If your mind carries a heavy burden of past, you will experience more of the same. The past perpetuates itself through lack of presence. The quality of your consciousness at this moment is what shapes the future. ― Eckhart Tolle
Our brains have a very narrow bandwidth for the conscious processing of information. This means that we spend a lot of time letting autopilot run our lives, based on how the unconscious mind processes incoming information. The unconscious processes information rapidly while the conscious mind is much slower. This has important consequences for our survival but can create difficulties in the modern world.
The unconscious mind is not able to tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. The same pathways in the brain can be triggered by either of them. This means that we may respond to our internal thought processes or our current emotional tone, as if they were a response to real events in the outside world. The brain has two basic modes of functioning.
- Protective mode. This is the default setting for the unconscious mind. As it suggest, it is aimed at keeping us safe and alive. To better serve this purpose we tend to shut down our thinking processes and become reactive to threat when we are functioning in this way.
- Learning mode. The conscious mind uses learning mode as it’s default setting. This is how we learn from experience. Learning mode assesses what is happening and can compare this to past experience and adjust the protective mode in line with this. A major role for learning mode, is to ensure that we correctly programme our unconscious mind, so that it can use protective mode appropriately for our current experience.
One thing that everyone will have noticed is that our thoughts change how we feel, having a direct effect on our emotional state. This is most easily seen with our “self-talk”, the running commentary that we provide for our lives. This commentary produces a strong emotional tone, alters our resting emotional state, and directly influences how the unconscious mind reacts. Our unconscious mind responds to these interpretative thoughts, the ones that reflect how we see the world at the moment.
The thoughts to which we choose to give our attention become more deeply rooted in the structure of our mind. The more we trigger the neurons that reflect these thoughts, the longer the pattern persists, and the easier it is to call this pathway into action in the future.
Our thoughts change how we feel.
Negative thought patterns generate a negative emotional tone, while positive self talk creates a positive emotional tone. Research into positive psychology suggests that we need three positive events to balance out each negative experience: such is the power of the systems we have developed to ensure our survival.
The unconscious mind interprets incoming data through perception filters that are generated by the conscious mind in learning mode. This is good news as it means we can CONSCIOUSLY choose to change our perceptions. In response to these consciously set, but unconsciously processed parameters the mind sets an emotional tone for events. This emotional tag is set as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and triggers our emotional and behavioural responses.
The body responds to this stimulation by releasing a variety of hormones, chemicals, and neurotransmitters. The exact mix depends on how the incoming stimuli are tagged. These emotionally triggered chemical messengers determine how our cells respond. There is a knock on effect as associated neural circuits and pathways become activated. The sensitivity of these neural networks is determined by the emotional tone set by our perception filters, and has a direct effect on the behavioural repertoire that we bring to bear on the situation.
Logic and using our rational mind can alter our perceptions filters and recalibrate the settings in our unconscious processing. One of the benefits of cognitive based therapies and mindfulness is the additional clarity they bring to our assessment of our internal and external worlds. Thoughts and emotions work best as an integrated package – EXCEPT in a genuine emergency when stopping to think may cost us our life, when reacting on an unconscious, emotional level might mean we live another day.
When we interpret events in a negative light our emotional tone becomes more negative, this can lead to anxiety or depression, blocking out more positive perceptions and interpretations of events. This creates a negative cycle. The same picture is seen when we do not address our negative experiences and bury our head in the sand with blind optimism. Both result in a failure to act in a timely fashion.
If we are to remain emotionally healthy and to experience greater happiness, we need to develop ways of thinking that permit an ideal emotional tone. This will help us to make sense of life, and create the best conditions for mental and physical health.
We need a balance between logic and emotion. This is best achieved by keeping out thoughts and feelings in balance. If we can consciously direct the focus of our attention, we can choose the thoughts, behaviours, and emotions that will produce the best emotional state right here and right now. We can use our emotions and interpretative thoughts to change how we choose to react.
This will have the following results:
1. We will be able to minimise inappropriate physical responses, leading to less stress and clearer thinking.
2. Reduced secretion of the wrong balance of chemicals and hormones, leading to a better maintenance of the body’s physiological systems.
