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Modes of Thought & Mindfulness

I’ve been giving a fair amount of thought recently to the different ways that people think. I don’t pretend to any great philosophical leaning, but I thought it could be helpful at least to discuss some of the problems I have had in considering modes of thought – especially with mindful thought being one of the most evidence-based approaches to depression. First, a rattlestop tour of the growth of self.

One of the egocentric ideas that most people retire quite early on in life is the notion that everybody thinks the way that you do. Given that this usually occurs to you when you’re about four, the result is the reality-shaking realisation that not everybody cares about your favourite cartoon in the same way you do. Even finding out that one of your friends doesn’t quite hold it in the same regard as you is something of a revelation.

It’s here that psychologists pick out the burgeoning growth of conciousness and sense of self – the point at which the mind realises that there are things that only it knows; this is when children begin construction of the wonders that are conscious lies, when duplicity and ego-protection begin.

As you grow older though, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that not only do some people not hold the same values as you, but that they may be in a completely different mode of thought. As an example, I was recently talking to someone about the mechanics of mindfulness – when I suddenly realised that they didn’t share the same context as me, and mindfulness as a whole didn’t make sense to them on a visceral level. I found myself running back over some key discussions I’d had in my twenties which had started me developing my sense of self further.

Let’s have a look at the history of my consciousness – or at least that part since my head injury. I did fight with depression quite a bit back then, as detailed in earlier posts, but things like CBT didn’t really gel with me; partly because some of the things seemed a bit obvious, and partly because I lacked the internal tooling and representation of my mind that would make the techniques useful.

Through many discussions with a couple of my friends, we first decried the failure of the Greek philosophers to provide us with a decent set of language tools to describe the mind (their perfect philosophical language), and then my friends rather gamely attempted to get me to join them in investigating the process of thought. I suspect that I may have disappointed them – at least initially.

I had a certain bull-headed arrogance that comes from a broad education and being “smart”; how could there be anything about my own process of mind that I didn’t already know? In this, I was falling straight into the common fallacy; and looking back it must have been the worst possible outcome for my companions – watching me bog down in the trap of self-satisfaction with my own intelligence.

Gradually, however I began to realise the truth of what they were driving at,  and in doing so presented them with the fact that analysis of the mind is a complex meta-task; that the whole process is analogous to opening a box with the crowbar that’s inside. We realised then that nobody can be presented with a “golden road” to mindfulness or understanding their own mechanism of mind – there’s that massive gap between receiving something second hand and actually feeling the thought unfold in your own mind. Each person has to find a way to make it relevant to them.

The first and most powerful thing I learned was that I was not the product of my thoughts. Manly P Hall put it thus:

“…most persons are convinced that the thinker in themselves, is themselves. This identification of the being with it’s own mental processes has disturbed philosophy for a very long time…”

This realisation was hard fought for me, and yet looking back it’s so simple and obvious – I can quite understand why my buddies got so angst-ridden trying to get me past my arrogance.

I started to develop some tools to help me think further about my process of thought, and I gave some thoughts or modes of thought a level. Looking then at types of thought, I started to categorise them like this:

 Spontaneous  A thought that arises “of itself” – the flow of these is what some people consider to be their conscious mind.
 Emotional Simply that – an emotion, possibly tagged onto a spontaneous thought
 Willed A thought brought into existence by willed action; such as “I will not steal that ice-cream”
 Lizard A catchall for thoughts from the hindbrain; the half-formed, barely verbal demands to eat, sleep etc.
 Concentrated Defines the problem solving thought-process – although this is a gross simplification!

The next step was working out the flow of thoughts through my mind – I stopped and worked out what my mind was doing for most of the day and what modes of thought it spent most of it’s time in. The first mode of thought is essentially reactive:

Thoughts Level 1
Level 1 Thoughts – click for bigger

Spontaneous thoughts are the normal-ish boxes, lizard brain thoughts are the filled in, fuzzier items, and emotions are the big red splatter things. As you can see, as time bumbles along there are thoughts that pop in and out; the uncontrolled stream that is baseline consciousness, with emotions that tumble along underneath, colouring all the thoughts above.

The next mode of thought is almost exactly the same, only this time we add willed and concentrated thoughts into the mix:

Thoughts Level 2

Almost exactly the same – except there’s a new thought, to stop myself eating the biscuit, which is an application of will. In my twenties, I probably spent as much as 95% of my time in this mode of thought – and like most people thinking that this actually was me. What my friends were really trying to get me to however was here:

Thoughts Level 3
Thoughts Level 3

Now we have another source of thought added; that of the mindful self, sitting above the black separating line. Here you can see this mode of thought taking place as more of a conversation with self; with thoughts being examined and categorised. This part, which does the examination, which observes the different aspects of your own thoughts is what I currently believe is the source of ‘self’.

This is the part that some people dismiss as part of “navel-gazing” culture, but is in fact that part which allows us to examine ourselves against what we want to be and make effective changes to our patterns of thinking and our response to emotional thoughts. This pattern of thinking is where we should spend our time, if for no other reason than it allows us to inspect the chaos thrown up by the spontaneous, lizard and emotional areas of the brain and decide what we want to do with them. As much as I try, I only currently manage to spend about a third of my waking life in this pattern of thought, and that’s a real effort of will. This is the state that you are looking for when asked to concentrate on living in the moment; to be mindful.

I have difficulties staying in this state for a couple of reasons – firstly, it does require an effort of will; it’s not a default state, otherwise we’d all do it all the time. Secondly, I have a problem with how this mode deals with emotions. Despite my slightly gung-ho and callous exterior, I’m an emotional person; thinking in this mindful way allows an overview of emotion that feels rather more detached, and I felt it as a bit “cold”. It literally felt like some of my connection to the emotional cause of the situation dropped away, and I could make rational choices.

Because of that, I came to view it negatively rather than positively – instead of seeing the benefit in being able to respond to things the best possible way, I clung to my emotions; thinking that they should define me. I think that my confusion after my head injury didn’t help, as I came to view the emotional self and thought patterns as a source of truth. In fact, I was doing everyone a disservice by not bringing these things into check. Unbridled emotions are for love and genuinely dangerous situations, not for business decisions.

When thinking mindfully, I can help my friends through emotional crises more effectively; I can prevent myself from become upset at their pain and still act with integrity.

I have absolutely no doubt there are modes of thought above the three I have described; the one me and my friends started to explore was the mode that examined the mindful self – to start to find what were essential details of our characters, and what were things we’d picked up to defend ourselves with, flaws we could work on, and what genuine good came straight from our un-willed consciousness.

If nothing else, I’d like to hope that this has helped anyone struggling with mindfulness by giving a slightly different way of thinking about it. Any thoughts, pop them in the comments.

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