The Brain and Automatic Pilot
My experience and understanding of mindfulness has led me to acknowledge the power thoughts have to manifest as reality. A thought is not reality, it is a specific activity of the brain.
Do you realise our thoughts motivate our actions and behaviours even when they are not real!
The human brain has an amazing capacity for storing, collecting, summarising and accessing data. Data as memories, and information. Memories as embodied physical experiences, as well as stories. It has so much information that it is necessary to create short cuts to frequently used experiences and behaviours. It tries to keep things tidy and organised. For example, when you clean your teeth do you actually think about and plan your hand movements, or when you get dressed are you conscious of the order you put on clothes? Our brain has made many things for us very easy, so easy we often do not fully participate in what we do. How often, on our way to work do we wonder how we got there because we had been so caught up with thoughts. In Mindfulness terms this is often called ‘automatic pilot‘.
How did thoughts and thinking become so important?
A subtle switch has happened in our development and culture. Descartes, is reported as saying I think therefore I am. Our thinking has become more important than our experiencing. Rather than being present with reality, be conscious and awake to what is happening in each moment, as would a wild animal, we are lost in the meandering synapses of our brain. It is valued in culture and society to think, ‘think before you speak’ and experiences are minimised, we are encouraged to right lists of pros and cons rather than go with ‘our gut’. We are encouraged to use our huge brain to evaluate and plan. It is thought of as helpful and beneficial. We base our knowledge on measurable, objective data.
Has our tidying system got the priorities wrong?
Whilst society encouraged and nurtured our capacity to think, and develop a logical and scientific approach to the world, we failed to recognise and adapt to the types of thinking which fed our emotional and creative abilities. A thought can create anxiety and another joy. Thoughts were not real, they can help understanding but they also take us from reality.
I may have a thought, and before I know it I have a scenario in my head about something that isn’t real. My attention has been with the evolving thought. The thought often becomes manifest in the body. Happy thoughts; my mouth will begin to smile, sad thoughts my mood drops, fearful thoughts my pulse rises. Our brain reacts to thoughts as it does reality.
Interestingly our thoughts engage with our memories of experiences and emotions. This is how our emotions can become disproportionate and anxiety and stress become disabling. We respond to a current event as if it were a repetition of an event in our memory. In a very simplified way we might respond to our manager offering constructive criticism as if it were our parent, when we were a teenager, offering advice when we don’t want it. What has happened is the brain has developed a quick access, (neural pathway) to emotions of anger or threat when we hear words that are interpreted as critical. These neural pathways become so well used we do not have time or space to evaluate whether are response is useful or even appropriate.
Making use of our Tidied Brain- MINDFULNESS
So we have a wonderfully well organised brain, with systems to access all sorts of things when we need them. What we fail to have done is pay attention to the appropriateness of the brains responses to stimuli. This is not a phenomenon of today, this has been the case for hundreds of years. At one time the responses were appropriate, the protection of the family from wild animals or other foraging beasts by physical attack was balanced and about survival. Now anger and attacking are often exhibited at the smallest of threats, the dishwasher not being emptied, being ignored, loosing car keys, the response is reactive and instantaneous.
Mindfulness training slows down this reaction. We are encouraged to be present in the moment, engage and move towards any emotions that arise, being curious towards our feelings and not reactive. We retrain the brain, the data and memories stay the same. We cultivate an ability to notice what the data is, let it inform us but not let it be absolute.
I believe this enables us to become the true self we intend to be, losing attachment to our past, and desire for an unknown future, and being present in each moment.
Emma Dunn is currently training to teach the MBSR programme
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