Hello and welcome back for episode 8 of the Cambridge Progressive Medicine Podcast series. How did you get on with the mediation? Did you feel some of the peace and tranquility that comes from calming our incessant commentary? It is not always easy, but like everything in life it gets easier with practice.
Meditation is a fantastic tool, it gives us a moment of peace, and helps to show us that we have control over our own thoughts, even if it is by simply momentarily switching them off. For me though, it is only the beginning. It’s just the first step. Meditation works because it turns off our thoughts, many of which are negative and harmful to us. In this respect it is like a painkiller or an anaesthetic. It numbs the pain, but it does not address the underlying cause. When we stop mediating, often even whilst we are still trying to meditate, the intrusive thoughts push their way back in, and the stress, panic, sadness, or unease returns.
Instead of simply turning off unwanted or unhelpful thoughts, what if we could actively replace them with welcome beneficial ones? What if we could stop believing our stories that restrict us, and harm us, and instead think and believe thoughts that allow us to thrive? What if our running commentaries could support and encourage, rather than berate and injure us?
Well guess what? It absolutely is possible. All our thoughts are optional. We get to choose them. We get to choose which thoughts we want to think. We can choose deliberately, on purpose, to believe helpful thoughts, and reject unhelpful ones. This is called managing your mind. I only realized that it was even possible to attempt to manage my mind about a year ago, and since then I have been working on it daily.
The basic concept couldn’t be any simpler. If you are thinking a thought that makes you feel bad, or is holding you back, or stopping you from achieving your goals, you can simply change it. You can choose, on purpose, to believe a better thought. One that makes you feel good about yourself instead of bad, and leads to positive action instead of harmful coping strategies.
It is so simple it is incredible that this had never occurred to me before. I think it’s because it is so simple, and because it hasn’t occurred to most of us, that we tend to instantly reject it. Our brains just say no. It’s ridiculous. Its impossible. If it’s that simple surely we would have realized long ago. Why have we all been suffering needlessly all these years?
Here’s the thing. It is possible to simply change your unhelpful thoughts to helpful ones. I know because I have been learning to do it. True, I am not successful 100% of the time, but managing your mind is a skill just like any other, and it takes practice and dedication to learn how to do it. And I know that if I can do it, you can do it too. There is nothing exceptional about me, I’m just as messed up as everyone else.
The idea of managing your mind isn’t any great secret either. It is pretty much the basis of nearly all self-help philosophies, theories and literature. From Buddhism to Toltec wisdom, from Brene Brown to Derren Brown, it is all the same. These ideas of how to live well and find peace and harmony within the human condition have been around for thousands of years.
So why did it take me so long to realize this “secret” of life? How can so many of us go through life without ever realizing it at all? Why are we all suffering so much?
I think the answer is that truth hurts.
We spend a lot of time worrying about what is or isn’t true. We believe that the thoughts we have are true. We think the reason we can’t just simply change our thoughts is that the thought we change it to would therefore be false, and we cannot bring ourselves to believe something that we think is false.
Believing that your world view is true is the road to misery.
Our modern scientific view of the world puts a lot of emphasis on truth. We want facts. We are more and more used to facts. When I was growing up you could learn all sorts of interesting things from the guys in the pub, we would have long convoluted discussions, which band is bigger? who has sold the most albums? It could go on for hours. Nobody knew the numbers, but we were certainly sure of our positions, and ready to defend them. But now we have no truck with this kind of conversation, it simply doesn’t exist. We just google it. Pink Floyd have sold more records than The Prodigy – a lot more – Take that Matthew Howell; that’s an evening of my life I will never get back!
But most of our belief system doesn’t stand up to this rigorous standard of truth. Most of the things that comprise our world view you can’t just google. Is there a God? Am I loveable? Am I too short? Was this rude?, Was that disrespectful? Capitalism or socialism? Nature or nurture? Brexit or remain? You can’t google it because there is no answer. There is no absolute truth to any of these questions, or at least not one that we are ever likely to find out.
Most of what we think we know is just opinion. But just like when we were in the Pub in the 90s we all think that our opinion is true, even though we haven’t got a shred of evidence to support it, or any intention of attempting to find out. In psychological terms this is known as the illusion of explanatory depth. Most people, if asked, think they understand the world much better than they actually do. This has been demonstrated experimentally. If people are asked to rate how well they understand how a bike, or a fridge works they will normally say they understand it well. If you then ask them to draw a bicycle from memory or to explain the details of how the fridge works they find they are unable to do it. Our brains trick us into thinking that we know more than we actually do. Looking back at the 90s now it seems ridiculous, arguing for hours over things we knew nothing about, but this is exactly what we all do when it comes to our world views. We think we know, but really we don’t. If you want to get philosophical about it, it all pretty much ended with Descartes and “cogito ergo sum”. When it comes to it, we don’t really know anything for sure. But this isn’t the curse it seems, in many ways it’s a gift. If we can never know for certain what is right or wrong, what is true or false, this means that we get to choose.