3. Generate activity in appropriate neural networks and pathways.
4. Up or down regulation of synapses leading to optimal brain functioning.
5. Allows us to act in the most suitable way in any given situation.
So how can we look after our inner world?
1. Understand how the brain works. Read about neuroscience and use the information to adapt our thinking.
2. Develop a better understanding of how our own brain works. If we set out to gain some understanding of our individual and automatic emotional, cognitive and behavioural responses we have some chance of controlling them. Tease out our underlying belief systems and start to challenge their veracity.
3. Use this knowledge to challenge how we feel, think, and behave.
4. Change our negative self talk to a greater positivity. Catch our negative thoughts as they arise, challenge them with evidence, and then replace each thought with more accurate interpretations.
5. Improve our relationships with ourself, others, and the world around us. Go our of our way to see our friends, make new friends, and to work on our close relationships.
6. Practice getting into optimal mental states. Socialise, schedule down time, spend time on our hobbies, exercise etc. to help manage our own mental state. Look for opportunities to get into flow states.
7. Set goals and focus on how we wish life to be in the future and then work to bring this about in a step by step way.
8. Consciously choose to change a negative mind set to a more positive one through deliberate action. Challenging ourself to act differently, and not to allow such states to gain the upper hand and control our behaviour.
Create the best conditions for mental and physical health.
There are several simple steps we can take to help ourselves do this.
1. Adopt a mindfulness practice, such as mediation, yoga or tai chi. These allow us the chance to pay attention, and let the mind settle. Each of these practices require that we pay attention to the here and now, we have to focus onto the activity we are carrying out, to allow the mind to settle. As the mind settles, we become aware of our underlying beliefs and thoughts, as these will inevitable come to the fore, once they are not being drowned out by the hubbub of daily life. Once we are aware of these states, we are in a better position to challenge them and to change. Part of the process of being mindful is not being judgemental about what is happening. If we can allow our thoughts and feelings to pass, without attaching too strong an emotional tone to them, they have the chance to settle and so lose thier power to affect how we feel.
2. Try keeping a daily journal of how we feel and what we think. To look back every now, and then to see what themes we cover, is a good way to detect our underlying thoughts and belief systems. It is necessary to be honest in writing these letters to ourself, otherwise we will learn little. Keep your journal private and ask others to respect this request.
3. What went well. Martin Seligman suggests keeping a what went well journal. Take about ten minutes each evening to write down three things that went well today. Record how we felt and what contribution we brought to the situation that lead to it working out well. These are the small, everyday successes that we should write down.
4. Gratitude. Keeping a journal of the things that we are grateful for, can have a similar effect, focussing our mind and behaviour in a positive direction.
When we experience positive emotional states there are two main effects. On one hand, positive emotions trigger the release of oxytocin, the hug hormone, this helps to create a greater sense of wellbeing. We also experience a sense of connectedness, which, as a social species, is important for human mental health.
The emotional states we need to generate are empathy, joy, gratitude, compassion, and kindness to mention a few. All this puts our mind into learning mode and generates a sense of safety. A virtuous cycle comes into play, with learning mode reinforcing our positive emotions, which in turn increase our ability to think reflectively. We enter a proactive mindset.
On the other hand, negative mental states, such as hurt, rejection, disappointment, shame, guilt, and anger, have the opposite effect. They separate us from those around us, producing a deeper sense of disconnectedness. These emotions are accompanied by the release of chemicals that trigger a fight or flight response. This survival based condition, contributes to the protective mode becoming dominant, a state of arousal, and the perception of threat and danger. A condition in which we display automatic thinking, with the end result being an emotional state s coloured by blame, helplessness, powerlessness, and loss of control. We get stuck in a reactive mindset.
All this puts our mind into learning mode and generates a sense of safety.
When we choose to consciously change this automatic mindset, we use the brain’s plasticity and constant state of change, in our favour. We use the knowledge of our inner states to maximise our own happiness. A state of happiness that is based on enduring principles and not on fleeting physical, or sensual pleasures.
We become the masters of our own happiness, no longer dependent on the feedback of others to decide how we feel about ourself, what we think, and how we should behave.