Saturday, September 13, 2014

I am not the passenger

I love ya Iggy, but I, for one, am not the passenger, and realising that has started me down a very interesting path.

In my last post I hinted at an experiment on myself that had helped me with anxiety.  In effect it has helped me in more ways than that.  It is helping me become more mindful of my thoughts and feelings and has allowed me to even quiet my mind at night.

I've always been interested in the concept of Mindfulness, in both the spiritual and psychological senses, but as I alluded to in my previous post, I was never felt disciplined enough to persist with practices such as meditation or Cognitive Based Therapy.  Having said that, much like my "thankfulness" trick, I might have stumbled across another mind-hack to help me become what one of my life teachers calls the "observer/witness".

It all started on one of my many drives home from work:  I was on an 80 kph rural road, and some guy was coming out of a driveway ahead of me. He paused at the edge of the driveway to take a look, and must have seen me coming, yet continued to turn out onto the road anyway.  Now, here's where my ego came in, because truly I could have put on my breaks at that point.  Truly I had enough time to just slow down to about 60 kph and let him back-out in front of me — but you see my ego was saying "I shouldn't have to slow down.  I am going the speed limit and I have the right of way..." blah, blah, blah.  So with my ego on full blast, I instead pulled into the left lane to go around him, honked my horn and proceeded down the road at 80 kph.

Well, this obviously pissed this guy off, because he proceeded to gun his engine to catch up to me and followed me extremely closely, in an aggressive manner.  I got to the next stop sign, took my usual left turn onto a 50 kph road; he followed. The guy continued to tailgate me closely, but I think going exactly 50kph was too slow for him, because he quickly pulled out to get around me, screeched his tires and sped away.

We never spoke and I never saw him again.  I don't think that man lived at that house either; I've driven past it on hundreds of occasions since then and have never seen this guy's car in the driveway.  Nevertheless, almost every time I was in my car alone and drove past that house my mind would replay the events. I would often think about what I would have said to this guy had I decided to, let's say, stop my car and get out and ask him "what's your problem?"  I'd run through scenarios and what he'd probably say or do, and what I'd say or do in return.  It's ridiculous, but this was the type of thing that my brain often did — it would have these imaginary arguments that never happened. *facepalm*  I was a Brooder and Holder of Grudges of the highest class!

So on one of these many days when this imaginary argument played out in my head, and I was busy getting myself all riled-up, it finally struck me: "Why do I do this to myself?" But instead of asking me I asked the passenger. I asked that voice that whispers at your ear.  The voice that comes from the part of yourself that is based in fear; that primordial part of your brain that is based in survival and fight-or-flight levels of thinking. "Why do you do this?"  "What do you have to gain by reliving this scenario over and over again?"  "Why replay a scenario that has not and will not ever happen?"  "Why relive such negative emotion for no reason?"  "How does this help?" "Is it helping you accomplish anything?  Because it sure doesn't seem to be helping me do anything but feel like shit every time I drive by here..."

And you know what?  There was only silence.  There was no response. No retort. No explanation.  Just silence.

The passenger, you see, can only make suggestions.  If you ask it to explain itself, it won't answer.  It can't answer.  It is not coming from a place of logic and reason.  It's not that evolved. Its messages are solely based on autonomic responses to outside stimuli.  Fear-based.  Fight or flight. Its messages are also often limiting, like thoughts of self-doubt and possible negative outcomes that keep us from taking risks.  It also likes to create mental roadblocks to keep us from considering ideas that poke holes in our currently held views. it's at this point that I feel the need to assure my dear readers that I'm not suffering from an onset of schizophrenia.  I'm not talking about some disassociated voice directing me to do things with verbal commands that I can hear in my head like a phone conversation. What I'm talking about is the voice that we all have inside our heads.  The voice that speaks in the first person.  The voice that says "I'm hungry", "I'm tired," "this feels nice," "I think that's weird," "I'm not so sure about this," "I don't like this." And it's not like we "hear" these things said outright in words in our brains; these are things we just kinda...well....think.

I believe that there are actually two places from which thoughts arise:  There are the lower, reactionary, automatically and anatomically-based thoughts — i.e. the "I'm hungry", "this is scary", "I don't like this" kind of thoughts; these come from your passenger.  Then there are the thoughts that are capable of higher thinking — it's the part of the mind that analyses why you're hungry, scared, or repulsed by something.  It's also the part of the brain that is creative, inquisitive, inclusive and expansive. It's the part that thinks outside the box and considers different and new ways of looking at things.

To me the passenger is just an organ, much like a liver or spleen; it has its function. I also believe that most of us humans confuse it with our true consciousness/enlightened mind/observer mind (I'm still trying to think of a term for this, but let's go with the "observer mind", the "OM").

