Introduction from The User’s Guide to the Human Mind
This sneak peek is reprinted from The User’s Guide to the Human Mind,
courtesy of New Harbinger Publications. Copyright © 2011.
I’m thinking of a vivid memory from childhood. It is one of those flashbulb moments that the mind occasionally casts into our awareness. It happened at closing time at my family’s truck stop as I was washing glasses behind the bar. (I had an unusual childhood.) That’s when I noticed Chuck, one of our regular customers.
Chuck was one of my favorites. Straw cowboy hat, goose-down vest, and a perpetual grin. He was gregarious, witty, good-natured, and an always-welcomed fixture at the bar.
He also seemed troubled in a way that eluded my ten-year-old mind. He drank heavily, and despite his affability, people knew little about him. He was never at a loss for good conversation, but he rarely discussed himself. He always managed to keep the spotlight on others. Someone once joked that he must have been a spy because he was a man of such mystery.
In hindsight, he had the bearing of a man who hoped to avoid an encounter with his own regrets, and so he dodged and weaved using humor, camaraderie, and alcohol. Had you asked me at the time, I might have said that he seemed like a happy guy, but he was probably lonely.
On the evening that I recall, he sat in contrast to his usual manner. He was alone, relaxed, and peaceful. His constant, mischievous grin was replaced by the slightest and most genuine smile. Before him sat a nearly empty glass of beer. It was the last in a chain of empty glasses, and I couldn’t decide whether to disturb him so that I could wash it.
Many years have passed since that evening, though I’ve never forgotten Chuck. I have, however, graduated from junior barkeep’s assistant to clinical psychologist. Now I wonder what caused Chuck to drink so much and to avoid revealing who he really was. I wonder what was going through his mind and what his mind was telling him about himself and his life.
I’ll never know what Chuck’s mind was telling him, but I do know what my mind tells me―and I don’t always like it. And if you’re anything like me, you may wonder how you can control your mind. If it’s like mine, it never shuts up!
In some ways, a mind is easy to control. I can choose to think about what I want, when I want. Right now, I’m choosing to think about donuts. I like donuts.
In other ways, minds are downright willful and insolent. They think their own thoughts, without permission, and usually with impeccably bad timing. Take my last attempt at public speaking. As I stood in front of a crowd, ready to begin my presentation, my mind gave me these thoughts:
You’re going to forget what to say. You need a haircut. Is your fly open?
I did not want those thoughts. They were not helpful. Thanks a lot, mind.
Sometimes minds go well beyond these jabs at self-confidence. They can convince us that we are damaged and unlovable, or that we cannot do something within our power, or that the world is more dangerous than it really is. They can saddle us with such powerful anxiety and depression that we believe we cannot do as we wish. Our minds can be that persuasive.
Naturally we try to control and silence our minds so that we can get on with our lives. I may tell myself, My next speech will be a smashing success, if only I can force my mind to relax and stop thinking. Sometimes it works. Other times our minds overpower us, and we are forced to find a way around our own thoughts.
Being resourceful creatures, we are usually able to control the mind for brief periods of time by distracting ourselves. But distraction only works up to a point.
Let’s say, for example, that I’ll win a million dollars if I can avoid thinking of monkeys. So to keep from thinking of monkeys, I try to distract myself by counting, singing, or skipping rope. It will probably work for a little bit, but deep down I know why I’m engaged in this frantic and pointless activity: to avoid the thought of monkeys. Now I am not merely thinking of monkeys, but imaginary monkeys are making me count, sing, and skip rope. And guess what I’ll think of as soon as I stop? Right―monkeys! (See for yourself: try not to think of monkeys and watch what happens.)
We all have “monkeys” that we avoid thinking about. Maybe those “monkeys” are feelings of failure, or fears that we don’t belong, or feelings that we’re too young, too old, too whatever. Even when we successfully control the mind, thoughts and feelings eventually return. Sometimes they return with such a vengeance that we do everything we can to silence them once again. We may eat, drink, or work too much, or we may find other ways to distract ourselves from our own thoughts and feelings. Doing so perpetuates a painful cycle of avoidance that only strengthens our problem in the long run. Our own minds place us in metaphorical quicksand: the harder we struggle, the worse it gets.
