We usually have little control over our thoughts. They come and go as they will, in their multitudes. Our sense of control only comes in the level of action. Jesus was being typically provocative and absurdly idealist when he said that a man who lusted after his neighbour’s wife was committing adultery in his heart. None of us can control our thoughts in the way that guilt-mongering spiritual leaders feel we should. It is ultimately what we choose to do, rather than what we happen to think, that matters.
I’ve always regarded my brain as an ecosystem similar in complexity to the African savannah or rainforest. I see my thoughts as the equivalents of lions and wildebeest, birds and reptiles, bacteria and viruses and fungi, exploiting their niches and competing for their place in the sun. Furthermore, it is a Darwinian battle for survival in there, and the same dynamics of bloodshed and teamwork apply.
Just like an animal, each thought, and the particular circuit of brain cells that support it, needs food to survive. Any thought that catches our attention is saying “I’m important! Feed me! Give me glucose and oxygen and the hormones that will make me strong.” And that is exactly what we do when we pay attention to a thought.
Every thought, however minute, is a call to action. It says “My message is important. I think you should do something about this.” Thoughts are not about the disinterested pursuit of beauty or truth or idle pleasures. If a thought was too passive or emotionally neutral, it wouldn’t be able to force its way into consciousness against the hordes of competing thoughts. The purpose of thinking, and the over-riding function of the pre-frontal cortex, is to imagine our personal future and prepare for profitable action.
Of course, we can’t possibly respond to the demands of each thought. Our thoughts are lightning fast (‘Do this! Do that!), while actions are more cumbersome and constrained by physical practicalities. Thoughts outnumber actions by 10 or a 100 to 1, so we have to choose which ones to respond to. Even this is difficult so we usually take the easy way out. We don’t so much ‘choose’ which thoughts to act upon, as go along with those that feel most familiar and reliable.
We make most of our choices semi-automatically. We ‘choose’ according to routine, rule-of-thumb, formulaic, pattern-recognition principles. Some formulas are instinctive, such as ‘see food, eat food’. Others are learnt routines, such getting dressed when naked or answering the phone when it rings. Althought we come across thousands of potential points of decision each day, we rarely consider the possibility of doing anything different. We could have champagne and ice cream for breakfast, for example, or wear pajamas to work, but we conserve energy and avoid conflict by following our well-schooled routines.
We can talk to people, handle emails, do the shopping and deal with simple problems in this conscious but semi-automatic fashion. Even a weary doctor can still give exactly the right advice to a patient by automatic pilot. In a six-minute consultation, without much corroborating detail or time for empathetic listening, he can still recognise that his patient is in the ‘incipient heart attack’ category.
He can then make the textbook, rule-of-thumb, good-enough response and so save a life. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel for every little thing we do, and not even the doctor needs surplus information. Our days run quite efficiently on this substrate of semi- automatic choices.
Frequently enough the formulaic response isn’t good enough. If the situation doesn’t fit the usual category, the standard formula won’t work. There may be a conflict between competing options. ‘Eat chocolate’ may clash with ‘lose weight.’ Some choices feel like rationalisations. ‘Eat chocolate and feel really good’ may clash with our knowledge that it is more likely to make us feel awful. Many conflicts occur between equally good, but mutually exclusive, options. ‘Live for the moment and go to the beach’ may clash with ‘Go to work and earn money’.
We are forced to make more conscious choices in situations of uncertainty, inadequate information, or conflicts in motivation and goals. At these times, the quality controller in the brain says ‘Automatic decision making won’t do! The workers on the floor can’t handle this one. Send it to the boss!’ It then bumps that issue upstairs into consciousness, so we can deal with it more deliberately. Since conscious choice is not our default position, and there are fewer guidelines in non-standard situations, we often find this quite hard to do.
However, the first, the best and the most powerful choice that we ever make is likely to be ‘No!’ (or its close relatives -‘ No Longer’ or ‘Not Now’). Impulse restraint is the ability to inhibit an emotional urge, to hold back from an action, or to stop an action that is already underway. This is a key ability that distinguishes humans from animals, and mature adults from criminals and children. Selective inhibition is also crucial for the attainment of excellence in almost any field. Everyone should have a strong ‘No’ in their arsenal.
‘No’ says ‘Stop and look. See what is going on before you act.’ This decouples the response from the stimulus. It neutralises the railroading effect of our automatic responses. It stops wastage and clears the space for intelligent action. This is particularly important because we typically need to make conscious choices when things are going badly.
Important as it is, even the simplest ‘No’ decision can be quite unpleasant. It invariably carries a sense of frustration and loss. We’re stopped in our tracks. We were about to do or get something, and now we’re not. We not face a void with nothing else in sight. We may need to indulge in some congratulatory self-talk to compensate for the sense of deprivation – for example: ‘That was a good decision. This is why it was a good decision. That was better than what I did last time.’ The final stage of a ‘No’ decision, to stop us reneging and buying that piece of junk anyway, is to resolutely turn our attention elsewhere.
A ‘Yes’ decision feels more comfortable than a ‘No’ but we may still be cruising along somewhat thoughtlessly with a predilection. It can also suffer from the distorting effect of attention, namely that what we focus on seems particularly important because we no longer notice the alternatives. Finally a ‘Yes’ can easily lead to a fixation in which we become unable to disengage from an activity when it is no longer useful. This is the garden path fallacy. We just keep on doing what we’ve always done because that’s what we do, payoff or not.
‘Yes’ or ‘No’ options are relatively simple. Choosing between three or four alternatives is more complex and would seem to demand a more calculating approach. For example, we could do a comparative analysis by listing the pros and cons of each option and totting up the respective scores, but hardly anyone operates this way when it really matters. Would you buy a Holden over a Ford because it scored 71 points to 64? Or marry Jane rather than Doris on similar calculations?
Some people such as doctors, firefighters and military commanders are highly skilled at decision making. Studies show however that they hardly ever do side-by-side, rational choice kinds of analyses. This is not the way that the brain naturally works. Switching from A to B and then back to A guarantees shallow and frustrating thought processes. The files get scrambled. There is too much random interference for plans to develop, and the important gut-feelings can’t emerge through the verbal chatter.
Skilled decision makers typically give their full attention to the first likely option and then do a mental simulation of how it would play out: “First this, then this, then oops, a gap, check it out, what are the possibilities, yes this could work, no, it won’t work, give it up, back to square one, what’s the next option?” In other words, they consider options serially and in depth rather than in parallel. They typically act on the first decision that looks like it could work and forget the rest, rather than wasting time trying to find the ‘best’ option. Good decision makers are quick. They don’t suffer from paralysis by analysis.
Complex undertakings can’t be plotted out in detail from the start. They are bound to involve unforeseeable points of choice on the way. It is beyond the capacity of the ordinary human mind to calculate for all contingencies. It is much better to get started in roughly the right direction, expecting to fumble occasionally, and to have to adjust the plan according to circumstances. Good enough is far more attainable than perfect, and it is so much faster.
Making choices is a skill which can easily be improved by practice. The small semi- automatic decisions that we make all day long are a good place to start. First, just try to notice how many choices – thousands of them, in fact – that you actually make without realising it. When you recognise that you’ve made a choice that matters, it is worth asking: “What did I just decide to do? Why did I do it? Was it a good choice or not?” These questions, simply by elevating the issue into full consciousness, are bound to lead to more flexibility and freedom over time.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2009