In general, deciding what to believe based on whether you think it is true or false is not a good strategy, and is the root cause of a lot of anxiety and unhappiness. It is the reason we have failed to notice that we are in control of our own thoughts and feelings. A much better question is “Is this thought, this opinion, helpful to me, or harmful to me. Does it serve me to believe it”?
Because our world view is opinion it is also optional. We get to choose the thoughts we want to think. Actually, we get to choose even where there is fact. I can still choose to believe that the Prodigy have sold more records than Pink Floyd if I want to. Its just that believing something that isn’t true is normally not that helpful, mostly it doesn’t serve us to believe things that are genuinely false – like if I jump off this building I will be able to fly. But no doubt there are situations where it could be. For example I’m sure most of us don’t regret our childhood belief in father Christmas. It served us well to believe it because it made Christmas frickin awesome!
The problem we have, the reason the secret to life has so successfully remained a secret, despite the efforts of countless thinkers, over thousands of years, is that we are in a Catch 22. We already believe that the fundamental concept, that there is no absolute right or wrong to our thoughts and opinions, is false. We already believe that right and wrong, true and false exist in the world. We think it is true that our world view is true. The philosophers and psychologists and life coaches are too late to the party. The truth ship of bigotry and despair sailed long ago.
And what is worse is that we don’t even realize it. I’m sure you do not consider yourself to be a bigot, but you almost certainly are. Bigotry is defined as intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself. It’s easy not to be a bigot when you agree with each other, or you just don’t really care that much. But how tolerant are you of rudeness, internet trolls, murder and racism? Are you an anti-racist bigot? Are you prepared to accept or tolerate other peoples right to be racist? Our immediate thought is “Yes, but racism is wrong, that’s different.” But is it different? Some people are racist, they hold a different opinion from you. How do you know that you are right, and they are wrong?
It’s easy in theory to say there is no truth, no absolute right and wrong, but then when we are faced with things we feel strongly about we quickly forget.
I’m not saying we don’t have a right to an opinion. Of course we do. But it is still just an opinion, no matter how shocking, no matter how strongly you believe it. I personally don’t think believing that one race is superior to another, or that murder is OK, are helpful beliefs. I don’t think it serves me to believe it, and so I choose not to. But that doesn’t mean it is a fact; that it is always and absolutely an unhelpful belief for anyone to hold under any circumstance. Each person gets to make their own decision for their own reasons.
Now I want to leave these shocking examples of racism and murder behind. I wanted to demonstrate the strength of conviction we feel when faced with strongly emotive issues, but I don’t want to get tied up in them. Not because they’re not important issues, but because this podcast is meant to be about health and wellbeing, not moral theory.
We all hold countless beliefs about ourselves and the world that we believe to be true, many of which are harmful to us, and the majority of which can never be proven to be true or false. We hold these with an equally strong conviction as we do with the extreme examples from before. How strongly we believe something is often not proportional to the “importance” or certainty related to it. Things we think to be true we think are equally true. It is binary. Things are either true or false, one thing can’t be more true than something else, because if they are true they are true. This is important to recognize, because the emotion we feel when somebody says “have you ever considered that murder or racism might be ok” is the same strength of emotion we feel when any of our beliefs are doubted or brought into question. This is why it is so hard to change, why we restrict our own spiritual growth, for the sake of the truth. I think its helpful to understand and recognize this emotive aspect to our beliefs, because if we can do this we can see where it might be misplaced; where we are getting a strong emotive truth reaction to beliefs that are not helpful to us; to the beliefs that we actually might want to consider changing. “I would be happier if only I was taller. I would have been more successful if I had gone to a better school, I’m not a natural athlete, I’m not as successful as my siblings, my boss thinks I don’t work as hard as my colleagues, I am not a good parent…..”
When we are forced to confront these beliefs, when the psychotherapist points out that they are negatively influencing our behavior, holding us back, making us sad and stopping us from fulfilling our potential, we feel we can’t just let them go, precisely because they are true. Our natural reaction is to defend our beliefs. We look for external evidence to support our beliefs – Studies showing that taller people are more likely to be successful and earn higher wages, or memories of always being the last to be picked for games. But the brain will always find evidence for what it wants to believe, and the brain always wants to believe what it already thinks it knows. We want to be right, we need to be right – even if being right makes us miserable. The brain is therefore a bias, wholly unreliable resource. It is possible to gather evidence for or against pretty much any opinion, especially in the face of ignorance. That’s why we all spent so much time in the pub in the 90s.
When I say truth hurts I don’t mean that thoughts hurt because they I true. What harms us is our belief that they are true. Our conviction that the realities and stories we have constructed are real is the thing that harms us the most, almost irrespective of what those beliefs actually are. It prevents us from adopting more helpful belief systems, when we find ourselves in a situation where our old thought patterns are not benefiting us.
So what can we do about this Catch 22? How can we convince ourselves that the things we know so certainly may be wrong? I think a good place to start is with a spot of psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy is one of the major stepping stones that enables us to live better lives, become more fulfilled, happier and healthier. All of us stand to benefit from engaging with psychotherapy, whether it is a formal structured program, or self-directed reading. Psychotherapy is not just for people with mental health problems, it is a tool for learning how to live a better life.
In the next episode I will try to explain why this is and how you can get started.