A friend sent me this yesterday, on the topic of hope:
Ah, hope! You probably know the old story. A farmer throws his old, decrepit mule down a well. And starts shovelling earth onto it to bury it.
The mule gets a shovelful of earth in its hair and at first is resigned to be buried alive. Then it notices that if it shakes its head, the earth falls to its side, and that it can step up onto the new soil.
And that’s how it lives (and eventually gets out of the well) – shake it off, and step up. Shake it off, and step up!
And as I replied just now:
A great deal to like here. And the mule is excellent – very much what I think mindfulness is; shaking off the earth one shovelful at a time!
It’s quite a nice way to think about it really. Especially as we continue to be showered by debris from despots, demagogues – and own goals from our own democratically elected leaders!
People of a certain age will remember the astonishment and wonder of their first Polaroid…
Click, whirr and wait as a square of plastified paper renders, first, a ghostly outline and then a smiling 1970s face – complete with bad sweaters and basin cut hair.
In truth the quality wasn’t that great. Plus there was that annoying blank raised rectangle at the bottom. Let’s face it, they started out faded; and finished washed out.
But still they were the marvel of their day. Instant photos for the first time in history.
Now photos are everywhere. The biggest user of space on my iPhone, we count them in the 1000s. Not the ones and twos of the Polaroid years.
So why get nostalgic about Polaroids?
Because I’ve been working on mindfulness. And I have realised that, if I try hard enough, I can briefly notice and enjoy the individual snapshots of perception, which make up the endless movie in our heads.
When you start to notice the odd Polaroid in the stream of consciousness, you notice that the overwhelming majority of millisecond freeze-frames don’t get noticed at all.
On reflection, it then becomes possible to see (quite literally) that the flagship memories we carry with us are all just individual, faded and retouched Polaroids – which we’ve put in a mental frame. And they are just the tiniest fraction of the Polaroids we’ve experienced.
So what’s the value of this?
First, it helps to realise that the very worst things that have happened to us – some of which shape our self-image and core identity – are in fact no more than Polaroids in our minds. Look hard for most of them and you can scarcely find them.
And second, all the things we want in life will in their turn become faded Polaroids. Many, if not most, will be lost and forgotten soon after they have been bought, won, tasted or achieved.
This isn’t to argue for detachment or despair. More to make the case for equanimity, and a recognition that the everyday Polaroids are worth attention.
Because the special ones we covet and strive for (or fear and want to forget) are no more real or solid than the myriad Polaroids which will flash by our minds this very day.
Unlike the gazelle who is straight back to grazing.
I tried it today.
Grumpy, hungry, feeling ‘got at’ and like my morning had been taken away from me, I leashed the dogs and went for a walk. And listening to Mark Williams, I realised all needed to do was stop thinking about it all, and get back to mentally grazing – in my case simply enjoying walking among trees and new growth in the spring sunshine.
Instead of firing red amygdala…
…I found myself enjoying a park walk filled with the colours of spring.
There’s more to life than fight and flight; but you have to stop thinking to find it.
For some time, I’ve noticed that people at the top of them can drive themselves and whole organisations to anxiety, stress and overwork; seeking answers to problems which just may not have one.
In computation there are many ‘undecidable problems’ where any possible computer program may give the wrong answer or would run forever without giving any answer at all. A ‘halting problem’ is one where you’ll never know if the program would end. Some of the questions I get asked at the moment feel like these – decidedly undecidable.
Basically these are problems to which there may well be no simple or knowable answers. Finding the answer could take an eternity (and a mountain of work) or continuing to pursue a better answer misses the moment and makes the situation worse.
Computer science advocates ‘Optimal Stopping’; in essence stopping the analysis early enough to get a resource efficient, computationally efficient, ‘good enough’ answer.
The lack of ‘Optimal Stopping’ in senior folk is bad at the best of times. But with Covid-19 it’s a killer – if you keep chasing and asking more and more questions, you just dive deeper and deeper and deeper into the abyss…
So why do otherwise very intelligent, experienced and senior people do it? Turns out because the very apparatus that made them senior – spotting, sweating and sorting problems – ends up torturing them and others.
