The mind is a complex process involving urges, thoughts, and drives that lead to behaviors that are either encouraged or discouraged though either pleasant experience or unpleasant experience. To understand how this vastly oversimplified explanation leads us to be who we are, let’s look at some of the basic processes involved.
The mind: thoughts, behaviors, and consequences
Every unconscious thought (UT’s) has a set of possible conscious thoughts (CT’s) that may bubble up. It follows that every conscious thought has a set of possible behaviors (Bx’s) that you may engage in, some more likely than others depending on what the thought is. And of course, every behavior you choose to engage in has a set of circumstances/consequences (Cx’s) that may be created, some more likely than others depending on the behavior(s) you’ve chosen to engage. Understanding these basic dynamics helps you find flow.
When we become mindful of the choices we have, we are more likely to pick ones that are in line with what we really want. And what you want may change along with circumstances beyond your control (i.e. you may genuinely want to spend time with a special person, but a family member’s crisis may take precedence).
Naturally, there are things that seem to be able to throw us off of our course (like a family member getting sick). The ability to flow and improvise that allows you to navigate these sometimes challenging decisions of what to do, and when.
Recap: Unconscious thought/mind ==> Conscious thought/mind ==> Behavior ==> Conscious thought/mind . . . and the cycle continues
Those Cx’s are processed back into UT’s first, then to CT’s, and so on. If this cycle is unhealthy or not working, then we can leverage our CT’s to initiate changes in the Cx’s that help us to rewire our brain.
How to leverage this information
Generally speaking, there are ways to change at the CT, Bx, and Cx level while allowing the UT to re-wire the brain via the new experiences. The more you repeat them, the more the re-wiring extends into the depth of your brain (where the unconscious mind is).
Ask yourself if what you are thinking and/or doing is helping you approach contentment, or get farther from it; in many circumstances, you will know if you are pulling the wool over your own eyes (this would be the work of our old friend, the ego) and moving away from contentment but trying to convince yourself or others that you are actually content . . . you’ll know, and eventually, so will others.
Approach vs avoidance
It is easier for many of us to engage in ‘contentment approach’ behaviors when things are going well, but not so easy when things are difficult or painful. When we are in pain, we may be more of the personality type to effectively find thoughts/behaviors that return us to contentment, or of another personality type that becomes jaded, resentful, frightened, etc. in response to pain. When in the darker frame, it seems almost natural to do things that actually make things worse (like scream at the car that cut you off, then chase them and cut THEM off, wagging that middle finger as you pass by them). But what if shooting the one-fingered salute actually seems to feel better? Well, notice how it feels, then compare that to a time that involved joy and a light heart (ie, what really feels better, waving the salute or watching your son take his first steps?).
Here’s the thing: the more you do the darker style behaviors, the more likely they are to re-occur because the pattern extends and feeds back into your unconscious expectations/templates of how things are supposed to be–it becomes a habit; AND the more you do the lighter things (allow the person to cut you off, then maintain your integrity and composure, and thus your safety) the more habituated they become at the unconscious level too!! It takes about 3 weeks of mindful repetition for a new unconscious thought to begin to stick.
Ready to change?
If you have read this far, then you are probably really ready to make some changes and are looking for not only how to deal with relatively smaller things like traffic, but also with larger life-changing pursuits. No matter how complex or existential, etc. your goals may be, try to keep this process simple. Remember that by practicing being nice, for example, in smaller ways, you are exercising your brain structures in a way that improves that probability that you will behave nicely in more challenging circumstances; and the more likely you are to be nice, the more likely you are to remain calm; and the more likely you are to remain calm, the more chemically receptive your unconscious and conscious minds are to healthy decision-making, leading to more positive outcomes.
This is nothing new, nothing that hasn’t already been said in other posts in my blog, and by many, many other teachers over many thousands of years . . . the neuroscience may be new, but what those chemicals and neurons do is nothing new.
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Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan is a Gottman-trained Couples Counselor, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.