Tuvok observes, emotions leave a “footprint” of sensations in our bodies. And the way we react to these sensations can actually make the emotion get stronger, or weaker.

If you start thinking that these are horrible sensations, you don’t want them there, you can’t handle them, and so on, they often become more intense.

However, if you don’t react and instead just observe them as they are, without judging them as good or bad, they often reduce in intensity.

The idea behind this is that emotions are signals from the brain, intended to guide our behaviour. If we just observe them, it’s like saying “OK, got it, message received.” But if you resist them or wish them to go away, the brain is like “Hmm, the body is not getting my message. I’ll make it louder.”

This usually involves scanning the body and trying to find where the emotion is, and what it is like – again, doing this objectively, and not judging the sensations as good or bad. Where is the fear? How would you describe it? Is it dull, tingly, pulsing, sharp, wide… use whatever words feel right to you.

I found a couple of videos that expands on this. First is a clip of S.N Goenka, a meditation teacher, who discusses observing emotions from a Buddhist perspective. And here’s a guided exercise you can try (it starts with some breathing/relaxation exercises, and then the emotion observation starts about halfway in).

Step 3: Apply a technique to reduce the fear, in this case visualisation

Picture of a cyclone in a field.

The final step in this Vulcan meditation, is to use a visualisation to remove the fear. First, Tuvok asks the children to imagine their fear in physical form – like a cloud, one of them says. Then he asks them to take control of the visualisation, and blow the cloud away.

So the visualisation you use here will depend on how the fear forms in your mind. If for you it’s a tidal wave, you could use the sun to evaporate the water. If it’s a monster, turn it into a cuddly bear, or change the narrative so that the monster is actually an ally, or a bodyguard.

This method is also useful tool with persistent negative thoughts or memories. Like that when you were 9 years old, and you tripped over and everyone laughed at you. For some reason your brain keeps reminding you of this decades later. Take control of it – it’s your visualisation after all!

Make the people help you up and ask if you’re OK. Make Tuvok catch you on the way down. Or just change the whole thing to a completely different scene – instead of people, they are all penguins wearing bowler hats playing the banjo, or something.

If the emotion is very strong, you could also try playing a visuo-spatial game like Tetris, immediately after triggering the emotion.

Can you eliminate negative emotions?

At the end of his lesson, Tuvok suggests it’s possible to eliminate emotions altogether. Now this part might be unique to alien races.

Emotions, even unpleasant ones, are a part of life. You’ll experience more unpleasant emotions in your life, and some very pleasant ones too. They will come and go, just as every emotion you’ve ever felt in your entire life, has come and gone.

It isn’t even wise to eliminate emotions completely. Fear serves a purpose – it alerts us to danger, and gets us ready to deal with it, usually through fight or flight. It’s a alarm, honed over millions of years of evolution to guide us.

Problems arise when these emotion systems get a little trigger happy – firing up at times when they are not really needed.

Like a job interview – nerves are not much use then. Your brain just doesn’t interpret the modern world that well. It thinks you’re being brought before the tribal elders, who are going to judge your fate or something.

It’s times like these where Tuvok’s technique comes in handy.

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