They worry and worry and chase and question, and expose bigger and bigger gaps between what is known, what can reasonably be done and the problems we have at hand. They’re trapped in a negatively spiralling perpetual motion machine. Because that’s what the mind is – it has an unlimited capacity to spot problems.
That’s perhaps a bit harsh on the mind though; in fact it’s only doing its job… It’s just trying to help us close the gap between where we are and where we want to get to. And this works beautifully for projects which have a start, middle and an end or which require getting from A to B.
But where the problems start, are when we don’t know where we’re going or how we’re going to get there – or even if we’re on remotely the right road. Especially with the biggest problems of all: how to be happy and live a fulfilling life.
And according to Professor Mark Williams what works for ‘painting by numbers’ problems just makes things worse, when contemplating the complexities of your own self-portrait.
When we find a gap between where we are and where we wanted to be, the ever helpful mind starts trying to close the gap; by asking us questions and spinning at top speed to help us find some answers:
“Why am I sad, why am I failing, why do I feel bad, what can I do about it, how do I fix myself, how do I fix the world”.
It turns out – thanks to that stripy hippocampus – we are easily triggered into repeated patterns of thought by environmental cues. So much of what we think is triggered by our surroundings and situations. If you’ve been in a bad situation before, just being in the same place or context can flip you straight back into the same spin again. Even different types of music can do it – apparently listening to Prokofiev’s Russia under the Mongolian yoke from Alaexander Nevsky at half speed can make you blue in double quick time!
But as well as environmental cues being triggers, so are our own moods. We can trigger ourselves. When we feel sad we can rapidly connect with other sad memories, and bring back negative incidents. As Kate Jeffrey explained, incidents which were stressful are deeply etched and tagged by the hippocampus into our memories.
And this links to the Oxford podcast on treatments, which explains the reasons people who’ve had depressive illness can relapse so readily. It turns out it is less the ‘content’ of the negative thoughts (although these thoughts create the exhaustion which drives the downward cycle) but the combination of contextual and mood-based triggers, which can flip the mind back in time in an instant – and recreate the cycle of past fears and past incidents that mean you’re quickly spinning, spiralling and falling again.
So what to do?
It turns out that the key is to spot the pattern:
The mind finds a ‘gap’ between your actual state and the desired state.
The mind starts searching for answers and starts asking you questions.
You hear the questions as criticisms or further evidence of the gap.
You start to think the gap may be permanent, pervasive and personal – it’s lasting, it’s going to affect everything and it’s your fault.
You step up an energy level, as the mind tries harder to help you close the gap; and repeat; and repeat; and repeat.
Anxiety and low mood kick in; and the cycle deepens.
Given the mind works at the speed of light this can be very fast, very intense and very exhausting. The bodily organ which consumes the most energy is the mind. No wonder people burn out and fall flat on their backs.
William’s treatment – our old friend mindfulness meditation… The only way to stop the cycle is to quickly recognise it, catch it before it spirals and ‘observe’ the thoughts – to avoid getting captured by them. The inner voice is always talking (and in fact always trying to help) but like a critical parent or a demanding boss, it can’t stop itself. You just have to take a breath and let it pass.
That’s why I’m back to mindfulness meditation as of today. I’ve had Williams and Penman’s book Mindfulness for years, and used to listen to the meditations a lot in the early 2010s. But I didn’t know the science then. For anyone with a lively mind it’s the best defence against depression; and we all need a bit of help right now.
I’m looking forward to tucking into their free Coronavirus resources here.
Eric Barker writes a great blog; I’ve told three people about the thesis in this post, in the last week or so.
Neuroscience increasingly suggests we’re all more a bunch of impulsive Apps than a well designed rational operating system.
Makes a lot of sense to me; and has reminded me to actually make a bit of time for mindfulness for a week or two – as opposed to reading about it, avoiding it and constantly distracting myself by doing other things. Let’s see how I get on…
“The human brain wasn’t built top to bottom as a single project like Apple builds a computer. It evolved over millions of years in a very messy fashion. Various systems (or “modules”) came about to drive you to accomplish different tasks like seeking food, fighting, reproduction, etc. But here’s the problem…
They were never integrated. So these systems compete to steer the ship that is your brain. Your mind is less like a single computer operating system and more like a collection of smartphone apps where only one can be open and running at a time.
