Previously, in my piece “Let's Talk About The Little Voice in Your Head”, I touched upon the awareness of the inner voice and how it tends to take control of the wheel. Funny enough, for the past few days I've had a distinct recurring thought. "Who are you to write about the mind and why would anyone care?". This nagging dialogue has persuaded me to procrastinate in such mundane ways. On the day when I promised myself that I would finally sit down to put words onto a blank screen. I had to check Instagram, do the dishes, sit in the sun on my rooftop before I wrangled myself to the laptop.
Taking note of how this endeavour has stretched me out of my comfort zone has been a frustrating yet amusing process. Really compounded by the fact that the topic of this piece is all about the hypnotic power of thought. The notable writer Mary O’Malley positioned the challenging relationship between self and mind perfectly in her book, “What’s in the Way Is the Way: A Practical Guide for Waking Up to Life”:
“Life created the mind as a tool for manoeuvring through life, not to be in charge of it. The mind is a wonderful servant, but it is a horrible master. Giving it the task of being in charge of life has created the world of struggle that most people live in all day long, keeping them cut off from peace and joy.”
Being acutely aware that the inner critic grants me no superpowers or foresight to drive action in my daily life, writing this article has presented me with several distractions and mind blocks. Even with my understanding behind why I feel unsure when writing about the topic of mindfulness. However, that is all the more reason to delve into this very concept that one can observe self-defeating mental models, release them, then reprogram ourselves with more self-realized ways of thinking and acting.
Before we can get into the work of re-programing our minds, let me a first examine what we are all working with within our heads. The mind is a great and perplexing labyrinth. Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be a universal definition of what the mind actually is. It's generally linked to our thoughts, emotions, belief systems, behaviours and memories. But what is creating all that, and our ability to experience, analyze and self express?
From a classical scientific angle. It would be the brain, the physical organ made out of complex layers of tissue that contains more than 100 billion nerves (neurons) all communicating with each other via electrical impulses at trillions of junctions called synapses. These firing neurons aid the flow of information within the brain, and create what we can describe as "mental activity". Scientists concede that the mind and the brain are intrinsically linked, but as to how the brain activity gives rise to how it reprogram remains a big fat mystery.
There's an anecdote in neuroscience: "neurons that fire together wire together”. What this means is that our mental patterns activate certain neurons to communicate with each other. When those synapses keep firing, they create an extremely strong connection. Don't just take my word for it. Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb first used the phrase in 1949 to describe how pathways in the brain form and reinforce through repetition. The information that travels through these strengthened pathways can transmit faster as the connections get stronger. With enough reinforcement, these transmissions become more efficient and automatic. So something that we've done many times before becomes second nature. For example, for most people when it comes to tying their shoelaces, they just go on autopilot and suddenly it's done. But to reprogram that learn action could seem like a impossible task.
Now back to the mind, and that nagging inner critic. Thought patterns follow the same synaptic process. When we lock into thinking about something self-defeating or negative, the neural pathways become reinforced. That's why it's really easy to spiral into a cycle of anxiety, obsession, depression, or self-defeating thought. And naturally, those states are hard to get out of. Our brain does not distinguish between good or bad behaviour. It reinforced pathways that have fortified over time in our brains! We're effectively "hypnotizing" ourselves into going down the familiar routes of thoughts and emotions without even knowing it.
Our ability to "hypnotize" ourselves in one way, means we can also "hypnotize" ourselves in the opposite way. Using the same methodology.
Let's challenge the idea that 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks'. The study of neural plasticity, which is the observation of the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout an individual's life. Proves that we can create new neural pathways through repetitive practice, and reprogram the way we think and view the world. I'm not saying this is easy, but I'm saying that it's possible to reprogram our minds.
There is a constant dialogue between our conscious and subconscious minds. The conscious mind is the aware "I" that sees and perceives what's happening around us as well as our thoughts and emotions. The subconscious mind is the underlying program that stores all information from our past experiences, memories and upbringing. It's where the wonderful servant, but horrible master dynamic plays out. This is also where we can challenge our preconceived thoughts and emotions, self-perception and inner voice.
There are several different modalities that one can explore to reveal the subconscious mind's inner workings and reveal the self-limiting belief systems that are ingrained in us. We effectively have to train our minds to work for us. The beauty is that we can shift our current paradigms if we want to. Some methods that prove to be highly effective in helping people change negative narratives include mindfulness meditation, visualization and self-hypnosis.
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing intentional awareness to our thoughts and actions as we go throughout our day. Being fully present in our internal (thoughts & emotions) and external (outside environment) worlds. In mindfulness meditation techniques, one focuses one's attention wholly on the present moment and acknowledges the internal and worlds? without judgement. The simplest technique calls for focusing on the breath and coming back to it when we noticed our mind wandering. Using the sensation of breathing as a way to root our consciousness back into the present moment and allows us to reprogram our wavering thoughts.
Whilst observing and contemplating with curiosity the inner workings of the mind. We allow the narratives and thoughts patterns that are occurring to pass through without hanging on to them as something that is necessarily definitive. In this approach, we become familiar with the way our mind is working. Subsequently, we can work towards changing those negative belief systems and reprogram them. If we're not aware of what we're telling ourselves or what our autopilot mechanisms are to even begin with. Then we can't change the program.
Research shows that gray matter, the area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, planning, and problem-solving as well as the cortical thickness. Is responsible for learning and memory, both of which increase with regular meditation practice. Alternatively, the amygdala, which regulates how we feel stress, fear, and anxiety, decreases in size.
To answer the question on if we can challenge our inner programing the answer is, yes. It's not an easy process but it is achievable. More importantly, it’s the understanding of how our inner demons form that can shed light on how we can break their hold. The next time you are experiencing an inner spiral, remember it's just an auto programed. A sequence of thought and the reality of your situation is most likely far removed from your inner analyst. Step back and understand the pattern unfolding and challenge its validity.