Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 3: Look at Your Lenses

A week after I'd sent lesson #2, my missionary friend wrote:

I have been reading your lessons and following your guidance and it has been helping! I have seen a notable difference in the past week. I definitely have been more happy and focused, so thank you! I'm looking forward to this weeks lesson.

I was glad he'd begun to see a difference. I knew he'd need all the motivation he could get to pull off the challenge I was about to set out for him.

Desire Is Not Enough

A student came to Aristotle asking how he could gain wisdom. The teacher waded down into the water with him, grabbed his head, submerged it, and held it under until the student was struggling with all his might. He let the young man get a breath, then said: “When you are as desperate for wisdom as you were for air in that moment, you will be ready to learn.”

My client, Greg, had been told this story by a mentor. “You need to get to that same point in your recovery. If you’re still relapsing, then you don’t yet want to be free from your addiction with the same intensity that student was yearning for air.” This instruction was consistent with an approach Greg had been trying to follow for years:

While I’m still in my right mind, I need to really think about how bad my destructive habit is for me and all the reasons I never want to give in again. Build up all the energy I can moving in the opposite direction. Hopefully then, in the heat of a tempting moment, my sane thinking will still have enough sway, my determination will hold, and the momentum I’ve established will keep me going in the right direction.

For weeks after hearing about Aristotle, Greg tried to muster more desire, spent time pondering why he wanted out of the addiction, and prayed harder than ever for his freedom. He’d been waking up at five o’clock in the morning to study his scriptures; he decided he’d get up at 4:45 so that he could study longer. All of this, he was hoping, would help him build up immunity to temptation when it hit.

Although Greg’s efforts along these lines may have had other positive effects on his life (more scripture reading can’t be bad for you!), they didn’t diminish how tempted he was or how often he relapsed.

Greg’s friend was sincere, had admirable intentions, and his teaching story may have been just what someone else needed. Greg, however, is like many of the folks we see whose addictive patterns seem to survive and thrive despite quite high levels of desire for freedom.

The truth is, we can spend all sorts of time and energy stoking the fire of motivation, psyching ourselves up, becoming more and more gung-ho and determined... only to have all of that drive and energy evaporate in the moments when we need it most.

The Problem of Shifting Mindsets

When they hit urges can be very convincing and potent. They can also be quite immune to our reasoning powers, at least in the moment. We find ourselves in a very different mindset than the one in which we stoked the fire of desire so that it would be available to help us at times like these.

To improve our success in recovery from addictive patterns, we need to understand how mindsets work and learn to manage them.

Throughout a typical day, we shift into and out of a variety of different mindsets. Each one is sort of like a trance. In our morning routine trance we get ourselves fed, cleaned up, and transported to the job site. Under the spell of our "fan" trance, we set aside our usual sense of decorum and yell and chant and boo with abandon. In the airport security checkpoint trance, we start taking off our shoes and belt.

We don't have to choose each action consciously. Once the state of mind gets activated, the autopilot system in our brain takes over, initiating the associated actions and feelings in perfect sequence and with impeccable timing.

It's exquisite--breathtaking even--when this process helps us play our part on the violin in the city symphony’s performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—or the bass guitar part in our garage band's cover of “Won't Get Fooled Again”. But it's degrading to the extreme when it drags us to a sexual outlet no more elevated than the dogs in heat at the park.

Exposing the Sentiments that Power Our Mindsets

In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer said, "To attain true inner freedom, you must be able to objectively watch your problems instead of being lost in them."

As we become more observant, more like a scientist, one of the most helpful realms for us to focus our attention is our thinking and how it changes throughout the day as we go into and out of various mindsets. In a way, it may sound odd to gather and compile data that is nothing more than our own thoughts. After all, our minds are always with us. It seems that if we ever want access to our thoughts we could just consult our own minds again and bring those thoughts back into consciousness.

When it seems to us that we could actually pull this off, it is because we are suffering from the illusion of continuity of consciousness. We experience ourselves as thinking with the same mind all the time. The reality is quite different than that. As we’ve been discussing, we actually change states of mind quite often. However, there’s a reason we miss it: once we find ourselves in a new mindset, we immediately start suffering afresh from the illusion of continuity of consciousness. A sort of emotion-induced amnesia kicks in. Whatever we were thinking and however we were feeling before seems long gone, and how we’re viewing things right now seems to be the actual truth in a very convincing way.

We have an amazing capacity to fully “buy in” to one track of thinking and feeling and to be convinced in each moment, “I’m seeing things clearly now!” We have the sense that our appraisal of life and our experiences is dead on. In most moments, if someone were to grab us by the arm and say, “Life might actually be different than it seems to you right now!” the very idea would strikes us as odd, perhaps even absurd.

Any given mindset of the moment is very convincing in this way, despite the fact that when we look back over time we can see that a variety of very different states of mind enveloped and entranced us very convincingly when they were cued up. In just the past couple of weeks, for example: during one period my life really seemed to stink. I felt forced by events to acknowledge that I’d failed at teaching my kids responsibility because it was like pulling teeth to get them to help with chores around the house. At another point I watched in amazed satisfaction as one of them straightened out our messy firewood pile and then built a support to keep it tidy. And again as another proceeded to mow the back lawn, too, after only being asked to do the front. From gloom to glee and back again. Our mindsets are always shifting.