I believe the OM is our true selves.  It is the consciousness that inhabits our blood and flesh shell.  Our body is the vehicle of our OM — it is a biological machine that the OM inhabits. The OM is what no longer presents itself after the body expires — some might say it is what "leaves the body" when we die. I suppose it is what some would call "the soul".

The passenger however, is just another organ that sends us messages — it's just a part of our brain that receives data from our other organs and then takes the data and sends you a message to let you know.  The thing is the passenger often makes rash, uninformed decisions about what this data means. To make matters worse, the passenger's messages and the thoughts of the OM come through the same "pipe" and in the same "inside voice", so we often fall under the illusion that these thoughts are both coming from the same place.  After all, there are thoughts being generated in your head and they are coming from your brain, which is part of your body.  So that's you having those thoughts, right?

Have you ever had someone say something or do something that triggered an automatic, angry, obstinate response that you later regretted, having realised that what you said in anger was completely wrong and out of line? But at the same time it felt so "right" when you said it, didn't it?

Even crazier, have you ever regretted a comment you made at the exact moment that you were making the comment itself?  It's like you are feeling hurt, analysing what was said and formulating a regrettable response and finally saying it, yet at that exact moment you are also thinking "shit, I shouldn't be saying this". It's like a movie playing out in first person with director commentary: "Now here's where the protagonist puts his foot in his mouth..."

So, who's controlling your mouth?  Who's making your brow furrow and bringing blood to your face and making you express an angry "thought" towards that other person?  And who's saying "shit, I shouldn't be saying this," at the very same time?

The seeming ability of the human mind to observe its own thoughts is so deliciously paradoxical.  You are, in effect, using your mind to think about how your mind thinks. You are using thoughts to observe your own thoughts.  It's like an Escherian stairwell of the mind.  If it is you having those thoughts, then who is it that is thinking about those thoughts?

This is a question for the ages and certainly I am not the first to ponder it; this ego/higher-self dichotomy is present in many of the ancient philosophies and practices of the East. I also believe that the many great teachers of history (Buddha, Christ, Baha'ullah et al) were simply regular flesh and blood humans that managed, through consistent and thorough inner-reflection, to be able to more accurately identify each "thought" for what it was, making them able to choose the "higher" or "enlightened" response throughout most of their lives.  And like many aspects of the human condition, I believe humans lie on a spectrum between being directed by the passenger and the OM, and I believe that this can change and fluctuate in the micro (from minute to minute) to the macro (over a person's life time).  I think that most of us slide more towards the OM side as we age, just simply because of knowledge accumulated via experience.  Some of us get closer than others before we die. Some of us reach the OM state earlier in life than others.

So getting back to my mind-hack: That day, when I first asked the passenger to explain herself and realised that she could not formulate a response, I gave my passenger a name.  Her name is Naggy Maggy.  I found that giving her a name helped me to further separate her thoughts from my OM. It gave my passenger an identity and made it more comfortable to have dialog with it.

Once I had given my passenger a name, anytime I found myself playing out negative scenarios and conversations in my head I would call her out and say "Hey. Maggy. Cut it out."  And she would stop.  Often a few minutes later I would be caught unawares and Maggy would start nagging again, so again, I'd talk to her and ask her why she was persisting in bring up whatever thoughts she was bringing up and I'd remind her that the scenario she was playing out wasn't actually happening and that there was no point in creating this anxious state. Making me feel anxious was not helping anything, in fact it was only making my current state worse.  And she would stop.

And this helped me greatly at night too.  I used to be a person that would have racing thoughts at night that would keep me from from sleeping. For a while when I'd go to bed and those thoughts would start up I'd say "Maggy, I don't want to think of this stuff right now. I'm tired and want to sleep.  I can't fix these problems at this very moment and all you are doing is keeping me from sleeping."  The first time I did this, Maggy stopped and immediately after I said this (and much to my surprise) I yawned.  It's like I reminded my body that I was tired and it said "yeah, you're right I am tired, let's do this," and I passed out.  Now I don't have to do anything more than tell her "I'm not thinking about this right now. I'm going to sleep." It truly is magical.

I first named Maggy about a year and a half ago and since then I've found I have to speak to her less and less and I rarely even call her by name.  I just speak to her directly: "Nope. We're not going there." "Now, you know that doesn't make sense." "What are you basing that opinion on?" etc...

Now, I am by no means a master of my passenger and I get tripped up all of the time.  It's one thing to talk to Maggy while driving my car, alone in my thoughts. It's another to try to observe and react while interacting with someone else.  This, my friends, is still a great challenge for me.  It's challenging enough to recognise the passenger's thoughts when they arise, but to do so while also speaking (especially when speaking of things I feel passionately about) feels to me like learning to pat your head while rubbing your tummy.  Having said that, like patting your head and rubbing your tummy, with enough practice it is possible to do it, and I'm happy to say that I am at the point in my life where I appreciate the practice.