In this view, your mind is composed of lots of specialized modules—modules for sizing up situations and reacting to them—and it’s the interplay among these modules that shapes your behavior. And much of this interplay happens without conscious awareness on your part. The modular model of the mind, though still young and not fully fleshed out, holds a lot of promise. For starters, it makes sense in terms of evolution: the mind got built bit by bit, chunk by chunk, and as our species encountered new challenges, new chunks would have been added. As we’ll see, this model also helps make sense of some of life’s great internal conflicts, such as whether to cheat on your spouse, whether to take addictive drugs, and whether to eat another powdered-sugar doughnut.
Now modules aren’t physical structures in the brain, just like apps aren’t hardware in your phone. They’re software; the human nature algorithms that Mother Nature coded over thousands of generations of evolution.
So you want to diet but you see donuts and your brain’s hunger module (like the “Grubhub” app) hjacks control and says, “Food! Eat it. Now.” Or you want to be nice but your mind’s anger app (“Angry Birds”) takes charge and you’re saying things another app is really going to regret tomorrow. You’re like a walking live performance of Pixar’s “Inside Out.”
So how do we prevent hijacking by the wrong module at the wrong time and make better decisions? First we need to learn how those inappropriate modules get hold of your steering wheel…
Feelings. Nothing More Than Feelings.
Whichever module has the most emotional kick attached to it at any point wins the competition to be “you.”
Under this lens, many of the confusing and frustrating things about human behavior start to make a lot of sense:
Of course people are hypocritical. They’re made up of competing “selves” with very different goals and different information. Uncle Al is the most reasonable guy in the world — unless his “politics module” takes charge.
Are people good or bad? They’re both. The metaphorical angel on one shoulder and devil on the other are just different modules in the brain with different motivations.
Why do you lack self-control? Because now the word doesn’t make any sense. It’s actually “selves-control.” Your behavior isn’t inconsistent; the “you” in charge is inconsistent.
Here’s University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Robert Kurzban:
Some modules are designed to gather benefits, others are designed to deliver benefits, and they exist in the same head, sometimes in conflict. In the same way, this analysis does away with the question of whether individual acts are “really” self-interested. Different kinds of acts advance the goals that some, but not other, modules are designed to bring about. So, both meanings of “self-interest” seem to be a problem because different modules have different designs, and are therefore built to bring about different outcomes.
The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. It is designed, in a certain sense, to be controlled by that input. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input. If you interact with those feelings… via the natural, reflexive thirst for the pleasant feelings and the natural, reflexive aversion to the unpleasant feelings—you will continue to be controlled by the world around you.
How To Prevent Brain Hijack
Buddhism recognized this problem over 1000 years ago. And it also came up with a solution: mindfulness meditation.
And neuroscience gives it a big thumbs up. Studies show meditation trains your brain to be less reactive to emotional swings and can prevent the wrong module from hijacking control of your brain.”
Having done a fair bit of listening to people with soothing voices inviting me to contemplate my feet… and having read a couple of harder core books from the Dalai Lama… I’d concluded mindfulness and meditation wasn’t really me.
I’ve learnt how to breathe, seek enjoyment and find peace ‘in the moment’. I’m getting pretty good at it; and had assumed that was it.
But one slightly terrifying day in July – the 29th to be precise – I met and said ‘oh, fancy that; hello’ to the actual ‘me’ inside. The most bizarre experience I think I’ve ever had.
The simple process is to imagine yourself in a cinema, completely caught up in a film. Then imagine yourself sitting deeper in the chair and detaching yourself from the film and noticing all the people sat around you (especially vivid if you think of them as wearing 3D specs).
Next imagine yourself alone in the movie theatre… and then imagine all your thoughts and sensory perceptions are on the screen.
Now imagine that screen going blank…
The silent person watching the screen inside.
I found it frankly really weird. For the first time I met the silent, energetic, unstable whoosh of raw consciousness and mental energy which is the ‘me’ that sits deep inside.