To become more aware of this lack of continuity and to get better at managing it, it really is helpful to articulate and track over time our thoughts. Not just any thoughts; it is particularly helpful to put into words our sentiments, which are defined as attitudes or conclusions based primarily on emotion, not reasoning. When we feel a subtle or distinct shift in the way we feel, it’s helpful to put our thoughts into words by writing them on a 3x5 card, emailing them to ourselves, talking with a loved one, or texting someone who is supporting you in your recovery from your destructive habit. I encourage folks to “watch for when you shift into an emotionally loaded state of mind, particularly one that doesn’t serve you very well.” Feeling resentful? Articulate that sentiment. Feeling tempted? Describe the pull in words. Feeling deflated? State exactly what you’re feeling as best you can.

Mission (Nearly) Impossible

This task of stating our sentiments may not sound all that difficult or complicated, but there’s a factor that presents a nearly insurmountable obstacle to pulling it off. It’s a problem called reciprocal inhibition. When the language-capable part of the brain is running the show, then the emotionally aroused mind is typically at rest. Not just taking a voluntary rest break, but prevented from firing up and operating actively. Likewise, once we get swept up by emotion, the language brain center is usually not just shoved into the back seat, but locked away in the trunk of our consciousness.

Overall, this process is helpful, enabling us to shift in and out of various adaptive “modes,” pursuing a wide range of goals at different times without being overwhelmed by competing thoughts and feelings and needs and drives all the time. When you’re sitting in church, you can forget about a full bladder for a time. When you lay down to go to bed at night, you can put aside work concerns for the time being. When you’re working on your homework, you can forget about a growling stomach for a time. You can lose contact with your “real life” for a time when you’re sitting in a movie or on vacation. Thanks to shifting modes of consciousness, we’re not overwhelmed constantly by competing pulls, struggling against ourselves like the Pushmi-pullyu in the story of Doctor Dolittle.

Despite how adaptive this “design feature” of ours can be, it’s also what makes us vulnerable to the pull of destructive urges. Much of the time we may feel distaste for our addictive behavior, immune to the draw of relapse. We may even marvel at the stupidity of that path.

But once we’re swept up again by cravings or urges, we become just as distasteful of abstaining, just as immune to reasoning, and yet walking with just as determined a gait as when we were on the path heading in the diametrically opposite direction.

Fortunately, things don’t have to continue on forever in this way! The different modes we go into don’t have to remain so distinct and mutually inhibiting. We can practice integrating our various states of mind, developing the capacity to have our language function simultaneously active with our feeling function.

I encourage this in my counseling practice by asking clients to put some feeling—any feeling—into words at least once per day over the period of one week. State a sentiment. Doesn’t matter what it is, just take a feeling that comes to you at some point throughout the day and put it into words. Text it to me if that’s the easiest way to keep a record of it over time. At the end of the week I expect to see their record of at least five statements.

“You’re paying a lot of money to meet with me. If I give you an assignment for you to complete this week that will take five minutes or less and quadruple the value you’re getting from counseling for the week, will you commit to do it?” That usually gets a quick and easy yes. Still, it’s amazing how hard it is to actually pull off in everyday life.

Here what one client, Dale, turned in to me at the end of the week:

Th: Feeling okay. Seems neutral. Nothing there really. I guess if push came to shove and I had to put words to any sentiment right now it would be, “My life and work are going pretty well.”

F: “Something’s wrong with me that makes people uncomfortable so they don’t like hanging out with me.” (Invited three people over; only one came.)

Sa: too much mess for me to clean up. Nobody else who made it is cooperating to help clean. Frustrated and overwhelmed.

Su: Excited about what I’m learning in my study of the Bible.

M: my life seems filled with chore after another.

Tu: Another glitch on this project. Am I cursed?

W: Satisfying meal. Pleasant weather. Backyard’s beautiful. Life’s great.

Recall from earlier in this lesson that Michael Singer encouraged us to objectively watch our problems instead of being lost in them to attain inner freedom. Because many of our problems show up in the arena of our thinking, as we start to track your thoughts the way Dale did, we’ve begun to practice watching our problems instead of being lost in them.

In a way, it’s like taking our glasses off and looking at the lenses. We spend most of our lives looking at the world through those lenses, but now we’re pausing to check out their tint and curvature. That’s what we’re doing with our thoughts: instead of looking at life through the lenses of our thinking, we’re looking at our thinking itself.

As we step back and achieve a bit of distance and objectivity, we become freer to respond as we choose to our thoughts rather than being compelled and driven about by them. Our thoughts may still come at us in very convincing ways, but as we continue to practice watching our thoughts, we keep amplifying the little voice in the back of our minds that says, “Objects in view may be different than they appear.”

The homework I’ll give you next may seem simple and easy. It might be hard to imagine that it would make a significant difference in your long-term success. Not only is it harder than it sounds, it can get your momentum moving in a better direction in a remarkable way. As you complete this homework, you begin to erode the ability of your mindsets to hold you in their trance.

Homework Assignment: State Your Sentiments

Each day over the coming week pause for a moment at some point during the day and put some feeling—any feeling—into words. State a sentiment. Doesn’t matter what it is, just take a feeling that comes to you at some point throughout the day and put it into words. Text it or email it to yourself or write it on a 3x5 card or sticky note. You may miss a day or two but try to record at least five statements during the next week.

You’ve taken the time and gone to the trouble to read this. Now if you’ll take just five or ten minutes total spread over the coming seven days you can quadruple the value you’ll get from what you just read. I strongly encourage you to make a commitment to yourself right now that you’ll do it. It will be a challenge to remember to do it, so you might want to set a “SAS” (State a Sentiment) reminder on your phone or calendar or put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror or the steering wheel of your car.

Note to readers: If you find these lessons helpful, please comment below on what you're learning or how your applying the homework. It's one thing for others to read explanations of concepts, but if they can see how you're applying them they'll be better able to put them to use for themselves!

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