July 2023 – The Mind Is Inherently a Really Really Weird Place
In this month’s article, I’m stepping back for a second from my usual focus on mood to talk about something that impacts all sufferings, being the commonly held misconceptions about the nature of our minds. For us to engage in our own healing, we need a good map and model of the process. Why? Well, try building a bridge if you’re assuming bridges work on the same rules as writing fiction. I hope it stirs up some interesting thoughts and self-inquiry.
Otherwise, may your summer be starting with a sufficient mind and heart space to appreciate the changes in the season, and if not, that you have enough support and trust in the possibility of change to keep going.
The Mind Is Inherently a Really Really Weird Place
“Weird” (adj.): strange and unusual, sometimes in a way that upsets you
One experience that repeats over and over for folks new to psychotherapy is the sometimes absurd, sometimes shocking, usually unsettling realization that the mind is very, very strange. I will often say to new clients, “If you learn nothing else from psychotherapy than that the human mind is by design really really weird, then I’d consider it a raving success.” This is not just to make clients feel better, but to try to orient them from the beginning to one basic truth: the mind is not personal, and its design does not belong to us. As we grok that reality, many confusions clear and behaviors straighten out.
But, when we’re starting out in therapy, we typically are carrying certain basic, background axioms about our own mind’s functioning, which essentially boil down to:
- I am a singular entity.
- The contents of my mind belong to the personal me.
- Problems with my mind indicate problems with me.
- Therefore, I should be able to control the contents of my mind.
These assumptions are widely held, promulgated by culture, and completely wrong. If you read through that list and thought, “Yes. Ok sure. Of course. And what else could be true?” you are definitely not alone. I’ll take these beliefs one by one.
One: “I am a singular entity.”
The unanalyzed mind does appear to function as a singular unit, a presumption almost universally reinforced by feedback from the world. “What did you do today? What do you want for dinner? Why did you do that?!” We are trained at the mental level to think of ourselves and others as monads (singular entities) rather than coordinated parts, something that’s rather odd when in parallel no one thinks of either the body, or the physical brain/nervous system as just one thing, which homogenous qualities. When you open up the body, what you see is a collection of organs in relationship to each other; when you look at the physical brain, it’s apparent that there are also different organs that have varying relationships to each other. Well, there’s not a zillion medical specialists for nothing.
Yet with the mind, the conventional trope is that whatever is happening in it is a property of “I”, without distinctions or parts. This leads to multiple distortions in our thinking, and then in our follow-on behavior, especially because it obscures the unique functioning of the different parts. Try understanding the function of the body if you see it only as a liver. The mind is made up of parts—that’s just how it is designed—as much as that appalls our control-driven egos. As the originator of Internal Family Systems, Richard Schwartz, puts it:
“A part is not just a temporary emotional state or habitual thought pattern. Instead, it is a discrete and autonomous mental system that has an idiosyncratic range of emotion, style of expression, set of abilities, desires, and view of the world. In other words, it is as if we each contain a society of people, each of whom is at a different age and has different interests, talents, and temperaments.”
Two: “The contents of my mind belong to the personal me.”
Again, this is the conventional wisdom. How could they be the property of anyone else, since they’re happening in me, and “I” am the one producing them? We think that if that’s not true, then this mind is out of control, and disturbingly, the thought “what’s the role of ‘me’ anyway?” To understand that the brain and mind produce thoughts like the pancreas produces insulin is to get into some weird—meaning unfamiliar and unmapped—terrain. But when we examine our own minds, that’s actually what we’ll see, a process without any clear center or organizer. Yes, some parts of us are more tasked with primal drives (survival), and others with integration of the various other parts (our “parent” selves), but there’s no core, dominant “I”, any more than in the physical body. We have to redo our understanding of how this mind thing works, how to relate to it, and how to be a responsible person in the world nonetheless. As Mark Epstein writes:
“We reduce, concretize, or substantialize experiences or feelings, which are, in their very nature, fleeting or evanescent. In so doing, we define ourselves by our moods and by our thoughts. We do not just let ourselves be happy or sad, for instance; we must become a happy person or a sad one. This is the chronic tendency of the ignorant or deluded mind, to make ‘things’ out of that which is no thing.” (Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective)
Three: Problems with my mind indicate problems with me.
Given the first two axioms, this follows naturally. If I am my thoughts, or at least they supposedly wholly and solely belong to me, then who else is responsible for the bad ones, and what else could they mean except that the producer of bad thoughts is also bad? But when we start understanding that simply is not how the mind is designed, and therefore that our “bad thoughts” are not being produced by a “me” (which itself is more shorthand for a network of parts), then we can have those problematic thoughts without ourselves being a problem. In fact, when we can accept them as is, we can then be much more effective in managing them: Instead of opprobrium, we’ll say to ourselves: “Look, my aggressive part, I understand you want to punch the bad waiter right now, that makes sense. But here’s a better way we can get what you want…” When the mind is just one big lump, then we treat the undesirable parts as tumors to be excised, which doesn’t work with the mind any more than cutting out malfunctioning organs works very well with the body.
Four: Therefore, I should be able to control the contents of my mind.
The field of evolutionary psychology has been studying the evolutionary roots of the human mind for thirty years and is pretty clear that the patterns and biases of our fancy contemporary minds are largely derived from eons of scratching out survival in the forests and plains. We like to think we moderns are categorically separated from the primitives (yes, of prehistorical times, but even of a hundred years ago), yet when the mind is examined, the thoughts and behavioral patterns are often barely concealed primate drives. We have fancy explanation and justification systems in contemporary times, but the drives are not as fancy as we’d like to believe.
Given that, the idea that we should be able to control our mind’s contents is a bit like the salmon swimming up the rapids believing that when it hits a rock or setback, that’s clearly their failure to control the river (for which, of course, they should feel shame.) Yet, at best what we learn is to accept the gushing river (with its headwaters in our evolutionary past), and how to navigate and influence it (our various parts and drives) with skill and aplomb. Again, Richard Schwartz: “Healing isn’t about getting rid of the bad parts, it’s about learning to love and accept all of our parts …. You can’t hate your way into healing. Self-love and compassion are the keys to transformation.”
The psychotherapy process for whatever condition of any weight (and all conditions when explored with open eyes show their heft) is one of developing a perception and alignment with verifiable truth. Healing simply does not happen in the face of confusion or dishonesty; our misalignment with reality/truth, our maladaptation to things-as-they-are, is what produces suffering. The conventional beliefs about the mind, as much as they are generically presented as fact, are simply wrong. The process of coming to understand that and adopting a model of mind (derived from one’s own inquiry) which more accurately represents the mind’s weird reality is analogous to combing cotton: you have to drag your self-inquiry through the tangles over and over until the threads are free of twigs and seeds, making the weaving of a useful tapestry possible.