How often do you think about your mind and your brain? I mean all the things we do everyday are a result of the mind doing what it does. The thoughts we think, the actions, we take, the emotions we feel. It’s quite miraculous. When the critical mind takes over, it’s amazing how our thoughts, patterns, and actions shift as a result.
I’ve spent years studying the brain – from working memory, attention, language and rehabilitation, to emotions, stress, and how to make change in our lives. The brain is truly fascinating and i’m constantly amazed at what we know and what we don’t know. As a researcher, I see the years it takes just to look at one tiny aspect of the brain, and I just have such a great appreciation for what we mostly take for granted everyday.
We have all of these tasks and jobs that the brain is responsible for and so often we think about what it does (breathing, speaking, writing, reading, math, driving, SO MUCH). I’d like to focus on the subtler process behind that today. The thoughts that we have about what is going on. I remember being in one of my first Buddhism retreats at Eselan in CA about 20 years ago. The guide was pointing out that there are thoughts in the brain that can be downright mean and to just notice those thoughts. I walked about the hall where we were meeting and thought, “I don’t have those thoughts. I don’t know what she is talking about.”
I walked along the grounds of Eslean and I heard the voice in my head say “You are so stupid.” I stopped LITERALLY and didn’t move with my jaw hanging open. It was one of those moments where it seems like the sky just opened up and I was shocked that there was a voice in my head that was calling me stupid. In that moment, I was misidentified with the part of my that was believing that critical voice in my head, and I realized that voice wasn’t me. The more i practiced the more I heard and could notice what it was saying. The critical mind takes over.
So to be clear, this critical voice has been very loud in my life for a very long time, telling me things that were supremely not kind over and over again. That I wasn’t very smart, never find a partner, i was unlovable, that i’d never have kids, my body wasn’t ‘right’, I had the wrong house/job WHATEVER. The point about this is that this was a conversation that was happening that I thought I just had to put up with. I thought it was me.
I find this is also true with of the students I work with. They think that critical voice in their head is them. It’s in the head so it must be them, right? But here’s the thing: it’s not. My teacher calls is egocentric karmic conditioning self-hate and this comes from a place of ego and not the TRUE self.
We internalize the voice of external influences in our lives: parents, teachers, the bully in class. We’ve turned it into a bully in our heads. We’ve been conditioned to believe that it’s true, and that we have to believe what is being said. “You should have known better” from our parents gets turned into “You should have known better when it becomes clear a relationship isn’t working” This can be really subtle too: A sensation in the body, or even an emotion.
The brain is a meaning-making machine. It takes this information, these words, these sensations or emotions and makes a beautiful or horrible story out of the possibility endings of a story. Your mother tells you that you are too much. Right? It’s a circumstance. Then, the mind will take that information and take it all sorts of places. It can skip from being told that you are too much, to thinking “If i’m too much, no one will love me, I’ll never have a partner, and I’ll die alone as a cat lady, poor, and alone.” It’s skipped right from that one statement made to allllll the misery it can imagine! We have some really good imaginations when it comes to death and destruction.
The mind has made a story, and it might start with something that is really true, but the places it goes are usually way off in the future, or way off in the past. Either place is full of misery. You might notice that you spiral into lots of thoughts and emotions that go along with these thoughts. What I’ve mentioned in previous episodes is that the circumstances in our lives lead to our thoughts that we have. The thoughts we have lead to our emotions, and our emotions lead to our actions which lead to our results.
So the short summation of that is you think things that are harsh/critical and then you feel bad. Also the opposite can be true. You can think things that are kind and loving, and then you might notice you feel more kind and loving. And that right there, is the special sauce. It’s being able to flip from when the critical mind takes over to letting our kind, loving portion of our brain to guide the way.
It’s all about attention. Our attention is like a spotlight. We can direct to different places in our lives. If you start to watch this, you might even notice that even when multiple things are going on we might really only be able to pay attention to one of those things AND we can switch our attention.
So let’s break it down to the pieces.
Being present and being able to notice what is happening with your thoughts, emotions, and your body is key. Noticing the thoughts, as we’ve talked about in previous podcasts, is where we have to begin. If you don’t know what is happening, you won’t be able to make the change. This is where attention, or rather awareness, is so important. The idea is to do this with as much kindness and compassionate awareness as possible. This means, not beating yourself up when the critical mind takes over.
Give yourself space
Once you see what is going on, the next step is to step back and give yourself a little bit of space. If you can just get that one millimeter of distance, you might begin to notice that the voice is saying “You.” Now, this might feel a bit crazy-making at first. In the same way that we spoke about in the previous episodes, it is not a common occurrence to go around talking about the voice in your head that “isn’t you.” So, the second step is to notice that the voice isn’t you. It’s the ego, or old voices from the past.
Don’t believe the thought
Once you have the space to see it, the third step is the possibility available of not believing the thought. Or probably more accurately believing something else. Byron Katie uses something called the Work. The first question is to sit in inquiry around the thoughts and simply ask “Is it true” to question the beliefs and thoughts. Just that simple question can provide the space you need.
Finally, you can take the thought and change it out for a different thought. The model I like to use is from Brooke Castillo. In her self-coaching model, you label the circumstance (what are the facts of what is happening), the thoughts about it, the emotions, and the actions you are taking. When we change the thoughts, this is where we then start to change emotions and, as a result, the actions that we take.
So if i’m thinking “This is miserable” about the pandemic, it feels pretty heavy in my body. If I change it to something that is believable, but feels better in the body, then my emotions change and my actions change. Going back to the thought “this is miserable,” if I can change it to, “I’m learning how to live in a global pandemic”, then it feels lighter. I feel like there is hope. I don’t go all the way to “i love each and every day!” because the mind knows that isn’t believable.
When you see that there is hope to change what your mind is thinking, it is a huge game changer. Literally, it will start to change not only what you are thinking, but also what you are feeling and what happens in your life.
Those are the steps to take when the critical mind takes over. Watch the thoughts, get some space with the thoughts, stop believing the thoughts, and then change it to a better feeling thought.
Alright friends. Thanks for listening today, and I’ll see you next time.