I’ve not been back since if I’m honest. I noted it down and slightly left it be. It feels like a thing not to be messed with. Pure consciousness is enlightenment, life and death and personal identity all wrapped up in one bouncing, pinging, luminous, easily distracted, unstoppable beam of ‘always on’ energy.
I get meditation and Buddhism now; and fear pain and fear itself a little less. But I’m not sure I want to go back into the cinema and turn everything off again…
I’ve kept myself busy since writing ‘Enlightenment’ in my iPhone notes on 29th July. My next entry is a ‘to do’ list for two weeks of camping – on the 30th July – which feels a good enough excuse; especially given all that’s happened since.
But the quiet seat – in the totally silent and empty cinema – is a place I will have to visit again; even if I don’t fancy it much.
Absent a sudden and violent death, the silent cinema is an important place to know the way into I reckon… That’s the purpose of Buddhism I suspect – to be able to detach the ‘silent witness’ and the constant flow of mental energy from the ego, angst, fear and pain which capture it for most of the living years.
A bit scary though.
Having written this, I popped back into the ‘silent cinema’ this morning. All very painless. Eyes closed: hearing the planes, noises off, feeling the grumbling in the stomach and the ache in my shoulder – and slowly turning attention away from them and towards inner silence. A few thoughts and ideas ping around, a sense it’s all a bit self-conscious in there and then quiet; just quiet… a couple of good thoughts float by… then eyes open and life’s Technicolor cinema immediately fills the screen again with dazzling light, noise, distractions and opportunity.
Life seems even brighter today after a few minutes in the silent cinema.
Blame René Descartes. Mind separated from body – dualism – was his big idea. “I think therefore I am” is probably a fair bet, but Thomas Aquinas got the whole story – we are but one; body and mind entwined.
If in doubt, check out the limbic system or the brain of a crocodile – or indeed the limbic system responding to a crocodile. Fright, fight and flight. Simple instinct doing automatically what nature intended, without the need for laboured thought. The body is more intelligent thank we think. Conscious thought is a bit-part player in most of what we are.
As an aside, I’m increasingly persuaded that the main block to artificial intelligence is not the number and speed of processors mimicking ‘neurones’ but the lack of ‘sensors’ – ie no body to carry so called embodied intelligence. Look at an iPhone – is it software or hardware? It’s neither – it’s both.
At the recommendation of two friends I’m trying ‘mindfulness meditation’ in pursuit of ‘inner peace’. And in the process it’s a shock to discover I am blissfully unaware – almost 100% of the time – of what my body is doing, feels like or needs. All I generally think about is what I’m thinking about.
Bodies get a raw deal, celebrated only for ‘beauty’, reviled for decline and decay. But like a well kept older car, a classic chassis is something to celebrate – and keep rust free and polished.
This week, in my fist ever eye test, I discover I have two healthy optic nerves, two unblemished retinas and scored a perfect 16 in the ‘puff’ test of eyeball pressure. My eyes will neither explode nor collapse in the foreseeable future. Marvellous.
Part of the point of ‘mindfulness’, I’m learning, is to recognise that there’s 70+ kilos of amazing living breathing body here as well as 1.5kg of grey matter.
Remembering you actually are your body – forgetting the contemporary obsession with how it looks – and instead marvelling that it lives and breathes and broadly speaking works, is harder to do than it seems.
Western philosophy has largely forgotten bodies since Aquinas. So I’m going East for a few weeks to meditate on the philosophical reconnection of mind with body. It’s no more complicated than breathing.
In a slow meander of a large management meeting, I found myself contemplating a jug of water… How many colours therein? Such scintillations of light; and patches of shade.
How pure. How clean. What pipes and processes got it to this table. How rare in the history and geography of human existence to have water to hand in such pristine abundance. How much rarer – in the universe – to have the temperature and circumstances to sustain this elixir of life?
Art, origins, progress, luck and gratitude – all in a jug. And then back to tasks and voices and faces and work. But a wistful smile at the corners of my mouth perhaps betrayed I’d briefly escaped the mundane – and enjoyed a moment of wonder at the natural world. Life is in the small details sometimes.