Getting back to Chuck, I sometimes wonder if he was caught in that kind of trap, and whether his peaceful visage after a night of heavy drinking was the look of a person who had found temporary relief from his own mind.
If so, then the peace he found as he sat before an empty glass surely came at a price steeper than a mere hangover. The mind may be silenced for a bit, but it always returns. Silencing the mind in that manner requires constant, exhausting effort.
Fortunately, controlling the mind is not the only option. It is possible to peacefully coexist with our own minds, even to appreciate them and to find the humor in our own inner workings. That task is easier when we peek behind the curtain and expose the mind’s motives. When we know what that little bundle of neurons is up to, it’s harder for our thoughts to sneak up on us.
This book is meant to offer some guidance toward that end. Be forewarned, though. I am no guru. I’m just a former junior barkeep who has helped quite a few people come to terms with their own minds. What I offer here is grounded in the work of brilliant behavioral and evolutionary psychologists who precede me, in particular Steven Hayes and other architects of the branch of psychology known as third-wave behaviorism. Let’s take a closer look now at what lies ahead.
What This Book Is About
This book is about living with our minds when our minds are driving us crazy. It’s about understanding what the mind is doing, why it is doing it, and how we can live our lives anyway. It is about honestly appreciating what our minds give us―even the thoughts and feelings that we do not want―and gently taking the reins when our minds are blocking our way.
In part 1, we’ll look at ways in which the mind speaks to us, and how to gain distance from our own thoughts and feelings so that we can respond to them with more insight and freedom.
In part 2, we’ll discuss how to move forward when the mind wants to protect us from things that we want, but that the mind sees as dangerous.
In part 3, we’ll deconstruct some of the underlying mechanisms that keep us mired in unproductive behaviors. When we can observe what’s going on behind the scenes, we have the power to make our own choices rather than following the impulses of the mind.
Finally, in part 4, we’ll discuss the proper care and feeding of a human mind so that we can reduce the power that it holds over us.
Throughout this book, I refer to the mind as if it were a separate entity. Of course it isn’t separate, but if your mind is like my mind, it can certainly seem that way. The brain (the physical structure that gives us a mind―we’ll explore the distinction in chapter 2) is built in such a way that most of its functions and drives lie outside our control, just as the bulk of an iceberg lies beneath the water’s surface. But just because most of the brain’s functions and drives lie outside our control, that doesn’t mean that our minds are working against us. To the contrary, their purpose is to keep us safe. I hold two assumptions that will serve as a foundation as we explore the mind’s pursuit of safety.
First, different parts of the brain can act on different contingencies. That means that even when we realize we shouldn’t eat an entire box of cookies, some part of our mind believes it would be useful to do so.
Second, the unwanted thoughts, feelings, memories, and compulsions of our mind exist for a reason, even when we face something as trivial as a cookie. A well-functioning mind knows that salt, sugar, and fat are rare commodities―or at least they were rare in the primitive environment. That’s where our brains grew up, and the circuitry that we developed to survive in a younger and more challenging world continues to drive us to this day. Better eat that cookie while you can, says a well-oiled, survival-driven mind, the opportunity may not come again! Because they constantly “worry” about our survival, I call our minds “worry machines.” But they are worry machines with a very important purpose: they are here to help us―whether we like it or not.
They can be annoying, to be sure. They can mislead us and can even cause pain, but their quirky behavior, to borrow from computer programming parlance, is almost always a feature of the software, not a bug in the program. However abnormal your mind may seem to you, it is probably functioning as it should. But I don’t want you to take my word for it. Instead, check my words against your own experience.
Throughout this book, I invite you to do exercises and experiments designed to illuminate your mind’s surreptitious attempts to continually direct your behavior in ways both subtle and gross. When we can see what the mind is up to, we can then gain the freedom to respond according to our higher values rather than allowing subconscious processes to direct us. Instead of letting our minds drive us crazy, we can learn to harness, and even appreciate, the mind’s naturally protective tendencies.
So this is the question before us now: how do we win the battle against our own minds? Let’s peek behind the curtain of these wondrous worry machines and see what we can see.