Tag Archives: mind

Landscapes of the mind

The way in which we use the language of ‘up’ to express positivity has been on my mind since I read Ecolinguistics (review here). Moving forward, going up, rising – these are all presented as good things both in mental health, and in other aspects of western, capitalist society. Growth has to go up to be good. Sales going up are good – and no matter the reason or the cost.

I can experience entering a state of depression as a sinking feeling or a fall – there is a bodily sensation I associate with it that has a definite trajectory. However, that’s just the beginning, and it is normal for me to stop falling. Once I’m in depression, I may experience it as being more like a confined space that I don’t know how to leave, or a plateau in a landscape where all the colour is washed out.

Imagine only seeking an upward trajectory. That means constantly seeking a new high, and when we use that language, what is evoked is not bliss, but addiction. If you are always trying for a bigger high, you’re probably using substances, or addicted to adrenaline. In the landscape of the mind, always going higher isn’t a good thing, but we don’t talk about the process of feeling good as much as we talk about depression, so beyond the uplift of recovery, it’s not really explored.

Our natural emotional states fluctuate. Our inner landscapes tend to be like physical landscapes that have some diversity in them. We go up and down. We have awkward bits and easy bits, fertile bits and arid bits. In a physical landscape, the highest places you can go are mountains, and it is worth noting that people don’t tend to live on the tops of mountains because while they may be exciting, they are neither safe nor sustaining for us.

In a physical landscape, the furthest down you can go is into cave systems – which can be dangerous, but people have lived in caves. Down at the lowest level on the ground tends to be where you find the most fertile soils and the river valleys that have supported human civilizations for a very long time. Low ground tends to be suitable for us, sustaining and inhabitable. Has the metaphor broken down now, or is there more to it?

We use ‘high’ and ‘low’ to describe power, status and value. High is always good, low is always bad. Even when we’re talking low cost to the buyer, we all know that it means a lack of quality, it’s the crappy stuff for the poorer people. In terms of our inner states, high and low are both problematic. Most of us do not thrive when living at emotional extremes.

Sometimes, the dark journeys through the cave systems of our mind are necessary. The Dark Night of the Soul is a spiritual experience. Sometimes we have to break down to break through. Our ‘negative’ emotions are part of a healthy and engaged response to life. Grief, fear, pain and anger aren’t things to reject, but to acknowledge as part of what it means to be human. If you care, you will also worry, and hurt and grieve. We would be better off if we did not treat our own ‘low’ places as states to avoid, but were able to make room for them.

Habits of the anxious mind

We all see reality through the filters of our beliefs. We interpret experience in-line with what we already believe, we pay attention to things that fit with what we already think, and ignore or explain whatever doesn’t fit. This is often necessary because there’s too much information coming into our little minds, and this helps us deal with it. Obviously there are downsides.

A mind suffering with anxiety filters all experience through the assumption that things are dangerous. It will see threats where other minds would not. It hears criticism and setback, hazard and risk. This is often because the anxious mind has previously been overloaded with stress and/or trauma and is acting in a perfectly reasonable way to try and protect itself. It cannot see the world as anything other than hostile.

Anxiety may well have shattered a person’s ability to believe in themselves and have confidence in their skills and abilities. This means that the slightest setback or criticism can look like disaster to an anxious mind. It’s also why a response that tells off the anxious mind for overthinking and panicking actually makes things worse. It can simply confirm to the anxious person that they are stupid, over-reacting, useless. The anxious mind can latch onto that criticism instead and see themselves as a failure.

It is not easy for an anxious mind to consider the evidence in a non-anxious way. However, stopping and having a good look at a situation – however scary that seems – does help. Affirm to yourself that you are not irrational – there are perfectly good reasons why you feel as you do. From there, it’s that bit easier to just consider whether your perfectly good reasons are totally applicable in this situation. A tiny margin of uncertainty can make a lot of odds, and thus can allow a bit of reconsideration. Was it meant that way? Is it definitely doomed? Well, maybe not, and the uncertainty allows a tiny step down from the panic.

When any single way of relating to the world becomes normal, it’s really hard to challenge and change it. Be that fear, or depression, entitlement, arrogance, or a belief that your positive thinking will make everything magically come out for the best. It is not an easy thing to notice the mechanics of your own thinking, much less to change them, but it is possible. If you can’t make reasonable predictions about what’s happening around you, the odds are you have a dysfunctional filter of some sort. The emotions you most often feel will indicate what sort of filter you have running.

Meditation and the mind

Not all minds are the same. How your mind works, how well it is, your circumstances and your emotional state will inform what happens when you meditate. All forms of meditation are not equally good for all people in all situations. Unfortunately, meditation is usually presented as a perfectly safe, universally good for people activity, and it isn’t.

People suffering from mental illnesses may be better off not meditating, or picking very carefully and not doing too much of it. Anyone tending towards the delusional can find that meditation of any sort just creates a space for things to go wrong. Depressed people often don’t benefit from anything that stills and quiets the mind. If the base line in your mind is full of pain, what you may do is peel back your layers of defence to expose yourself to your own suffering, and frankly that doesn’t help unless you were planning on working with it. Where there is trauma, this can be really hazardous. People with mental health issues can be better off with focused meditations – moving meditations complex enough to engage the mind, or contemplating safe objects – trees, clouds, oracle cards, to steer the mind directly towards workable thoughts.

Many forms of meditation start from the assumption that simplifying the clutter of your thoughts is a good thing. The busy mind is seen as aberrant, the single track is seen as a good thing. There are philosophies that to be properly engaged with the world you should be thinking as simply and ‘in the moment’ as you can. Do all minds work like this? No. How we form thoughts and experience them varies radically from one person to the next. How much material is bubbling away in our unconscious, varies. The speed at which thoughts bubble up, varies. The number of threads we might comfortably hold, varies. For the one track mind person, juggling a vast number of thoughts is horrible. For the rainforest mind, being reduced down to a single track is a traumatic amputation of self.

Meditation is not a sloppy, one size fits all hippy garment. Meditation covers a broad array of activities and more than one philosophical tradition. If at first you don’t get on with it, you may simply have the wrong model. The better you know who you are and how your mind works, the better able you will be to see what you can do, and what you want meditation to do for you. Visualisation and pathworking have radically different implications to Tai Chi, or just observing your thoughts.

There can be an enthusiastic form of tyranny exercised by people who have found a thing they like. Evangelists always believe they have the one true way and everyone should be doing what they do, and meditation forms acquire evangelists. If a practice doesn’t work for you, if it feels uncomfortable and troubling it might not be that you’re not trying hard enough. Maybe you don’t need to work at it – maybe it does not suit you. Keep your options open, be alert to your own needs and don’t be pressured by the would-be gurus into assuming the problem is always you. Not all forms of meditation suit all people, or are good and appropriate for all people. If a practice makes you uncomfortable, then pushing may be the worst thing you can do for yourself.

Your hidden mind

On Art Share this week (www.art-share.org) we were talking about how we work, and the importance of switching off the more conscious part of the mind in order to better get on with things. Tom definitely draws more comfortably if there’s music on, or I’m playing, or reading to him. It frees up his hands.

Rather a long time ago, I minored in psychology at university, and one of the things I ran into was the idea of the pre-conscious mind, which does quite a lot of the work. It’s this bit that will pop up the answer to a missing name three hours after the relevant conversation. Somewhere beneath the surface, you were working on that all along. This is just labels, as far as I know there are no actual brain structures to go with them.
Rather a lot of our thinking happens at a level we aren’t aware of. All the technical stuff around running the body. Anything we know well. These days I tend to say I play the violin by sense of smell, because I have no conscious idea of what I’m doing any more. It just happens. Hours and hours of work have resulted in the violin being so much a part of my body that I do it the same way I breathe. And as with breathing, if I have to think about it, things get complicated. This, I gather, is true of people who are good at pretty much anything, and if you make a person deconstruct what they’re doing to explain it, their ability to do it actually reduces for a while.

Last night my brain woke me in the early hours of the morning because it had processed a large quantity of raw data and it wanted me to look over the findings and make some decisions about how to act. Why that seemed so important that I had to do it at 3am, I have no idea, but I did the thinking, went back to sleep and woke up feeling like I’d made some good choices.

So what is going on at the back end of my mind, in the bits I can’t see? I think the answer is habit and training. My mind can run unconsciously round any loop I have built and maintained. That’s true of the violin playing, and it is also true of anxiety. I have a capacity to learn and analyse unconsciously, but only because I’ve put so much time into learning and analysis. Tom draws amazing art when he’s not thinking about it too much, but only because he’s spent decades thinking about it a great deal.

It can look a bit like magic. We might be tempted to see the hand of deity in the mix, or some other supernatural agent, and to miss out the important detail that we built the space in which this happens. We made the tools, fine-tuned the hardware, wrote the software, if you like.

I only have myself to blame for what my mind gets up to in the middle of the night.

The flip side of that is knowing that I can deliberately reconstruct my thinking, with time, establishing better habits of thought, and putting my energy into the right things. I don’t believe that we make our own realities, but we absolutely do make the brains that perceive and engage with whatever else is out there, and we have a startling amount of power to change that, albeit slowly.